Police guitarist Andy Summers demonstrates Thomas Jefferson’s point
After reading Sting’s memoir recently, which ends just as he is starting to find success with The Police, I read Andy Summers’s One Train Later: A Memoir, mostly wanting to learn more about The Police. From his younger years, there was this passage which made me think of the popular Thomas Jefferson quote about ideas (emphasis mine):
There’s a boy a year ahead of me named Peter Jones who some of the kids say is the best guitar player in school. He has this reputation because apparently he can play the intro to “Move It,” which is a hit by Cliff Richards and the Shadows, but he won’t show it to anybody, so I get friendly with him with the ulterior motive of capturing the lick. We get chummy and one afternoon after school he invites me to his house to have a session in his mum’s front room. We play for half an hour, strumming along in unison on the simple chords that we know, and then I ask him if by chance he knows the intro to “Move It.” Oh yeah, comes the nonchalant and unsuspecting reply. He quickly rips it out, a very simple double stopping in fourths on the E and B strings ending on the E major chord. It’s a knockout, this simple lick that seems to contain everything for which I lust: the blues, sex, glamour, electric guitar, and the far-off shores of America. But casually, as if I already vaguely know it, I say, “Oh, I get it, yeah—now I remember,” for now that I have seen it, I possess it, and a new guitar door opens with the light of heaven pouring through.
—Andy Summers, One Train Later: A Memoir
What great imagery around the lusting and the possessing and the light! And it’s so illustrative of Jefferson’s argument:
If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.
—Thomas Jefferson, letter to Isaac McPherson, 13 August 1813
Ideas. Guitar licks. Just about anything digital. Our culture. We’re talking about infinite goods, around which some people would like to build walls of artificial scarcity.
- Culture builds on culture.
- We share this common culture.
- Copying is natural and is a good thing.
- We should be free to copy and modify and share our culture.
Compensation for adding to our existing shared culture is a separate discussion. Nina Paley just wrote a great post about this, responding to the statement: “Artists Should Be Compensated For Their Work.” I highly recommend it.