Remix culture. Changing, adapting, appropriating, improving, integrating, mixing, mashing, combining, compiling; a free culture movement is being nurtured as the work of artists, whether it be images, music, videos or text, are being used to inspire others to work and create improved or maybe just different versions of the work in the form of a remix.
Yeah, you think sceptically to yourself, but so what? What’s so significant about taking ideas and parts of other people’s work and using them in your name that it’s been given the term ‘remix culture’?
In actual fact, remix culture causes much debate amongst academics, copyright activists such as Lawrence Lessig who coined this phrase, people in the media industry such as record labels, etc., because it stands in opposition against another type of culture sometimes called permission culture.
Remix culture and permission culture are stark opposites. Where remix culture desires a free and open system of sharing to encourage creativity and peer-to-peer sharing, permission culture seeks to protect the artist’s work so that they get the correct recognition and attribution for their work. The more I think about it, the more I realise that arguments for both sides make sense.
In 2005, the struggle between remix culture and permission culture manifested itself when two DJs, Party Ben and team9, produced a mash-up album based on Green Day’s American Idiot called American Edit under the very clever alias Dean Gray. Using samples of each song on the album and a collection of other songs, they reproduced an equivalent album. Instead of ‘Holiday’, they had ‘Dr. Who on Holiday’, instead of ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ it was ‘Boulevard of Broken Songs’.
After releasing the album online, popularity grew. Unfortunately for the creative DJ team, Green Day’s record label, Warner Records, was unimpressed. Within 12 days, American Edit was shut down after receiving a cease and desist order from Warner.
So what are the arguments? An article on ‘Catapult’ on the ABC website looks at it from the side of encouraging creativity and empowering people:
“We now inhabit a ‘remix culture’, a culture which is dominated by amateur creators – creators who are no longer willing to be passive recipients of content,” recently wrote Australian lawyers from the Queensland University of Technology in their report Mashups, Remixes and Copyright Law.
“Instead, they are demanding a much broader right, a right to mashup and remix material – to take on the role of producers – to cut, paste, sample of jam with content, in order to produce something which is distinctive of their own social and creative innovation.”
Which makes complete sense, for in today’s society where everything is interactive and all about moving from the passive user to a produser, how can anyone expect that people would to be less active?
Well the answer to that question can come from the other side of the coin – that is, why not consider the initial creators who pour out their time, energy and efforts into creating something original and then see their masterpieces taken apart and used for something else, often without receiving the recognition they deserve?
The whole point of copyrights and intellectual property laws is to protect the owner of creations from people using their ideas and handiwork for their own purposes, ultimately stealing. This is something that is much easier now thanks to the internet and the wide availability of programs and sharing. Ben Sheffner has an interesting blog that looks at issues of copyright and considers its value.
It’s fair enough that people get credit for their original work. In a way it’s similar to illegal downloading where the proper royalties are not given. It is also argued that forbidding people to use others’ work for remixes is restricting people.
“It’s not a stupid debate and I understand the debate,” says Ian Heath, director of IP Australia. “The system is designed to promote innovation, but the consequence of granting a limited term monopoly [as is done in both patents and copyright] is that restrictions are put on what others can do.” (ABC News)
So intellectual property is designed to protect the person’s assets and economic interests, but what about the public’s interests? I guess the question to ask is: are these restrictions put on media beneficial?
People like Simon Lake, who is a CEO of Screenrights, a not-for-profit company that collects royalties for filmmakers, doesn’t think that copyright laws stifle creativity. In fact he believes that this idea is ridiculous.
“If you put those two things together, copyright is the end process, it’s what protects creativity. And to suggest that copying is creating is ridiculous. Copyright doesn’t stifle creativity, it stifles your ability to use other people’s work,” he says. “I’m a creator and I don’t have a problem in being creative. Ripping off another person’s songs isn’t about the free-flow of ideas. It’s about ripping off songs without paying royalties.” (ABC News)
Some pretty strong words. But to a certain extent, I agree that restricting remixing does not necessarily stifle creativity. Is it not said that necessity is the mother of invention? Then perhaps when people are forced to start from scratch, they may come up with something amazing.
And again, does creativity have to be completely original? Definitions will say that creativity has to do with the generation of innovative ideas. I’d like to argue that just because the ideas came from other sources, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the creator is any less creative.
In fact, Dean Gray’s American Edit was so popular that despite the initial cease and desist order, through word of mouth and a large fan base, the album endured. Fans organised protests and American Edit was even performed as a ‘mashup rock opera’ in San Francisco.
On the other side of this argument of course is the simple truth that nearly everything we create has been influenced by something that we have seen or experienced in life. For some who describe remixing as integrating parts of various already existing formats, how is this not the similar? So where is the line drawn?
This is where Creative Commons comes in. The Creative Commons (CC) movement is almost a middle point between copyright law and a fully open sharing system. It provides legal forms for creators to specify how their work can be used.
Remix Reading is an artistic program that works with Creative Commons in encouraging artists to share their work.
“Copyright puts an artificial barrier down and says what we can and cannot do without special permission. Creative Commons licenses simply move that barrier slightly farther to the left (in my diagram), giving you slightly more freedom than Copyright. It is a reformist attempt to break down the user/producer distinction that dominates the culture industry, helping artists promote creativity rather than consumption.” (Free Software Magazine)
The idea behind this claims that giving some freedom stimulates creativity, unlike what Simon Lake believes. Perhaps it can be looked in the same way as legalising drugs. When drugs are completely criminalised, more issues arrive as drug users will try to find ways outside of the system usually creating more problems for themselves and for others. Whereas when drugs are legalised, proper measures are taken so that drug use is safer and there are ways to help those who need it. Taking this example back to the issue at hand, does copyright law just encourage illegal use but giving some freedom through movements like the Creative Commons provides ways to use artists’ work but so that they also get their proper recognition?
Lessig made the example in his article Free(ing) Culture for Remix of the original camera, the daguerreotype. In the beginning, anyone could use this technology to capture images without getting permission. He claims that it is this freedom that allowed for the photography market to explode as it did. There would have been no further development and growth would have been stunted.
Creative Commons is also beneficial for the artists themselves as they have more control over their work and how it is used. And this makes sense because there are quite a few artists who produce work for the sake of the public, merely to express ideas and not for commercial value. Or perhaps they want to encourage remixing and mashups.
A.R Rahman, the award winning composer of ‘Jai Ho!’, a song from the movie Slumdog Millionaire, allowed for his song to be reworked by the Pussycat Dolls. In an interview with Time magazine, he said he wanted his song to be well known and not just fade away when the hype from the movie died down. He acknowledged the understanding that improvements must be made in today’s quickly changing society. He made a wise decision as the Pussycat Dolls’ version made it to 15 in the US Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
In the case of Green Day and Dean Gray, Billie Joe Armstrong, the writer of the American Idiot tracks, actually expressed interest in the remix ‘Boulevard of Broken Songs’. Green Day actually liked the album, but it was their record label that had the problem with it.
This brings me to my final point that was inspired by an article on a website called techdirt. (How’s this for remixing text?) The article is titled Remix Culture is About the Culture as Much as the Remix. Basically it suggests that in our culture, for something to matter it must go beyond the artwork itself but most look at the people who experience and share it with others. The claim that remixing is stealing and not creative is not the point.
“Art is not about just the creator. Without the shared experience, it’s a lot less valuable — and what we’ve done with copyright laws is make it that much more difficult to share that experience through our own eyes and our own cultural views. And if you don’t see the shame in that, then you’re missing a lot.” (techdirt)
Maybe this is something that should be looked at in more depth. A view from the perspective of the creators could possibly be in favour of copyright laws. The opposing view, favouring the public and society, will promote the creation of remixes. But a true artist focuses on the art itself, and the culture and meaning behind it.
Some interesting websites:
Green Day & Dean Gray
Remix Culture (about Remix Reading & Creative Commons)