Popular culture - as opposed to the pop culture created by artists without academic training which is flooding our media - has always been a remix culture. The first song I learned in Kindergarten in Germany was a remix of a traditional children's song, in which the ducks had been moved from the lake into the toilet bowl. Great fun for a five-year-old.
That is what people without any artistic or monetary ambitions do with culture. They take bits of what is available and adapt them to the moment. Parody, persiflage, satire, rewrite for topical subjects or just the simple fill-in-the-blank of the Happy Birthday song. Cut pictures out of magazines and arrange them into collages. Misquote jokes and sayings. Everybody does it. Creativity is the normal condition of a human being.
This was all unproblematic until the arrival of the Internet, which turned all of us into publishers in the eyes of the law. Imagine the shock of the housewife who has put up a video of the child's birthday party on the family blog and gets a letter from a lawyer demanding instant takedown or payment for millions of potential viewers because that idiotic little ditty of "Happy birthday to you" is under copyright from here to eternity, if the industry continues to have its way.
There's the problem. People have grown up in a fair use zone where you could do anything with culture and they expect this to extend to their Internet living rooms, in which they typically converse with a few dozen friends. Funny Photoshop transformations of Brad Pitt's face? Lawyers at your door. Insert 'poops' into that Britney Spears song? Lawyers again. Lose your house paying your defence lawyer.
You see, lawyers have this fictional creature known as The Consumer. That's all of us, but stripped of any urge or ability to get creative. And then there is that other mythical monster called The Artist, who creates works from scratch - or gets hauled into courts for theft. Neither of these phantasms has anything to do with how human culture actually works.
Culture is a conversation. Every act of culture is a reply to something, a restatement, correction, modification, reworking. Lawyers are constantly debating how much modfication is required to make a work legal. Thus, you may 'create' a new instance of The Blues(TM Martin Scorsese), by shuffling the notes and words around by a set amount. Shuffle too little and you're in trouble with the law. Shuffle too much and the purists start screaming rape. Still, artists are trained to recognize what is a new song and what a version and their publishing companies have experts to deal with these matters.
And there we enter the crux of the matter:
Copyright law is corporate law. Or it used to be.
Previously, it took heavy investment to publish art, music, writing, so it was always done by companies and professionals. Today, squirting anything into a blog is an act of publishing. The legalese you signed by clicking when you started your blog forbids any use of copyrighted material that you don't own. Suddenly, instead of plain ordinary citizens entitled to sing "Poops, I did it again" or tape Brad Pitt's face in a toilet bowl onto a postcard to a friend, we are all professional artists required to Create Art from Scratch. Because we are no longer just having a conversation, in which we quote from everything we have seen and heard without any thought of Creation and Originality. Your piddling little blog is a Publishing Enterprise held to the same legal standards as Time Warner Inc, except that you do not have the funds to pay for any borrowings.
You have been muzzled.
This is why people are angry. Their normal modes of expression have been turned into a crime. They know they are only safe from prosecution because they are small fry - unless someone decides to make an example of you. Thus, any time you post some photoshoppery or a musical mash-up you risk having it summarily deleted and your account cancelled for criminal cultural activities.
Perhaps I do accept that there should be a way for creative artists to make a living with their craft, but if it comes at the cost of turning the rest of humanity into passive consumers, I say it is not worth it. We need a completely different way of showing our appreciation to artists.
And yes, I put my money where my mouth is: all of my creations are freely reusable. Go on, remix them.
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