Jana | TED Talk: Larry Lessig on laws that choke creativity

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Larry Lessig shares three stories:

Lessig begins by examining the 20th century fear that user-generated content will soon be obliterated with the rise of infernal “talking” machines, a concept propagated by John Phillip Sousa who felt the machines would ruin artistic development of music in the country. This read only culture became a serious threat as we deviated from a read-write culture where people participated in the creation and recreation of content. Creativity became top down, where readers were no longer creators. It appeared that we did indeed “lose our vocal chords.”

Secondly, Lessig comments on the ludicrous components of the trespassing land law that granted private ownership of land all the way below the property and indefinitely upward. Such a doctrine had no place in the modern world, and appeals to this law (air traffic example) made no “common sense.”

Thirdly, Lessig discusses broadcasting and how it introduced a new way to spread content. However, ASCAP, the company that controlled broadcast music, inflated their rates to ridiculously high levels. This prompted the formation of a new method of broadcasting, exemplified by BMI, where arrangements of public domain works were distributed for free.

The Argument:

Lessig believes the Internet can revive read-write culture and user-generated content. Sites like YouTube foster this amateur culture (NOT amateurish), where people create for the love of the art and not the money. Remixing old and new songs, using the content of yesterday to create new meaning today is exactly what Sousa romanticized. Remix culture is NOT piracy; it is taking and recreating content “to say things differently.” Various technological techniques contribute to the success of remix culture, so it is important that the technique is democratized. Remix culture is, as Lessig puts it, “a literacy for our generation.”

Unfortunately, copyright law presumes these actions are illegal. But considering “every single use of culture is a copy,” this model makes no common sense. The result is a growing extremism between copyright mechanisms and copyright abolitionism. Lessig concludes that balance should be achieved through a private solution where artists and creators make their work available for free, noncommercial use. Businesses also need to embrace this cultural opportunity where the “ecology” of remix can grow naturally. The artist’s choice is the key for new technology having an opportunity to be open for business.


What do you think is the implication of artists letting their work be available for free public use, on the condition that it is used non-commercially? It could have a positive effect on remix culture, but is it positive or negative for creativity and/or originality? Consider whether remix culture itself is beneficial for creativity, or whether more emphasis should be on “original” content?

Jana | RIP: A Remix Manifesto

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Notes on Rip: A Remix Manifesto: the hard-hitting messages

Who determines whether sampling another’s work is right or wrong? These rules are not made by the creators of the songs, but by who owns the copyright. Today, sampling even a single note is grounds for a lawsuit. Brett Gaylor, mastermind behind the remix movie, labels the phenomenon “a war over ideas” where the battleground is the internet.

In remix culture, the creative process is significantly more important than the product. It is a realm where consumers became creators. This art, however, is faced with overwhelming opposition from the copyRIGHT who insist that ideas are intellectual property and are therefore subject to a multitude of copyright laws. Brett Gaylor approaches the issue from the copyLEFT, a movement encouraging people to share ideas and protect the public domain.

He outlines the Remixer’s Manifesto:

  1. Culture always builds on the past
  2. The past always tries to control the future
  3. Our future is becoming less free
  4. To build free societies you must limit the control of the past

It is essentially a battle between the future and the past. Will ideas be determined by public domain or private corporations?

The classic example is music:

Brett Gaylor describes it as a “moral dilemma.” In the words of the copyRIGHT (i.e. Marybeth Peters at the US copyright office), “you can’t argue your creativity when it’s based on other people’s stuff.” Or can you?

Cut to our pal Lawrence (Larry) Lessig: “We can’t kill this technology [the ability to remix content on your personal computer], we can only criminalize it.” So how does Brett Gaylor go about making a documentary which teems with potential copyright lawsuits?

Enter the “fair use” policy, a part of copyright law that allows for free speech. It bears the same concept as citing textual sources in a research paper – you can only sample other people’s work if you are making a point with it. Such is the purpose of Brett’s manifesto, making a point: copyright is out of control, it has been manipulated for profit at everyone’s expense.

Culture is threatened beyond music and movies; patents on inventions and medicinal technology stop the progress of vaccines and cures. With the 21st century we saw the birth of intellectual property – of ideas – compared to the physical property of the 20th century. So it is time to set this culture free and overturn the detrimental regulations of the past.

Larry Lessig introduced the Creative Commons, a license that says: “I as a musician give you the right to sample my work, take and build, create, remix.” Sharing is the nature of creation, and through our current copyright system, we are only hurting the process.

Everything comes from something else; originality is when you mix two things that haven’t been mixed.


The example of remix culture in Brazil is extremely powerful. What do you think is our first step towards actually changing the system as it is today? How can we follow Brazil’s example and finally go about changing the ridiculous copyright laws we have now?

7 Responses to “Remix Culture”

  1. janakalnina says:

    I think we as a class must remember that when we sample other people’s work for the purpose of contributing to remix culture, we are creating something out of it that is our own. This is different than having other people’s work available purely for free download. Though I am in no way against content being free to download (because who doesn’t love that?), I think it is important that we differentiate the purpose of having content in the public domain. Simply absorb/enjoy for no cost, or actually do something creative with it?

  2. tommers says:

    The internet is not some evil, creativity-crushing machine! There will always be someone who wants to create his/her own product — maybe they feel it’s missing in popular culture or maybe they want to create for the sake of creation or maybe something entirely different — and someone who wants to innovate upon or revive/ remix something already in existence. Why NOT allow individuals to express themselves artistically so long as they do not try to pass off another’s work as their own or attempt to make money off of it?

    I mean, “real” musicians (signed to a label) steal other artists’ work all the time, but record labels hold their tongues? For example, Green Day’s album “American Idiot” plundered more or less wantonly many of Iggy Pop’s guitar riffs and repackaged/ sold them as a wholly new, original product. What about when a band plays a “cover” of another song in its own particular style? That sounds a lot like remixing to me.

    Suffice to say, I don’t think anyone is trying to stifle creativity here, and not everything is bound to lose itself in recursive jokes/meanings (like reddit, tumblr, and /b/).

    I also agree with the notion that everything’s more or less been done before so the only way to truly innovate is to look at what people have done in the past and reconfigure it in a way no other person might have thought to attempt.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I don’t think remixing stifles creativity at all. I’m pretty sure it was Martha Graham (who is considered to be a pioneer in originating modern dance and developing new techniques) who said that “The greatest artists know how to steal.” Meaning that everyone takes from everyone. Remixing is just talking the old and making it new or taking something current and looking at it in a new way. Like Tom said, remixed music, images, etc. aren’t necessarily jokes that will end up becoming memes all over the internet. In fact, it’s possible for a remix to revive a song or artists by making a piece of work new to audiences again.

    So on to the next point. The issue behind copyright laws and free downloading is always tricky for me because it brings up the question of what is the purpose of art? Should art be made to make a profit or should it be free to the public for general enjoyment? I did some research on this last fall and artists all have different opinions. You have people like Lily Allen protesting free downloading wanting to send everyone who hasn’t paid for her music to jail, while I think it was Pink and Jennifer Lopez who said that they’re flattered by so many people downloading their music because it means people are taking the time to listen to it. They say they want anyone to have access to their music, regardless of their economic situation. But then again, Pink and JLo aren’t really hurting for cash. Also with bands releasing free/pay what you can albums online (Radiohead, etc.) how can you expect consumers to be willing to pay for all their music? If one person is giving it away for free then we want everyone to.

    For as long as people have been creating any kind of art, people have been copying and recreating–even before the internet. It’s just that now with all of the remixes being available to millions of people online, artists, or rather the lawyers of the labels, feel the need to defend themselves. If John Phillip Sousa’s people singing songs out on porches were around today and posted videos of themselves on YouTube, I bet they’d get sued too.

    Sorry–that was not the most coherent comment, but hopefully everything makes sense :)

  4. Kevin says:

    I think if people stop worrying about the money and choking creativity, this will not be an issue. The user doesn’t make money off of a video posted on Youtube. Downloading music illegally is an entirely different issue, but simply remixing music for noncommercial purposes is fun and even more creative, I feel. It is taking something that’s already created and looking at it in a new light, expanding on the original purpose and content. It’s fun and done as a hobby. GirlTalk allows his albums to be downloaded for free because he can’t make money off of other artists original work, yet he is still immensely popular. If we let the music speak for itself, we’ll all be fine.

    In order to change the culture we must not criminalize the actions of remixing. If remixers want to be taken seriously, approach the law as it should be approached and show that remixing is not stealing, but expanding, creating, evolving, and enriching the current content they are dealing with. Even though this is, and should be, an amateur hobby, approach the law in a professional way in fighting for the right to express ourselves freely.

  5. arosen says:

    I agree with Kevin. I think there is a huge difference between piracy and stealing other people’s ideas for profit and taking something, remixing it, and making it your own. I feel like when someone remixes something, for the most part, people are able to see what the original source is. If not, it doesn’t matter because the user is creating an entirely different entity. I think placing these kinds of laws on remixing are arbitrary and only stifle creativity. Obviously most people can agree it is unfair to the artist to download music illegally or rip it off without giving the artist any credit. But most remixers do not seem to be out to make money off of a concept they found somewhere else, but to use a concept they found as a template to express themselves and create something unique.

  6. Kristen Kim says:

    I agree with my fellow classmates that remixing does not stifle creativity. People have been making art out of pre-manufactured works of art. Think of the Dadaist, collage artists (e.g. Hannah Hoch), even Andy Warhol. Musicians have been sampling for ages. Take a look at James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem – he is just a clever rip-off, who disguises used beats (are they samples?) under multiple layers so the cited sources aren’t obvious right away. Remix culture is not any different from aforementioned fine artists, it’s just taken into account of the new media and its sharing capabilities. Also, it’s not like we’ve seen a decline of original material because of this. People are still constantly creating, and if anything, it’s very flattering for another artist to take YOUR creation and remix it. So in a way, it encourages original material creators to make even better works of art that would be considered deserving of a remix! It’s a push for the better, in my opinion. That said, I think it’s fine as long as the remix artists don’t use it for commercial purposes.

  7. Danielle Spano says:

    The topic of copyright and remix are both very relevant, especially in the field of media, culture and communication. For the TED talk, I feel that artists should be able to have their wowrk available for free public use so lnog that is not used for commercial purposes. This mirrors the copyright laws for recorded music, in that individuals may use a song as long as it is not for commercial uses. So for example, if they were to use it for educational purposes, this would be allowed. While I do think that a strong emphasis should be placed on the “original” content, I also think that remixing and remix culture presents a very interesting take on original content, that allows artists to expand upon the initial works. I do feel that copyright is an important issue in this though, and similar to writing a research paper, proper citation and credit should be given where appropriate.
    Similarly, I had to watch RIP: A Remix Manifesto” in my music business class and I found it very interesting. Our first step towards changing the system as it is today involves placing less stringent rules and regulations on using other artists’ work and materials. Like I mentioned previously, I do think it is important to give credit where it is due, but at the same time, individuals should be able to use previously established works freely.

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