United We Stand

Creation is collective — and so is bargaining.

Cory Doctorow
11 min readFeb 26


A giant figure posed against a blue, cloudy sky. On his shoulder perches a tiny Taylor Swift, mid-gesture. She is being menaced by a capitalist ogre in tuxedo and top-hat, chomping a cigar and yanking a lever in the shape of a golden dollar sign. In one white-gloved hand, he holds aloft a gramophone, pointing it at Swift. He stands at a podium emblazoned with the Big Machine Records logo.
Biswarup Ganguly/CC BY 3.0, E Palen/CC BY 2.0, ViewIndiaThroughMyVisionalView/CC BY 4.0; modified

For the second half of the 20th century, artists of all stripes were fed a Big Lie: namely, that when we created, we did so all on our lonesome. Our creative works were solely and wholly ours, sprung from our imagination, like Athena springing from the head of Zeus.

This lie wasn’t chosen at random: it was part of a concerted effort by ever-larger corporations to declare the fundamentals of creativity to be property of creators, who, in turn, worked for corporations, and who would naturally sign away their property rights to those companies.

In other words, the lie of creative property was twofold:

  1. Creators create all on their lonesome, and owe nothing to one another; and
  2. If creators own the title to their works free and clear, they can sell that title, too.

For companies like Disney, which made its fortune by remixing public domain works, the expansion of “IP” meant that Disney’s own works would never return to the public domain to be remixed by their successors. For every pirate who ever dreamt of being an admiral, extending the duration of copyright let public domain users climb the ladder and then pull it up behind them.

But just as importantly, the expansion of the kind of things that could be turned into property (like the right to control the creation of new creative technologies), and the eradication of fair use were means for corporations to corral more creative laborers.

The more things copyright covered, the fewer things you could make without first getting a license — a license that was increasingly held by a decreasing number of companies, who would make that license contingent on signing away all of your rights.

If you’ve ever made anything, the lie of the lone creator is obvious. And while some creators were able to kid themselves that they were the heroic sole proprietors of a wholly original business, other creators had the self-reflection and honesty to admit that the things they made were made out of other things, and refused to pretend otherwise, even when that meant risking financial and personal ruin.



Cory Doctorow

Writer, blogger, activist. Blog: https://pluralistic.net; Mailing list: https://pluralistic.net/plura-list; Mastodon: @pluralistic@mamot.fr