In a world of patents, copyrights, and “intellectual property,” we often obsess over the ownership of our creativity. We want credit for it, we want to possess it, and sometimes even to capitalize on it. Too often we fail to put our creativity out in the world, unless it’s marketable. This mentality cries out: “don’t you dare steal my product!” Everybody has got to make a living, but we often guard technology, creativity, art, and ideas with the security of a bank vault. We don’t share with the world, rather we keep it for ourselves. Such is true in the field of art, education, music, technology, and much of the world. And that saddens me.
A little over a year ago, one of my teenage students, Asa Kaplan, shared with me and a group of other teens a story that I will never forget. Asa had gone to a wilderness camp for many years, and spent a great deal of time in the woods on his own with very basic supplies. He was expected to forage, to fish, and to build his own fire. He talked in detail about building a fire, and related that he saw the process of creating a fire as an art form. “Before you light it,” he said, “you have to decide how you want it to look, how it will burn, and how it will dance.” Asa talked about the intricacies of stacking and spacing the logs so that you know exactly how the fire will react. Logs close together, for example, will burn slower, and not as hot. He took a great deal of pride in the art of creating a fire. And then Asa offered his Torah, a teaching that has stuck with me. “Once the fire is lit, it’s no longer your creation. The fire is its own thing, and it’s the world’s!”
The fire may burn predictably, but ultimately it remains uncontrolled. You can no longer touch it. You can no longer correct it. You can only reap it’s blessing of heat and comfort. Since hearing Asa’s story, I’ve thought about my own art and ideas with significantly less ownership.
Asa’s story echos a Hassidic tale about the Bal Shem tov, the founder of Hassidism. When the Baal Shem Tov was near his death, a student came to him with a hand-written book and said, “These are your words, which I have written down. This is the Torah of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov.” The Master read what was written and said, “Not one word of this is my Torah.” It wasn’t that the student was a poor note taker or recorder, rather the words that we speak, our Torah, is like fire. Once we speak it, it’s no longer ours. It’s the worlds.
Artists often speak about a part of a creative process where they simply let go! They relinquish their sense of ownership, and instead see themselves as channeling their experiences and the world onto a canvas. In this sense, creativity comes when we realize that our work and ideas aren’t ours to own, but ours to share.
When I read the biography of Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance, I became inspired by Musk’s views on intellectual property. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, relinquished all of the company’s patents for electric vehicles so that other companies would be able to utilize Tesla’s designs and processes to create better electric vehicles. Tesla Motors states that “all our patents belong to you!” Elon Musk goes on to write that “Technology leadership is not defined by patents, which history has repeatedly shown to be small protection indeed against a determined competitor . . . . We believe that applying the open source philosophy to our patents will strengthen rather than diminish Tesla’s position in this regard.” Tesla serves as a corporate model that we shouldn’t obsess over intellectual property, and that the free flow of ideas will only enrich the world and the mission of our companies.
Every time I write something or speak in public, I don’t own the words coming from my mouth. I garner ideas from my life experiences, from the world around me, and from the Torah, and I give them shape and tone. But once I speak them, they are no longer mine. Just like fire, I hope that they become their own entity. I hope people will take my fire, use it freely, talk about my ideas (I don’t need credit or attribution), build upon them, and let the fire spread.