Copyright vs. Everything is a Remix

Copyright vs. Everything is a Remix

In his video series Everything is a Remix the filmmaker Kirby Ferguson argues a case for remix as a cultural process that is at the heart of creativity – the force that makes innovation possible. Drawing from examples as disparate as Edison’s improvement of the light bulb and its subsequent popularization to Star Wars’ scenes copied from Kursowa’s films to how Google’s search engine was inspired by the ranking of incoming citations in academia, Ferguson shows how every innovation stands on the shoulders of giants – borrowing from what came before (Ferguson, 2011). With the Internet allowing one to trace cultural innovation back to earlier versions – such as the travel of one particular guitar riff trough decades of popular songs on YouTube: the connections between what is contemporary and what came before become increasingly clear – and Ferguson’s view of creativity increasingly credible. “Remix is the literacy of the 21st century”, says Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard Law professor and creator and main proponent of Creative Commons (Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity, 2005).

Taking a global view of culture, there is an emerging shift from passive consumers to people who want to take a more active part in culture and create new things – new cultural products. “Kids today want to make their own stuff” (Suarez, 2011), says a 12-year-old presenter – known for publishing iPhone apps on the app store and starting an app club at his school – at the TEDxManhattanBeach technology conference. With high speed Internet spreading to areas before underserved – such as some African countries – Suarez is not alone among tech savvy kids. Creators can come from anywhere in the world – and be influenced by ideas from anywhere; there is an increasingly diverse set of cultural products that change how we think about the world – as was the case for Tomé, my ongoing open source documentary project about the art scene of Sao Tomé and Principe.

At the same time with opening dispersal of information, there is a stronger focus on catching even the most marginal violations of copyright by corporations whose business models and shareholder value depend on revenue made by the copyrights they hold to cultural products. These corporations are interested in extending copyright as long as possible to prolong their ability to profit. The 1998 U.S. Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1 (Congress of the United States of America) extended copyright to 70 years after the death of the author. With one entity holding copyright for centuries, cultural material necessary for innovation is legally off-limits as copyright may be of longer duration that than the life span of any new creator born.

While content can be licensed from the copyright holder, licensing is prohibitively expensive for small to medium sized cultural producers. While quoting a video is also possible under this copyright legislation it is not a right per se but an act of defense when one is sued for copyright infringement. Fair use is the part of copyright law that allows for free speech, under which one can argue that small parts of copyrighted material was justified to make an argument about a certain issue.

Copyright was invented to promote “the progress of science and useful arts, by securing to limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries” (Lessig, 2005) but the current form of copyright is working against that historic ideal.

However there is an alternative cultural trend of independent creators who counter exceeding copyright duration and open-source their productions to allow remixing by anyone who wants to create something new. By making their source files available such producers allow other people to use their work as a basis for their own projects – or help the producer improve their product or branch out into a different direction with the same material. Open source licensing makes every cultural object a sample that can be legally used as a piece for the next cultural project.

Lawrence Lessig argues that “[a] society free to borrow and build upon the past is culturally richer than a controlled one” (Lessig, 2005) and is joined in his argument by Nate Harrison, an artist with a PhD in cultural studies who argues in his video essay about the history of the “Amen Break” drum loop that more creativity is allowed by the freedom to create with digital tools but this creativity is every day less possible due to stringent copyright laws (2006). Harrison quotes in his essay the US judge and judicial commentator Alex Kozinski who stated in his judgment in a 1993 intellectual property case (available on his website) the following: “Overprotecting intellectual property is as harmful as underprotecting it. Culture is impossible without a rich public domain. Nothing today, like nothing since we tamed fire, is genuinely new. Culture, like science and technology, grows by accretion. Each new creator building on the works of those who came before” (White v. Samsung Electronics Dissent, 1993). Both Lessig (a lawyer) and Harrison (an artists) inherently believe that being able to copy from the cultural past and to make new copies in a legal way where the new overrules the old is necessary for cultural innovation. “A society that defends the ideals of free culture must preserve precisely the opportunity for new creativity to threaten the old” (Lessig, 2005).

In a 2008 interview to Ryan McLendon, Gregg Gillis an electronic musician who has arisen to be one of the most recognizable faces of pop culture remixing reinforces that argument: “[]here’s a big push from kids from the legal world to the academic world for a more open exchange of culture and media…People don’t really consume media anymore: they interact with it…It’s just kind of the way the world exists right now. I think something like my new album falls right in line with a lot of that in that it’s a new transformative work that’s not creating competition” (McLendon, 2008) and Steve Anderson, a professor of the USC School of Cinema-Television does the same: “What kinds of unimagined cultural products and practices might emerge from an open source cinema movement conceived as a partnership – rather than an adversarial relationship – between consumers and media industries?“ (OPEN SOURCE: Cinema in the Public Domain, 2005). New content that people transform into a product using the same source materials is not necessarily competition.

Continue reading 2/7: Cloud Storage and Sharing of Source Files