Arts 2090 Task Three: Distribution Project

Q: Remix culture is fundamentally at odds with older media institution and practices. Investigate a case study, which illuminates these tensions.

Remix culture is not at odds with older media institutions and practices. Older media institutions and practices are fundamentally at odds with remix culture. Is that not the same thing? To an extent, yes it is. However, remix culture has been an ever present culture in society, and no one spontaneous event or idea propelled remix culture to the forefront of modern communication. Remix culture is indeed at odds with older institutions, most notably, legal institutions. The existence of remix culture in a world so dominated by legal institutions is not a remix culture fully developed. ‘Common sense’ would say that law makes way for the socially valuable culture of remix, but then again, ‘common sense’ is a rare idea in law.

Popular culture has always been a remix culture (Rene Kita), from the earliest forms of music, to the music we listen to now, from early cave-paintings to great works of art. Picasso himself even once said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. Why is it then, that older institutions, most notably, the limits of law, restrict the possibility of “great” creativity to emerge?

Remix has meant consuming and interpreting some piece of work, whether tangible or non-tangible. Interpreting something in your own way is not necessarily stealing; it is remixing. Why then, is remixing being limited by the constraints of legal institutions? According to Australian and American law, permission is needed before altering copyrighted material. However, the doctrine of ‘Fair Use’ proscribes that limited use of copyrighted material is allowed without permission from the rights holders for use such as criticism, commentary, research, news reporting, teaching or scholarship. Therefore, there is a fine line between what is known as remixing, and what is classified as stealing.

The case of Danger Mouse’s 2004 release, ‘The Grey Album’, is an interesting example of how older media institutions, in this instance, legal institutions, are at odds with the culture of remix that emerged in the late 20th century; music remix. Further, the case illuminates the tensions between legal institutions and cultural domains.

‘The Grey Album’, a mash up album released by musician and producer Danger Mouse, contains instrumentals from multiple samples from the Beatles’ LP ‘The Beatles’ (or the ‘White Album’) and an a cappella version of Jay-Z’s ‘The Black Album’. Because Danger Mouse used unauthorized samples of the Beatles’ EP, the album was received with contempt, with EMI, the copyright holder of the Beatles’ music, ordering a complete cease in distribution. Jay-Z’s ‘The Black Album’ however, was released commercially in a cappella form (in an attempt to encourage remixes).

On the surface it would appear that Danger Mouse had indeed ‘ripped-off’ the Beatles’ music, from a legal perspective. However, this is where the tensions between legal institutions and cultural domains arise.

In response to the criticism of ‘The Grey Album’, Danger Mouse spoke out:

“A lot of people just assume I took some Beatles and, you know, threw some Jay-Z on top of it or mixed it up or looped it around, but it’s really a deconstruction. It’s not an easy thing to do. I was obsessed with the whole project, that’s all I was trying to do, see if I could do this. Once I got into it, I didn’t think about anything but finishing it. I stuck to those two because I thought it would be more challenging and more fun and more of a statement to what you could do with sample alone. It is an art form. It is music. You can do different things; it doesn’t have to be just what some people call stealing. It can be a lot more than that.”

Danger Mouse’s response draws some very interesting ideas, which shows the great odds at which legal institutions exist alongside remix culture.

‘The Grey Album’ was meant to be a “deconstruction”, “a statement”. Danger Mouse embarked upon the ‘Grey Album’ project to show what could be done with remix: how remix could be “an art form”.

Professor Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet law at Harvard Law School stated:

“As a matter of pure legal doctrine [the Grey Album] is breaking the law, end of story. But copyright law was written with a particular form of industry in mind. The flourishing of information technology gives amateurs and home recording artists powerful tools to build and share interesting, transformative, and socially valuable art drawn from pieces of popular cultures. There’s no place to plug such an important cultural sea change into the current legal regime. (Rimmer 2005)”

As evident, remix culture does not fit in, nor has the ability to fully co-exist with legal doctrine in today’s society. The onset and “flourishing” of information technology and communicative media has allowed for remix in culture to be more widely accessed and distributed, turning consumers into creators, which in turn has called for an amendment of laws that are indeed outdated in today’s society.

In the eyes of the outdated law, ‘The Grey Album’ was seen as a breach of copyright. However, according to the doctrine of ‘Fair Use’, use of copyrighted material is allowed under certain circumstances, one of which being: commentary.

Danger Mouse declared his desire for the album to be “more challenging” and “more of a statement”. Simply put, he wanted to prompt a realization. The ‘Grey Album’ is commentary.

com·men·tar·y

Anything serving to illustrate a point, or exemplify.

For Danger Mouse, ‘The Grey Album’ was simply meant to serve as a type of social commentary, to illustrate the point about “what you could do with sample alone”. He declared, “It was not my intent to break copyright laws”. Where do musicians and producers draw the line between art and breaking the law in today’s society, where remix, an age-old concept, is attempting to be banished. According to Rene Kita, “Shuffle too little and you’re in trouble with the law. Shuffle too much and the purists start screaming rape.”

Leading media theorist, Lawrence Lessig, talks about the ‘read-write’ culture, where people participate in the creation and re-creation of their culture. This idea mirrors remix culture, where people re-interpret and re-create the world around them, exactly what Danger Mouse set out to achieve through ‘The Grey Album’. However, Lessig emphasizes that through the constraints of legal institutions, we are instead living in a read-only culture, where creativity is consumed, but the consumer is not the creator. In effect, this is how the law wants society to operate. Going back to the words of Harvard Professor Jonathan Zittrain, “copyright law was written with a particular form of industry in mind”. The current bounds of copyright law do not allow for consumers to become creators as well. With the wealth of information and resources available to the public, it is inevitable that consumers will eventually become creators. Video sharing sites such as YouTube and social networking mediums such as Facebook and MySpace, coupled with the low cost of programs like GarageBand and Audacity, allow those who normally would be consumers of media, to become creators of media. We should be living in Lessig’s ‘read-write’ culture, and to an extent we are, but the constraints of legal institutions are stopping us from truly adopting this.

We have always lived in a remix culture, or what Lessig calls a ‘read-write’ culture. Historians quote historians’ writings and textual sources, filmmakers and visual artists reinterpret and critique existing works, and scholars illustrate cultural commentary with visual, textual and sometimes musical example. Remixes, mashups, online parodies, and all the emerging forms of communication in remix culture are partakers of an ancient tradition, that is, the recycling of old culture to make new culture.

Therefore, it should be a matter of working the culture of remix into the existing legal system, rather working legal institutions into the culture of remix that has been ever present in our society. We cannot continue to operate, where we give property rights to creators as a reward for producing culture, and then simultaneously give other creators the opportunity and resources to use that same copyrighted material, but see it as illegal work.

In the early 20th Century, property ownership was protected by law, where land was owned indefinitely downwards and upwards. With the introduction of aviation technology, came so-called ‘breaches’ of this property law when planes would fly through owned land. In 1945, the Supreme Court ruled that the 100-year-old doctrine that protected land beyond the sky had no place in modern society. ‘Common sense’ prevailed.

Today, in the 21st Century, creators are being punished for so-called ‘breaches’ of law. Distribution of great work is being called to cease, and we are potentially being denied the opportunity to experience groundbreaking art due to laws that fail to fall in line with a culture that has existed before law even began. There is no place for remix culture to ‘slot in’ with existing laws, nor can legal institutions work themselves into our remix culture, only one outcome can occur, that is, for ‘common sense’ to prevail.

Internet Sources

MTV http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1485693/20040311/danger_mouse.jhtml

Rene Kita http://sumutia.blogspot.com/2009/06/remix-culture-and-copyright-law.html

Dictionary http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/commentary

TED http://www.ted.com/talks/larry_lessig_says_the_law_is_strangling_creativity.html

Secondary Sources

Matthew Rimmer. “The Grey Album: Copyright Law and Digital Sampling”Media International Australia Incorporating Culture and Policy Feb. 2005: 40-53. Available at: http://works.bepress.com/matthew_rimmer/16/

Janis Lucis

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1 Comment

Filed under arts2090

One response to “Arts 2090 Task Three: Distribution Project

  1. Paul Sinclair

    Great post! Solid case study…really makes you think about where the boundaries lie between remix and theft.

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