This week’s COETAIL recommended readings/viewings covered many topics related to copyright, but I particularly found those about the “remix culture” to be the most interesting. “Remixing” has always seemed to me to be a natural form of creativity, practiced by creatives since the days when humans expressed themselves on walls of caves. However, this remixing has been made orders of magnitude easier with the proliferation of digital technology. Add layers of copyright law at the international, national, and local levels, and and some great debates erupt as to what is “fair use” when a creator utilizes another’s work in their own creative expressions.
One of the most influential thinkers and speakers in the world of remixing is Lawrence Lessig, founder of the Creative Commons. I knew that Larry Lessig was involved in forming the Creative Commons however, I had never actually watched one of this talks before, so in addition to the video suggested (embed below) by the COETAIL course, I also found other talks and articles that he has written as well. I found this one below, a talk he gave in November of 2007, a full decade ago.
Here, Lessig gives some historical context regarding copyright law in the 20th century. He talks about how, in the 20th century, we moved from what he calls a “Read-Write” culture, to a “Read-Only” culture. In the “Read-Only” culture, content was produced and owned by a few, and distributed to the masses. The internet, and digital technology in general, is allowing us to move back into a “Read-Write” culture, Larry argues.
I had not heard the terms “Read-Write” or “Read-Only” applied in this sense before, but I find it to be perfectly apt. I also agree with his thesis here – we are all able to now participate in the creation (writing) of content, rather than simply the consumption (reading).
This talk below, suggested by our course 2 curators at COETAIL, was a good starting point for me this week, and the one that kicked off my own research into this topic. If you’ve never listened to Larry speak, it’s worth your time to watch as well.
In one part of the talk he makes the point that we (as a society) can try to maximize for the output of creative material in the commercial culture, but at the expense of the creative output of the sharing culture. I get the sense that Larry sees these two forces as mutually exclusive, although I don’t know that he has ever explicitly stated as much. I’m not sure if I see them necessarily as totally incompatible, but I do think that commercial copyright holders do view remixing culture with a certain amount of trepidation (at best) and outright loathing (at worst). These negative associations with remixing culture are not altogether unwarranted, as there have been plenty of cases of “remixing” that are just shy of downright plagiarism/copying.
(Image licensed under Creative Commons by XKCD – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Webcomic_xkcd_-_Wikipedian_protester_cropped.png
However, I think it is important to note that remixing is not new at all, and many creations that we view as completely original are, in fact, remixed to a certain extent. Human expression (art, storytelling, music, architecture, philosophy, etc.) has always borrowed ideas from other sources, and modified them into some original new work.
As a quick aside, this just came up this very morning. I mentioned to some of my students (who were animatedly chatting about the new upcoming Star Wars movie) that they should consider reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, to get some perspective on where some of the major themes actually came from. The response: “Isaac who?”
To be clear, I’m not trying to pick on Star Wars – I’m a fan of the whole enterprise myself and grew up with those movies. (One of my earliest childhood memories is going to the theatre see Return of the Jedi with my father.) But many ideas were far from completely original – for starters, the name “Galactic Empire” was directly lifted from Asimov’s Foundation books – and some internet searching led me to this interesting article. Star Wars is far from unique in this regard – Lessig bring this out clearly in his video (above) when he speaks about some of Disney’s most famous “original” movies having borrowed heavily off of stories in the public domain. He even cites evidence that the original character for Mickey Mouse was a “remix” itself. According to this article published by Forbes, written by contributor Derek Khanna, Disney has made quite a hefty financial sum off of “remixing” works in the public domain. (I was surprised to see many recent movies on the list as well.)
(A quick aside – parts of Star Wars and other popular movies were illegally “remixed” to create the Turkish 1982 film Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam (The Man Who Saved the World), which is commonly known as “Turkish Star Wars”. While permission from George Lucas was never granted, the film is a bit of a cult classic today.)
The more I think about the concept of remixing, the less convinced I am that I can come up with an example of a creative work that ISN’T remixed to some (even small) extent. So maybe we can think of remixing and creative expression as something of a spectrum – with outright plagiarism/copying on one end, and 100% completely original on the other. It would seem to me then that the real argument taking place here between the “commercial culture” and the “sharing culture” is where to place the boundary of “fair use”.
Some content creators can be enthusiastic about their work being remixed. Kevin Kelly (@kevin2kelly, blog), founding editor of Wired Magazine, cites remixing as one of the major technological trends driving progress/change in his newest book, The Inevitable. I found it to be a fantastically interesting book, and many of its chapters left me musing on the ideas presented for quite some time after I had put the book down. Highly engaging, and a recommended read.
One of the topics that Kelly writes about is remixing, and how remixing is a major creative outlet for content creation across a wide array of media. In one of his blog posts, he writes about a reader/fan of his book Out of Control, who liked the ideas in the book, but found the writing to be “long-winded” and “frustrating”. This reader (named Andreas Lloyd) went ahead and (in true 21st century form) remixed Kelly’s book! Kelly apparently thought the remix was quite good, and links to it on his own blog! (Update – Although the link to the remix appears to not function any longer, the relevant post is there.)
And, finally, to end this post (if you’ve read this far – thank you! I got into this one….), I’d like to share one of my personal favorite products of this remix culture – the “Symphony of Science” songs, created by the artist John D. Boswell (aka “MelodySheep”). This project remixes instructional talks and videos from some of the most famous and influential scientists to electronic music. Aside from being entertaining, they are, in fact, quite educational, in that each video distills key ideas surrounding a scientific topic. Setting these ideas to music actually makes them more memorable – I’ve shared them with students, who have also said as much as well. These videos cover Quantum Theory, Black Holes, The Brain, Evolution, Climate Change, Sound, and more. (My personal favorite features Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Richard Feynman. The one about Quantum Theory isn’t bad either, and if you know nothing about quantum mechanics, it’s worth a listen.)
I’ll leave you with these to listen to, which I hope you find both entertaining, and informative (as I have). Do you have any remixed creations that you also use in your classroom or share?