Carl Smith presented at the 2015 Prototypes, Process & Play conference and shares how so many aspects of really great works have been influenced by so many other really great pieces of work. This was a crowd favorite and we’re certain you’ll see why!
We hope you enjoy Carl’s presentation, “Theft, Tributes & Collaboration” and don’t forget to get your tickets for Prototypes, Process & Play on August 11th and 12th!
Speaker, Consultant, Advisor, nGen Works
Carl Smith is an irreverent ditcher of the nine-to-five and mortal enemy of the overworked lifestyle. Owner and founder of nGen Works, Carl’s role is that of an advisor, to nGen and other companies, on how to create self-sustaining teams that perform at the highest levels. Carl has made a name for himself by creating a new framework for how we get things done, and by enabling us to realign our creative communities. When he’s not conducting business experiments with companies around the world, he’s busy sculpting a new face for the world of work… and play.
Theft, Tributes & Collaboration
The best things in our world are built on top of the ideas and discoveries of others. Yet we all feel like we have to be original in order to be valuable. In this talk, Carl will show a new way to think about collaboration by embracing creativity as a group endeavor. Examples abound that show us how much better we are when we put away the concept of intellectual property and embrace the best ideas of our time.
All right, all right. Shut up. How is everybody doing?
It’s been pretty amazing right? I mean the lineup. The content. I mean it’s the first time for the event, right? And look at that! Prototypes, Process, & Play.
When Russ asked me to speak, I was like yeah, I’ll totally do it. That I’ve got a bunch of talks in the can. I’ll figure one out. And then I thought there are so many big names showing up here. As I was looking at everything, this happened. On Twitter, somebody basically categorized all of my talks. And you know, hey every Carl Smith talk ever. Hey, Fuck your job! Just work hard and do it! I went Ah, man! Is that really what I do? And I called some friends and they were like yeah we won’t let employees come see you because a lot of time people quit their jobs after you gave a talk. Well, they weren’t happy. That wasn’t my fault.
I started thinking about it, I need a new talk. So how am I going to make this happen? If you think about it, and I don’t know if this is how they pump music into the womb, but I like to think it is. They take a big pair of speakers and put them there. But if you think about it, from the very beginning you don’t get the opportunity to have original ideas. We’re pumping in other people’s ideas before we’re even here to take their first breath. Don’t tell met it doesn’t matter if you are playing Mozart or Lynyrd Skynyrd. That kid is going to come out different.
This is what I did. It worked out really well.
I just consumed as many Ted talks as possible. And I said you know what there’s going to be something here that spurs me on. That gets me going. That makes me just really happy. And as I was doing this, my 12‑year‑old, Alyssa, came up to me. And she was like aren’t you just stealing? Aren’t you just going to take what somebody else said and now you’re going to say it? I was like well, yeah. Not really. I mean it’s not plagiarism. If I say. And then I said hey, you know what? Let’s ask the grand master what he thinks. And so we asked —
It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done. And then try to bring those things in to what you’re doing. And Picasso had a saying that said good artists copy, great artists steal. We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.
Now a lot of people take that last part out of this snippet. We’ve always been shameless about stealing good ideas. What I heard was surround yourself with the best things that humans have ever made. You also have to realize that Steve is one of those guys that can turn on himself. It’s fine to steal, just don’t steal from me, Android!
So as I started thinking about this, that’s how I ended up thinking about the box. And Samantha Warren. Samantha came up with style tiles and a lot of things. She was saying you can’t think outside the box. You have to realize all the cool stuff that’s actually in the box. Why are we trying to get out of here. But first we have to understand the box. We have to understand what’s in it. And that’s what led me to this idea of theft, tributes, and collaborations. If there’s always going to be something else there, you have to change our mindset about being able to take from what has been given. The internet is a collection of amazing, and pseudo horrible things. But if we focus on the right steps, we can get to a great place.
The music industry is a great place to start. Of one of the TED talks I watched talked about how everything is a remix. The music industry has shown us how to grow on top of other things we people have done.
In 1964, Bob Dylan was 23‑year‑old. He is rocking out hits faster than humanly possible. There was a contingent who said he’s not cranking out hits, he’s stealing them. 75% of the tunes Dylan released were based on other songs. That’s not surprising if you look at his hero, Woody Guthrie. The words are the important thing. Sing fast when they sing slow. And guess what? You’ve got a new tune! So that’s what Dylan did. And it was really successful, until he hit a snag. And he hit a snag with actually one of my favorite songs, “Master of War.”
Let’s take a listen.
[Masters of War playing]
This became a problem for Jean Ritchie. They had a song that belonged to their family. It was passed down generation after generation. It’s called Nottamun Town. Let’s listen to Jean.
[Nottamun Town playing]
So the Ritchie family takes Dylan and his management to court. And they sue. And Dylan’s people say look we’ll give you $5,000. Just never sue us for anything ever again. And Jean Ritchie said okay and took the $5,000 and Master of War went onto be this huge hit for Dylan. Curbie Ferguson, that’s where this came from. Is there something that is truly originally? Is there something that has been unlike anything that has ever before it.
When I was growing up there was a Cherokee‑African American named Jimmy Hendrix. He was a force of nature. He seemed like a big hippy. Everything was fine, that’s unbelievable. He releases a song called “Hey Joe.” Now here’s the thing, it wasn’t his song. He had met a woman named Linda Keith, who was Keith Richard’s girlfriend. He was started to get a couple of gigs in the U.K. Linda Keith heard him and introduced him to his management. Hendrix didn’t like Hey Joe. He didn’t like it, but he went it so the very first thing this most original person does is play someone else’s music.
And one of the first thing he plays is Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower. How many people know the Hendrix version? I always thought it was released like five years after Dylan released it. Dylan releases it, it goes nowhere. Hendrix releases it, it’s a hit. The number two thing that Hendrix does is based on somebody else.
Also Dylan has been accused of paraphrasing the book of Isaiah for his lyrics in that song. If you’re going to steal, go big. Hendrix goes to the U.K. and he’s got some popularity.
And when he gets there, this is the environment that he’s introduced to. Clapton is god. And he was considered a rock n roll god. There was no way anybody could match them.
There are two ways this story goes. I’ll tell you my side.
Hendrix goes into a club, Cream is playing. He either invited himself up on stage with his guitar, or he was invited up. Either way Cream was receptive to it. And he said let’s play a Howling Wolf song. So get going and a few phrases into the song Clapton starts struggling. He can’t keep up with what Hendrix is doing. He is playing power minor chords, but they fit within the song, until finally Clapton walks off the stage and the band keeps playing with Hendrix. This is unbelievable to think that this man went into God’s own country of Eric Clapton and does this.
Now a little while later, Hendrix was actually playing his own concert at a place called The Bag of Nails. A tiny, tiny little place. All of rock n roll’s royalty were there because they wanted to see what this was, what was going on.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were there. Pete Townsend and Roger Daltry. Lennon and McCartney were there from the Beatles. He blows them away.
Clapton starts to smile that there was something new. He thought he was at the top. At the same time Pete Townsend starts sitting back in his chair and getting irritated until he gets up and leaves. According to people who knew both, Clapton was excited because there was something left to learn. And Townsend was frustrated because there was something left to learn. Townsend goes onto have a great career and there’s nothing that new or original. Meanwhile, Clapton and Hendrix become friends. Building on top of something that was there. But there’s this collaboration on purpose. It’s sad about Jimmy and the way that he died. Clapton was taking him a new guitar. And he didn’t show up. That’s how he found out that Hendrix was dead. He didn’t show up when they were supposed to get together.
Now I do want to talk about an American icon in the music industry. Somebody who without a doubt has influenced I mean hundreds of artists and probably influenced all of you in this room. It is Vanilla Ice! Ice, ice Baby. I don’t know how my kids know this song. How has this thing not died?
But the thing that blows me away about Vanilla Ice is that he claims they did not steal the baseline from Under Pressure from Queen. In fact, I’m going to let him tell you.
It’s not the same baseline. The ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. That’s the way their’s go. Ours goes, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.
Look at that face. He can’t even believe it himself. Did I just do that? I am that big of a tool? Yes, Vanilla. You are that big of a tool. Oh my goodness.
But this is important because thanks to modern technology is most of my days during the school year start like this. I have an iPhone with Bluetooth. My car is Bluetooth enabled. We pass around my phone and everybody gets to pick a song. Okay? We’ve got Kailey who is in the front who is such a Disney princesses it hurts. I don’t know what this is, but I’m happy for it.
And then we have Alyssa who is two years younger who doesn’t sleep much at nice. She loves Michael Jackson. And she can’t stand anything that isn’t ’80s music. Huge Who fan. And when Kailey plays music, I don’t get it.
Sierra is a neighbor’s kid that ends up in my car. But Sierra and Kailey when they play their music, it’s always going to be this. How many of you know who this is and don’t have kids? Right. This is One Direction. Now in the history of cranking out fast hits, they are online to do what Dylan did. In the history of ripping off artists, they are online to doing what Dylan did. And Alyssa and I take no end in the joy of showing Kailey who they ripped off this time.
You’re killing me! You’re killing me! Right?
So you’re going to rip off the Clash just like that. So for fun. This is a fun game to play. Go to Google and type in this. "One Direction ripped off." Journey, New Found glory, the clash, Def Leppard. The New Found Glory people are pissed at the Journey people because they say Open Arms was ripped off from them.
The Bieber people are pissed off because they can’t get in the fight.
And then one day the unthinkable happened. It was unthinkable. That’s why I used the word.
Baba O’Riley. Alyssa was upset about this. According to Pete Townsend he likes One Direction. He said they’re just using the same four chords that we used. The same ones that Buddy Holly used and Chuck Berry. He said this is what we’ve all been doing. I’m not upset at all. I said well this is not helping Mr. Townsend. I’m sorry they insulted you earlier. I thought Let my Love Open the Door was a lovely song.
Then they released a song that is a blatant rip off of pour some sugar on me. Def Leppard has to say something about this.
As you know recently One Direction was accused of plagiarizing Pour Some Sugar on me with a song called Midnight Memories. How do you feel about that?
No, not at all. I see the similarity. But those three chords have been used, you know, for decades. It’s not new. If anything, we felt as though it was a huge compliment.
Yeah, you know. It’s nice. It’s nice that their fans can see, you know, kind of where they may have been influenced.
Do you guys think you’ll ever pursue legal action or just take it as a compliment.
No. There’s no point in doing that, in taking any action. If we were to take action against them, I’m sure there’s 100 other bands that would take action against us.
Where we borrowed it from.
It’s like I heard Pete Townsend, because they were also accused of stealing their music. He said the same thing. There’s only the same three chords. Chuck Berry and everybody was using it.
What I noticed about the song, the rhythm though, that was exactly the same as you guys.
The chord progression, but the meter.
Yeah. That’s true. A lot of people have been asking us if we’re going to sue. Are you going to sue? That never came into our minds at all. If anything, this far into our career, it was just a huge compliment. If anything, it was them playing homage in their own way.
People have taken the pour some sugar on me video and put the One Direction video and it syncs perfectly. They’ve done it the other way, too. But the music industry gets it. We’re going to borrow from each other and do things and build greater direction together. And sometimes it’s going to piss people off, but other people are going to like it.
It’s going to open doors for some people. My kids love Queen. There’s a good chance that that baseline helped carry them over from Ice, Ice Baby. Interestingly, sometimes try to pay tribute.
When Hootie and the Blowfish released their song and took lyrics.
Took his wife to Italy,
she inherited a million bucks,
and when she died it came to me,
I can’t help it if I’m lucky.
They’re not trying to hide anything. Dylan’s people sued. Hootie and the Blowfish was a nobody band out of South Carolina. But then they exploded. It’s said that Dylan didn’t know that that was going to happen. But it’s kind of annoying.
Now I’ve got a friend, Martin Atkins. Martin is one of the best speakers I’ve ever seen. If you get a chance to see Martin, go see him. He was a drummer in Nine Inch Nails. He’s got two record labels.
He’ll tell you he owns 50,000 songs. Three of them make money and the rest are total shit. Martin is a fan of wanting people to steal. In today’s world it’s hard to get anybody to listen to a good idea. If somebody is not stealing, that’s what you should be worried about. He’s like don’t be upset if people are ripping you off. Realize that’s a sign of success. You have to leverage that and figure that out. That’s exactly what Iron maiden did. Even at this point in their careers Iron Maiden has a huge fan base. One day they get contacted by the studio and they say hey, we’re seeing a bunch of bit torrenting of your music in South America in Brazil. The band said screw that. We’re going on tour.
Right? And they sold out something like eight nights. And they sold a ton of merchandise. And they did the thing. That’s what we have to understand. Yes, those people were taking music and taking things that they worked hard for but they are still the artists and still able to get out there and they’re still able to leverage that.
I don’t think there’s any music that has been more collaborative, has built on top of other music more than rap. Right? And when rap first came out, I mean if you had been a marketer at a label. Well, it’s just music, it’s inner city. You know, it’s these angry African American men and they’re putting this out. And we think it’s going to be huge. We think everybody is going to love it. Let’s just get it out there. And you know, but they actually created their own tapes and they took from music that they loved. And they built on top of it. And yeah, they were writing about things that were real that they were going through. I mean it was truly passion music. And then it started to bleed over into other things. And I think this, God love you Steven Tyler. I think this is one of the big moments in music. Aerosmith was on the ropes. They were done. Steven Tyler is on the record saying we had $8 million and four million went up this nostril and four million went up this nostril. Love in an elevator and then it was all over. But then they get the call from Run DMC that they want to collaborate. And if you watch that video, I think that video shows what rap did in the music industry. You have Steven Tyler and Joe Perry and they’re warming up to record Walk this Way. And Jam Master Jay starts doing a new version of the song. He’s on the turntables, and it’s annoying Perry. And Steve Perry busts his head through the wall and starts singing and they come out on stage together and it’s a big performance. Is that not sheer joy. You are crazy Steven Tyler!
But this song went so huge. And it put Aerosmith back on the map.
And they released a great album! The same album four times, but it was still a great album!
[Laughing] And they were back. And so this is I think the promise of collaboration and the promise of not seeing things as somebody ripping you off, but being able to work together. And one thing that I really miss from the music industry, and this was back with albums, and we kind of lost it were liner notes. Liner notes were the ultimate way to pay tribute. Wikipedia kind of does this. If there is a band or artist that you like, you can go on Wikipedia and get the back story of who they are and who they play with.
In Chicago, if you go to Blues Band, if you go to their liner note you’ll find out that Paul was raised in an Italian restaurant so crooners were a big thing in his life. You’ll never get that anywhere else.
Tributes are huge in the movie industry. How many people know about A113? Does anybody know about this couple? So A113 appears in every Pixar movie. You just have to look for it. In fact, it shows up in a lot of animated films. But a lot of us don’t know why. Well, if you go through and you won’t be able to unsee it now. Like every Pixar movie it’s going to show up. It’s a little dark here, but it’s up on the camera. It’s everywhere. A113. It’s paying tribute to California Institute Of the Arts, room A113. That’s where John Lassater and others learned to become animators. They’re paying tribute back. It’s not just Pixar. Other animaters came out of there. That’s the way they’re paying back and giving homage. It allows others to pay the way. These are bread crumbs. If you really want to do this, A113 is where you have to start.
Another thing in the movie industry is the Wilhelm Screen. How many people are familiar with it and where it originated from and why it’s a thing? There we go. Come on up! No. Ben Burt was a sound engineer. And when he was in college, he thought it would be funny to put in a certain sound effect and try to sneak it in all his projects and see if his professors noticed. Now he was going through the sound catalog of Warner Brothers and there was a Sergeant Wilhelm who was in a movie and he gets shot off the top of a fort with an arrow and screams. He’s also the person who recorded the song Purple People Eaters, if you really go back far.
The Wilhelm Scream was Ben Burt goofing off in college. He goes onto become a sound engineer who worked on a film called Star Wars. And believe it or not he put a Wilhelm Scream in Star Wars. And when people wanted to know why, he shared everything he had ever learned about sound engineering.
As a tribute to him, they put it in movies.
This was the original.
And since then it’s been in over 300 movies.
At last we meet!
Shoot him, shoot him! Ahhh!
So keep an eye out for those two. For A113 and the Wilhelm Scream. These are tributes that the movie industry pays to people who had an impact on them. I think this is great. I wish we had a way to do that. So jealous. We’re building the future. They’re just goofing off. Why can’t we do that? One day when I was in Oxford. My brother went to school there. And I went off and wanted to get a beer. I stumbled into one of the biggest collaborations of all time. I had no clue what I was about to walk into. There’s a pub called The Eagle and Child. I wanted to get a beer.
And there was a table and a plaque on the table. It said reserved for the Inklings. And I was like huh. I don’t want to be an asshole American. I just want to sit down and have a beer. I walked up to the bartender. It says that table is reserved, sit possible that I can have a beer? He said if the Inklings show up, we have a problem. He showed me all of these newspaper clippings and all this stuff about The Inklings. Now the Inklings were a group of writers that would get together once a week and share what they were working on. Barfield who was a poet. Williams, who was a super natural thriller writer. C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Once a week they got together and talked about what they were working on. How much did Williams influence the way Lord of the Rings was going to happen? How many times did Tolkien say to Lewis, Aslin is going to do what? That’s totally out of character!
At some point Barfield was like can you read me a poem? Shut up Barfield! I don’t know why you’re in here! Can’t stand you.
[Laughing] This is amazing to think that they worked together. It makes me wonder what if they hadn’t. Would they have gotten to the same place. Would they have collectively been able to produce so many amazing stories and impacted our world. I mean their terminology from those stories alone is just fascinating. The Russians launched a satellite up into space in the Late ’50s. The satellite’s not working right now. But it was an open collaboration. It was an unintended collaboration, but they basically put a signal on the satellite, 20 megahertz so that anybody would be able to — should I do something? Or just leave it? — would be able to pick up on the signal.
And at the Johns Hopkins University in Bethesda, Maryland a bunch of nerds went crazy in the cafeteria when they heard about this. They wanted to see if they could hear Sputnik. Nobody believed that they could throw metal up into space and it’s orbiting at 300 miles an hour. These guys not only managed to find it. They managed to record the sound and the beeps. One of them goes you know what? If we apply the Doppler effect to this and we start figuring out the distance between the beeps, we can figure out exactly where it is in space. They go no. They get a bigger computer and Johns Hopkins lets them play around with this until they are convinced right where sputnik is.
Then they go back to their jobs. One day their boss comes over and says hey guys I understand that you can find an unknown location in space from a known location on the ground. He said is that true? Yeah. Can you find an unknown location on the ground from a known location? Space? Yeah. That’s actually easier. That’s so cool. Because I’ve got this new project. We’ve got these nuclear submarines and we can’t figure out how to fire a missile and find Moscow. The damned Russians gave us the ability. Luckily we never did it. This was GPS in the late ’50s, and the American government held on it until ’80s. The pilot didn’t know where he was in space. If he had GPS, he would have been fine. Reagan decides to release GPS. It could have been a PR stunt or the right thing to do, but he does it. Now that technology is open sourced. I get pissed off if I can’t find a satellite in space from my arm. If this had been released in the ’50s, what would have happened? Even if you want to put your kid on home arrest. Look at this. Put an anklet on this kid.
You start thinking about this and the collaboration. For me it really does. It brings me back to jobs and the reality that if we put all of our ideas together and we work together, we can change things.
The thing I would say is when you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is to just live your life inside the world and try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life. Have fun. Save a little money. But life, that’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader. Once you discover one simple fact and that is everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it. You can influence it. You can build your own things that other people can use. And the minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it. You can mold it. That’s maybe the most important thing. Is to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just going to live in it versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it. I think that’s very important. And however you learn that, once you learn it, you’ll want to change life and make it better. Because it’s kind of messed up in a lot of ways. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.
So why don’t we? Why don’t we try to change it? Why do we always get stuck? Elizabeth Gilbert has a great TEDtalk all around creativity and creatives. And it actually goes back to the Romans and the Greeks. They believed that people were not geniuses. In fact, genius meant an external spirit. The word genie comes from the word genius. So if I happened to be an excellent sculptor and I sculpted something amazing, they would say Carl has a really good genius. They would say I don’t know what’s up with Carl’s genius. And I would be like I don’t know either. Because it’s not associated with me. But in the renaissance we start calling people geniuses. He is a genius. She is a genius. And the pressure starts to create a lot of manic‑depressive alcoholics, cutting off their frickin’ ears because they can’t be as creative as they want to be anymore. I want to take a chance to take it back. Let’s give us the ability to say we have that external genius. Sometimes we show up and it’s something great. That doesn’t mean it was us. Sometimes we show up and it’s not something great. We don’t have to blame ourselves. There are so many smart people in this room and on this stage, that if we put our ideas together, there is literally nothing that we won’t be able to accomplish.
And I do, I do want to encourage you to watch Curbi Ferguson, and Elizabeth Gilbert. And also the internet. I have to thank the internet because without them this talk would not be possible. Thank you very much.
Carl, we can take a couple of questions if you would like.
We can take a couple questions.
Sure. This is my natural hair color. Anybody? No? Beuhler?
I had a question of kind of like building off of what other people have done. I do a lot of T‑shirt design. And that industry is like “Oh my God, you ripped off my design and the internet is going to crush you!” So I guess I don’t know what my question is.
I don’t like when someone rips my design off if some foreign country. It’s not like I’m going to go on tour. So how do you handle the trolls? I guess?
This is what I would say. It’s about embracing something, making it better and putting it back out there. So if somebody is taking it and not making it better, that’s just theft. That’s just pure. A good friend of mine did an amazing design of this jaguar skull and somebody else started selling the same shirt. Right? That’s not cool. A lot of times you’ll see something where people take like a Disney thing and they make it funny or they make it evil and they release it. That’s kind of cool. I would say if you take it in, but you don’t make it better before you put it out there, that’s not really adding anything to the collection and the universe.
Oh, we got another one? Last question.
The value we place on originality as a culture, is that a misplaced value then? Should we be shifting that to something else?
I honestly don’t know if originality is possible. Everything is going to be based on something. If you look at this stage, everything on this stage was made by somebody else. So even if I get up here I’m being influenced by what happened before. There are new ideas. There are original thinkers. But they’re still building on what other people did.
Even Einstein without some of the base of science wouldn’t have been able to do what he did. I don’t know if it’s so much about moving away from it. I think trying to do really cool, unique things is great. I just think the pressure we put on ourselves to be original doesn’t do us any favors. Cool.
Carl, thank you very much. Really quick we would like to show you how to appropriately do a high five. The trick, I just learned this from Carl today.
Look at the elbows.
That totally sucked.
This is your idea!
It was Chris who said that.
See, stealing an idea from someone else. Thank you very much, Carl.
You got it.