Most of us already instinctively know what a remix is — we’ve all bought music with tracks that have mixed lyrics from one song with beats from another. However, with regard to music, this concept is often confused with sampling and vice-versa, which is a slightly different concept and often implies copyright disputes (as with artists like Girl Talk). In discussing remix in his TED Talk on how laws stifle creativity, Larry Lessig observes, “it’s important to emphasize that what it is not… is not what we call, quote, ‘piracy’.” So then, what defines a remix? A remix, according to Larry Lessig, is taking “sounds and images from the culture around us” and using them to “say things differently.” The act of remixing then is a way, especially for younger generations, to communicate with one another and is a form of virtual and technological literacy, creativity, and self-expression. The opening lines of RiP: A Remix Manifesto aptly summarize how the general public views remixing: “A way to make something fresh out of something stale.”

The music and film industries do not quite see eye to eye with the public on this issue, and have gone through a lot of trouble in an attempt to remove from video hosting sites any and all remixes containing copyright material without actual consideration for which appropriation are actually valid from a legal standpoint. As Lessig points out, this kind of extremism begets extremism aimed in the opposite direction, and as such remixing continues, now with a new utter disregard for any rule of law except possibly the rules of the internet.

When Charlie Sheen, the star of the massively popular sitcom Two and a Half Men, went off the deep end a couple of months ago and started ranting angrily to any radio and television show that would host him we thought he would never stop. What could anyone say that Sheen had not already said himself, right? Apparently a lot of people had a lot to say, and chose to express themselves through the art of the remix, but two videos were of particular note. The UK group Eclectic Method created this video as almost a Chalie Sheen anthem. At the same time, veteran auto-tuners and musicians the Gregory Brothers chose to create this song about winning.

The first video by Eclectic Method incorporates a great number of Sheen’s more popular quotations over a funky bass line and house-inspired beat. The most notable portion of the entire remix is around 0:50 seconds in. In this section, the screen flashes between two portions of an interview: in the first portion, the ticker reads EXPLAINING HIS ACTIONS to which Charlie only says “wow” and in the second portion, the ticker reads DESCRIBES HIS DRUG USE to which Charlie responds with a “pfffffth.” Thus, the remix creates a meaning that did not previously exist in such explicit terms.

The second video by the Gregory Brothers takes a slightly different approach and isolates, for the most part, Sheen’s quotes on ‘winning’, auto-tuning them and setting them over a track reminiscent of contemporary pop music. At the same time, unlike the first video, this song does not only make use of Sheen, but also features the artists providing harmony and background vocals for him. The Gregory Brothers also use this opportunity to express their own opinions by doing a back and forth with Charlie in which they shout out a noun and he responds with ‘winning’ — or in the case of “breaking the rules of the Geneva convention,” ‘weak’.

Clearly, just as Lessig had told us, remixes can be used to communicate and create new meanings, but what prompts individuals to remix? In an email interview, Ian Edgar of Eclectic Method explained, “we’re coming at it like consumers, we just spit something remix out after we’ve consumed [sic.]. Predominantly comedy for comedy’s sake. Remix for the hell of it. We’re like media feedback, distorting and amplifying the original ephemeral moment.” The Gregory Brothers were considerably less talkative, so we can only guess at the reasons behind their remix. Perhaps, because of their popularity and extensive remix collection on YouTube, they felt an obligation to their fans. The numbers certainly suggest this as a possibility — the video boasted 10,763,704 views on its first day, accruing around 72,000 comments (97.6% of which also included a ‘Like’), almost as if fans had been waiting for it. “I’m sure you could describe the Greg Bros experience as explosive,” stated Ian when asked about his group’s experience with feedback from fans, “ours was more like small arms fire. People are/were just digging the moment. When Charlie Sheen says ‘the score is like a bazillion to zero’, you kind of want to make that moment last.”  Whatever their individual motivations, we can safely assume that neither party has experienced any copyright issues stemming from these remixes, which appropriate a large number of clips from television programs — YouTube is currently sponsoring the Gregory Brothers and five other remixers in a multi-city tour, and Ian of Eclectic Method dismissed the copyright question almost entirely, as if it were a non-issue.  However, this is not to say that the legal debate no longer persists.

Many scholars and left-leaning copyright activists are in agreement with Lawrence Lessig and his belief that fair use should be more widely extended so that users may continue to creatively use others’ works. Among these supporters is scholar, lawyer and nonresidential fellow of Stanford Law, Zohar Efroni. His article, “Remix and Fairness,” is centered on an argument that opposes Professor Robert P. Merges’ published paper on remix culture, “Locke Remixed,” which states that copyright law should not be altered to accommodate remixers and cultures jammers. Efroni states that there are two arguments supporting Merges’ position, that “much unlicensed remix is thriving under the present regime without actual threat of lawsuits for copyright infringement,” and that there’s value in copyright law, since it protects the original right holders to secure their content and maintain their rights to profit off that content. These two points are certainly valid reasons not to change the current law, however, Efroni chooses to dig deeper, particularly into the first argument. He states that if voluminous counts of people are breaking copyright laws so casually (Lessig claims that about 70% of young people take part in infringing activities), then is this not an indication that the law has been proven useless? Efroni refers to this specific wrinkle as a “reality test.” All signs point towards change, and with that change a greater creative energy can flow between consumer and businesses of all sizes.

Grant Crowell, consultant and online marketing developer, also sides with Lessig in his article, Remixing Copyrighted Video – Fair Use or Infringement? The article was written following Lessig’s speaking engagement on copyright law at the “Wireside Chat” hosted at Harvard Law School. Crowell slightly pushed the envelope when asking Lessig how businesses may profit from extended rights of fair use to the average person. Lessig aptly explained that the time has come for a ‘Hybrid Economy,’ which is a “free, sharing economy that allows the provider to make money on top of it. The obvious examples of this in video are the UGC and video sharing sites like YouTube, which also allow for monetization through shared revenue of advertising.” This concept is bold when initially heard, but if one takes a moment to consider what exactly a hybrid economy entails, he/she will realize that this method is currently being implemented in many business models. Take, for example, Amazon, EBay or Flickr; these massive entities thrive on their users, without them they are nothing and zero profit can be generated. User-generated content drives traffic back to the site and tends to create buzz around the subject or product in question. “Google gets an enormous amount of value. People volunteer and literally give tons of stuff to Google; every single search is a gift to Google, because Google learns from that search, why and how people associate with the kind of results they might want,” Lessig argues.

Lessig, Crowell and Efroni are united in their argument that by stymying creative works remixing existing content is equivalent to committing a crime against humanity. No good can come of corporate efforts to thwart fair use, it only leads to innocent people having to pay for acts that are no longer considered a crime; too many people partake in these same acts. Although Lessig and other leaders of this school of thought have made considerable progress, a great amount of work lays before them. Lessig urges Congress to take action and make the necessary changes so that the people may once again have the right to use public content as they please.

To see Lawrence Lessig on The Colbert Report, discussing hybrid economy, click here! And, if you’d like to see Steven Colbert take a stab at remixing all on his own, check this link.

Written by Thomas and Natalie

2 Responses to “Remix: Everybody’s Doing It!”

  1. jajja says:

    Wow, you guys have definitely come a ways since last week in fleshing out your research, props for that. To be quite honest though, I am a little disappointed in the responses you’ve received from Ian Edgar (not with anything to do with you guys!). When we were discussing Remix Culture last class, I think collectively we had all seen it as a new media movement towards inserting political statements and whatnot, but the fact that groups such as Eclectic Method and The Gregory Brothers are approaching this phenomenon from a perspective of sheer consumerism is a bit disconcerting.

    On another note, the legal issues that you have brought up are quite fascinating. I know that it might not be all that possible to directly speak with someone in the legislative/legal field on the issue, but I think you should definitely give it a shot. Otherwise, you’ve done a nice job of incorporating the dialogues of these various authors within your texts to make their arguments come alive.

    Keep on keeping on, cheers!

  2. mdeseriis says:

    Dear Thomas and Natalie, thank you for this entertaining and sophisticated travelogue on remix culture. The opening on Charlie Sheen is indeed very appropriate for illustrating the vitality of remix culture and I like the quotes you select because they both emphasize how remix is a form of feedback and amplification of media messages. This perspective confirms Jodi Dean’s emphasis on feedback as a key feature of the turbulent environment we call the Web 2.0. Feedback amplifies the message but also deterritorializes it, i.e. it takes the message out of its originating territory (or semantic field) to transform it into something else.

    As I said in class, for a while the legal dispute over whether derivative works can be considered “fair use” focused around the notion of whether a derivative work “transforms” the original or simply appropriates it without adding to it. For instance, the Associated Press sued or threatened to sue Shepard Farey for appropriating their picture of Barack Obama. If the case was ever to reach a courthouse the court would have to decide whether cropping, vectorializing and adding a red-blue background to that picture is truly transformative of the original image.

    Recently, however, the legal focus shifted from the corporations suing or threatening to sue individual artists to a different question, namely “who is profiting from these remixes?” As Lessig says, remix culture benefits neither the original creator or copyright holder of a work nor the remixer/fair user. Rather, it is the companies such as YouTube and Flickr that benefit from these remixes in that they are able to sell the traffic generated from this thriving youth culture to advertisers. Thus we see the emergence of a new form of intermediation that seems to shift the balance of power from the traditional corporate owners of copyrights (TV networks, music labels, film producers and distributors) to a new set of content providers, the owners of the Internet “tubes.” Incidentally, or perhaps not so incidentally, these new providers have generally a more open view of copyrights, and have made their own the hacker, cyberlibertarian motto “information wants to be free.”

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