As the recent copyright woes of Obama poster artist Shepard Fairey show, there’s a war raging over what some now are calling a new art form in the emerging Web 2.0 culture—remix. Broadly defined, remix is collage, a recombination of existing, reference images or music and video clips from popular digital culture, elements of which are mashed up into something new. As thousands of people share and produce their own mashups and remixes online, an urgent question is emerging across today’s cultural landscape:
Should remix be outlawed as a violation of an artist’s or photographer’s copyright or—as long as the remix is significantly altered from the original—should remix be permitted by law to be shared freely, via social media, across the Web and in popular culture at large?
At the New York Public Library last week, remixer/street artist Fairey, copyright scholar Larry Lessig, and author Steven Johnson all argued for free expression, saying remix is a form of self-expression and free speech that should be allowed to flow mostly unrestricted across today’s burgeoning digital world. “Remix is literacy in the 21st century,” Lessig said. The chief of Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society, Lessig is the author of Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. He said that failing to legally protect remixes as original forms of art and expression “will make pirates of our children…We cannot kill this form of expression; we can only criminalize it, drive it underground. We can’t make [remixers] passive, we can only make them pirates.”
For his part, Johnson, author of The Invention of Air, a new book about the history of information flows in American and British society, said remix has “deep roots in the Age of Enlightenment and among America’s Founding Fathers.” He said that Thomas Jefferson, no less, remixed the Bible to produce his own underground version of it; Johnson refers to that effort as “the original American remix.” Said Johnson: “Where do we think innovation and creativity come from—protecting ideas or setting them free, allowing them to circulate freely?”
Fairey rounded out the talk, citing remix as one of the early 21st century’s most popular forms of free political expression. Fairey said his most “potent” remix is not his iconic, 2008 Obama Hope poster [over which he is being sued by the Associated Press and is countersuing for the right to have made it]—but his 2005 remix, Greetings from Iraq, a reference to a 1930s-era, WPA-produced Yellowstone Park tourism poster. “This referenced something that advertised a geyser to go see; I’ve made that geyser into an explosion, figuring it as something to go run from,” Fairey said. “...Remix is all about making references; references are how you establish a point of view in popular culture, and they are crucial to my work as an artist.”
What do you think? [Fairey’s 2005 remix, left; the original Yellowstone poster, right]
Here are some of Lessig’s examples of popular remix, which he included as part of his talk:
- Johan Soderberg’s Read My Lips remix, a 2006 mashup of George Bush and Tony Blair news clips on YouTube, created to make a statement about their mutual support for the Iraq War;
- Will.i.am’s February 2008 Yes We Can video, a remix of an Obama speech set to music, was widely distributed on YouTube prior to the presidential election last November.
- Beyonce’s October 2008 performance video of Single Ladies got 1.7 million views on YouTube in original form, but a Saturday Night Live parody-remix produced a month later [see it here] got even more attention, Lessig said—some 3.2 million views. And those remixes led to dozens of others, including this one.
- The Grey Album, a mashup album by Danger Mouse, released in 2004, that uses an a cappella version of rapper Jay-Z’s The Black Album and couples it with instrumentals created from a multitude of unauthorized samples from The Beatles’ The White Album. [The Grey Album made headlines after record producer EMI attempted to halt its distribution.]
- Anime music video remixes, which began as a trend around 2007 by remixing images from Japanese cartoons with a music track from a movie trailer. See this March 2007 example, Disney in D Minor. Each AMV, Lessig says, can take between 50 and 400 hours to create.
- Social commentary remixes, including this March 2008 remix by experimental filmmaker Andrew Filippone, Charlie Rose by Samuel Beckett. It shows Rose engaging in an interview with himself about the future of the Web. [“It took about eight hours of editing to produce,” Filippone said. Added Lessig: “What is striking to me about remix is how hard it is to do well.”] Here is Filippone’s remix, below:
What do you think? Protect remixes or crack down on them?
Marcia Stepanek is Founding Editor-in-Chief and President, News and Information, for Contribute Media, a New York-based magazine, Web site, and conference series about the new people and ideas of giving. She is the publisher of Cause Global, an acclaimed new blog about the use of digital media for social change. She also serves as moderator and producer of New Conversations for Change, Contribute’s forum series highlighting social entrepreneurs and new trends in philanthropy.