Why Lessig is Right (At Least When it Comes to Autobots)

is the founder of the Creative Commons, which effectively allows for a more nuanced (and reasonable) approach to copyright – it establishes particularized rights for different audiences to use your work in different ways. The aim is to allow people to license work so that citizens can use facets of their culture to create new parts of their culture – as an example they can modify images and songs to produce something new, without their modification being labeled a copyright infringement. You’ll note that this blog is under a CC license.

Music, Mashup, and Meaning

There have been a number of particularly stunning documentaries in the past few years that attempt to grapple with the notion of copyright. Of the ones that I’ve seen, Good Copy, Bad Copy(and it’s a free download!) is likely about the best – it examines the role of mashup in music and the role of copyright as it applies to film. Mashups tend to involve taking multiple tracks of music and overlaying them in new and interesting ways – this also tends to act as a method of ‘culture jamming’, insofar as messages are playfully appropriated and modulated in ways that diverge from the cultural direction of the original works of music. As an example, you might hear a song about war with deep and potent lyrics laid atop an electronic dance beat, transforming both of the works in important and substantial ways.

No Copying For You!

Awesome – let’s fire up our Macs (or, I guess, Windows boxes if you need to *grin*) and play with the new music that is hitting the shelves. For the encore, let’s find a way of paying for the piles of legal fees we’re going to end up paying while defending the mashups on the basis of fair use. Sound like fun?

Unless you think going to court against major music IP holders (which I think would entail you being a lawyer being paid for being at the proceeding), the possibility of being sued into the ground is enough to have you keep tracks that you create off the ‘net. Of course, this means that the ability to shape culture through music remains fixed amongst a relatively few powerful groups, or constrained to people who are entirely original, insofar as all elements of their songs are innovative compositions that can’t be traced as being like any other piece of music that is held under copyright. That seems to cut down on a lot of the potential creativity that is brimming throughout society…

Creative Commons

Just so we’re clear, copyright isn’t really written to address me or (presumably) you – we’re small time, even if we happen to infringe on copyright. Ignoring the fact that copyright has become bloated like few other ‘rights’, copyright law as it is designed is meant to prevent corporations from infringing – it was never really aimed at you or I. Traditionally I could create a mashup of something and, because it was pretty well impossible to find or identify me in an analogue world, I could get away with it. In a digital space, where almost everything on the public Internet is trawled by spiders 24/7, it’s remarkably easy to discover whether or not I’ve uploaded a mashup – all it requires is a particularly sophisticated programmer and a corporate desire to catch anyone who might be responsible for infringing on copyright, no matter how dangerous that is for the development of culture.

Autobots! Transform, and Roll Out!

I love music – I listen to it probably in the vicinity of 12-14 hours a day (i.e. whenever I’m near a computer system/my iPod is charged). I love new and innovative music. These twin loves means that I particularly like innovative mashups (I also like mashed potatoes too, but I’m not sure that there is any real connection) and one of the most innovative DJs out there at the moment recently released what should be amongst the albums of the year. Go and download 2.0 by audiobytes for autobots – it’s innovative, clever, and demonstrates the value of mashups. This isn’t a crude album, one that simply copies from what is and reproduces it with minor alterations – it’s a clearly original work that builds on other, well known (and less known) works to create a unique performative work.

This is how Dashiell Driscoll (the artist in question) describes his first work, Prime Cuts:

The ‘Prime Cuts’ album was made entirely by me, Dashiell Driscoll, using GarageBand on a 12 inch powerbook over the last few years. I have no real musical training, but you should be able to figure that out by now if you’ve listened to any of the songs. This project is more of an extended mix tape/tribute album than anything else. I would put together a comprehensive list of artists and songs used, but I don’t want to make it that easy for the lawyers. (Source; emphasis mine)

What he’s done is give away something – there is no fee – and it has the potential to contribute to culture. Nevertheless, this contribution really can’t happen legally – clearing the copyright for all the songs sampled would take ages, as would paying for the rights to sample from them. Instead, Driscoll has produced a work of love, a work that is without a doubt massively different from what any of the songs sampled gave audiences. He has produced a new work of art.

When Lessig talks about how a kid with a notebook, some time, and a love of creating can produce genuine works of art so long as they can appropriate works in the public culture, it’s music like Discoll’s that he’s talking about. Copyright, as it stands now in the music industry, at least, is (or has, depending on your take) turning into a particularly brutish cartel, one that actively prevents these kinds of works. Don’t let them keep up this kind of nasty, negative, and culturally dangerous practice – contact your MPP/MP/Senator/Congressmen and let them know that you want them to take a strong stand to support the Creative Commons.