Remixable media is the future
- Published: 17 November 2009
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It's time for artists to let go of outmoded concepts of creative control. But they need not fear mash-up or remix culture - it's an exciting part of digital evolution, says Michela Ledwidge.
Humans are a funny lot. We go on about art and culture, sharing and social value, and yet when it comes to rights, the most schizophrenic sociopathic tendencies can emerge.
For the foreseeable future we creators have a two-tier system to deal with. You either work in the system, covered by full copyright, or you don’t. Which makes mash-up (remix) culture the elephant in the room.
What is a mash-up?
A mash-up is two or more pieces of original work combined or re-edited into something new. Sampling and re-editing are obviously not new concepts but mash-ups take the art of appropriation to the next level.
Video mash-ups are perhaps the most familiar form thanks to YouTube but computers do not distinguish between media files and other forms of data. A mash-up can be as much about data as it is about media.
The popularity of social networking sites like Flickr (image collections) and Twitter (microblogging), is how these sites splice together data from different places to provide a new experience. The internet itself runs on a stack of free technology that is constantly being re-worked and re-factored into improved versions.
Until the internet, most media content creators could produce and promote work with the expectation that it was possible to retain control. Then things got rather more confusing.
It turned out that the line between what were products online, what was marketing, what was promotion, what was criminal activity and what was just creative expression, was never going to be that simple to determine.
Peer-to-peer file sharing
In one fell swoop a very lucrative business model was given notice. Peer-to-peer file sharing changed the distribution game forever. All of a sudden it was never going to get any easier to give content away for free.
When Sly and the Family Stone grooves were sampled into N.W.A. gangsta rap in the 1980s, the resulting unauthorized cassettes and vinyl could not go viral. At least, not in the space of one day.
On Feb 24 2004, a global network of file-sharers coordinated Grey Tuesday – a day of protest over the major music label EMI’s attempt to block online distribution of DJ Dangermouse’s The Grey Album (an authorized mash-up of The Beatles’ The White Album with Jay-Z’s The Black Album). Over 100,000 copies were downloaded that day. No charges were ever laid.
A few months ago Lily Allen pulled her new anti-piracy blog, It’s Not Alright, in a blaze of negative publicity after being hounded in the blogsphere as a ‘copyright hypocrite’. Poor dear. All she did was make a passionate case against copyright infringement and illicit file-sharing, using slabs of text pasted from another site (Techdirt.com) without permission. There will be more fireworks to come. It is hard not being a pirate these days.
Appropriation is part of the game
The best mash-ups acknowledge their sources. Mash-up creators aspire to create new work that stand on their own. If this sounds like a tricky operation and a potential recipe for disaster then you are not mistaken. As any DJ can tell you, not all mixes are listenable. Superstar re-mixers like DJ Dangermouse and Girl Talk may be few and far between but the process of mashing-up has benefits that apply to everyone.
The real problem with mash-ups is that culture has always been about appropriation, whether we like to think it that way. Re-use of files is part and parcel of digital life. What we are seeing is the latest evolution of a phenomenon far broader, and far older, than you might think.
Many Gen-X geeks got their first taste of digital mash-ups in the 1980s typing in, and tweaking, code from computer magazines in the 1980s to run free games and other software.
The same principles apply now. It has never been easier to create using digital tools and become an active participant in content production despite the corporations trying to keep us mere passive consumers.
Copyright v creative expression
Mash-ups are a great experiment and training exercise. They can be a vital step towards developing full digital literacy. One person’s copyright infringement is another person’s creative expression.
One four-minute clip from the German film Downfall has been mashed-up and uploaded onto the internet hundreds of time. The one scene, where Hitler (played by Bruno Ganz) learns of his defeat at the end of WWII, has been combined with varying subtitles for comic effect.
Anyone with a rudimentary grasp of subtitling and video editing can now co-opt Hitler’s rage and dispair for their own issues. And they do. This meme has been popular for years, reaching well beyond the target audience of the original film. Google ‘Hitler learns’ to see the latest versions.
More artistic contributions to the video mash-up canon include Brokeback to the Future (a witty interpretation of Back to the Future’s Marty McFly and the Doc), Shining (Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic misrepresented as a feel-good trailer), and Buffy vs. Edward (a pro-feminist visual critique of the Twilight craze).
The 2008 US presidential election campaign spawned a number of video mash-ups including the spoof ticket - Bigfoot/Nessie 08 - Change you can believe in.
As an audience, we are so damn familiar with screen content that recontextualising through mash-ups will become increasingly popular.
Savvy content owners recognise that a mash-up of their work has promotional value and often indicates a mark of respect. Who seriously is going to waste their time re-using something they deem has no value?
In an age when lawyers, corporations and established arts organisations are tripping over themselves in the scramble to control the new digital landscape, the humble mash-up is a indicator of change. While the content may not be to everyone’s taste the paradigm is here to stay.
The way we tell stories is evolving. The way we explore issues and educate ourselves is also changing. Malleable media has a role to play in teaching our children, our teachers, and our politicians.
So why the frak don’t we hear more about mash-ups? Mainstream media outlets, constrained by the law, have the least to benefit from cultural change is this area.
The more the public is reminded that all information is remixable, the less sway these outlets have. If digital technology has given us anything it’s the ability to co-opt and re-appropriate stuff, everyone’s stuff including yours… at will. Which doesn’t have to be as scary as it sounds.
The Creative Commons Licence
Since 2002 mash-up culture has been assisted by the Creative Commons (CC) movement which provides free licences and other legal tools to mark creative work with the freedom the creator wants it to carry, so others can share, remix, and use it commercially.
Creative Commons licenses are not an alternative to copyright. They work alongside copyright, allowing you to modify your copyright terms to best suit your needs. Creative Commons defines the spectrum of possibilities between full copyright (“all rights reserved”) and the public domain (“no rights reserved”).
An estimated 130 million total works have been licensed under Creative Commons as of 2008. To-date over 31 million images on Flickr have been licensed under Creative Commons. Wikipedia uses CC licensing, as does the White House website. Which means artists and other creators can use images without fear of legal repercussions.
The Nine Inch Nails 4-CD album Ghosts I-IV was Amazon’s top selling album for 2008. The first CD was released as a Creative Commons licensed download of MP3 files. The band released its next album,The Slip, as an online CC release at the same time as the retail version. Hundreds of authorised mash-ups have been created from the band’s catalogue as a result.
The film industry is last to the party. Few feature films have been cleared for mash-up purposes because producers typically pre-sell the rights to their films in order to fund production.
Nevertheless cracks in the Hollywood edifice are starting to appear. Official remix trailers are now relatively commonplace for studio pictures. In 2008 Nina Paley released her animated feature Sita Sings The Blues under a Creative Commons license that permits anyone to re-use the material for free, including commercially.
The Blender Foundation has released two open source 3D short films, Elephants Dream and Big Buck Bunny. All file pertaining to these productions are licensed under Creative Commons and available to download.
There is ultimately far more to mash-up culture than Hitler spoofs and hip-hop. The potential for more remixable media is huge. As people wake up to the idea of mash-up as a tool, more original material will be created with remixing in mind.
The power of mash-up culture
Remixable media could unlock the true potential of digital storytelling and provide a more ecologically sustainable production model. Creators with enough resources will always seek to originate their own material from scratch but the legalisation of remix could help to maintain a more level playing field.
The counter-intuitive notion of relinquishing control in order to empower audiences will take a little longer to be widely appreciated. Watch this space…