Category Archives: x5

“The Game is Afoot”: Copyright, Fanbases, and Remix Culture

Before reading Lawrence Lessig’s Remix, I already had an interest in—if not very comprehensive knowledge of—copyright law. Lessig’s book reminded me of a recent(ish) legal case involving late-Victorian literature that I followed and which prompted me to think about the ways in which ideas of copyright law and remix culture are actually framed in public discourse.

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson Illustration by Sidney Paget for the story "The Greek Interpreter," which appeared in September 1893 issue of The Strand Magazine.
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson
Illustration by Sidney Paget for the story “The Greek Interpreter,” which appeared in September 1893 issue of The Strand Magazine.

About a year ago, Leslie S. Klinger, leading Sherlock Holmes expert and editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (a three-volume behemoth that took up quite a bit of my savings—and now quite a bit of my desk) filed a civil complaint against the Arthur Conan Doyle estate regarding the copyright status of the author’s most famous stories. Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times gave a fairly thorough summary of the proceedings in her 15 February 2013 blog post, but the main gist is that Klinger protested against what he saw as unfair licensing fees for the (“remixed”?) versions of Doyle’s characters featured in “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,” a collection of Holmesian stories he edited. Klinger argued that “since the main characters and elements of their story derived from materials published before Jan. 1, 1923,” they were no longer under the jurisdiction of U. S. copyright law, and his “complaint asks that the court make a declaratory judgment establishing  that the basic ‘Sherlock Holmes story elements’ are in the public domain” (Schuessler). Free-Sherlock.com, not to mention innumerable fan-sites, blogs, and social media outlets followed the case eagerly, the former providing a blow-by-blow of the actions filed, cases reviewed, and results achieved.

And, lo and behold, less than a year later (27 January 2014), Klinger—at least temporarily—won his case and Sherlock Holmes officially became part of the public domain. But what does that even mean?

In a segment titled “Sherlock’s Expiring Copyright: It’s Public Domain, Dear Watson,” All Things Considered explains that “A federal judge in Chicago recently ruled that the characters in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories — excluding any elements introduced in the last 10 stories released in the U.S. after 1922 — now reside in the public domain”—even though those ten stories will be available within a decade. Yet, the matter does not rest there: Doyle estate attorney William Zieske claims that a forthcoming appeal will argue “that a character, particularly a literary character, really does not become entirely formed until the author has put down his pen and finished with the last story that develops that character” (All Things Considered). If we are using Lessig’s terminology, it seems we have reached an impasse (at least in opinion) between RW and RO.

Yet, I can’t help thinking about the dedicated Holmes fan-base, which has existed since the first stories first appeared in the The Strand Magazine in the 1890s and has only grown in size and enthusiasm over the course of the twentieth century, and in the wake of popular twenty-first century adaptations  like the superb BBC modernization, Sherlock. In fact, according to Christopher Redmond’s 2009 A Sherlock Holmes Handbook, “Sherlock Holmes has appeared in more films, and been represented by more actors than any other character” (232)–that is saying something, particularly considering the broad range of interpretations, parodies, and spinoffs that have been created in almost every medium possible.

Besides these “official” adaptations, there have also been a broad range of fan-created interpretations that exist largely online (art community and forum deviantART seems to be a major breeding ground). Popular iterations include slash pairing Johnlock, gender-swapped version Femlock (with some crossover to the previous iteration), and the ever-popular turn-human-characters-into-some-sort-of-adorable-animal (Sherlock ponies are a thing).

(http://bbcsherlockftw.tumblr.com/SherlockGIFS)
Adapting/remixing: it’s what people do. (Besides die, in the original context–James Moriarty (played by Andrew Scott) from BBC “Sherlock” episode, “The Great Game”)

Often, these “remixes” are artistic/aesthetic, but there’s also plenty of fan fiction, video mash-ups, and cosplay that supplement and fuel these offshoots. Gregg Gillis’ characterization of what he does with music being “more like a game and less like a product” (15) applies here–it’s probably safe to assume that most people in this particular fandom are simply engaging in these various ways out of love rather than with the desire to “publish” or profit from their “products” outside of sharing it with other fans. The “game” is indeed afoot.

What then do we make of this sort of unofficial “remixing,” particularly in the context of the still-raging debates about what use of texts/characters is allowed in legal terms, as well by the unspoken rules of fan-created media?

(A disclaimer: my appreciation of the Sherlock Holmes canon has never prompted me to venture into the realm of creating fan art, fan fiction, or “product” of any kind–I just observe many of these iterations with some amuse-/bemusement.)

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The False “Text” vs. “Media” Dichotomy: Academic Culture as Remix Culture

In this week’s round of responses, others have (rightly) called attention to the false dichotomy Lessig sets up between RO and RW culture. But as I was reading Remix, another opposition struck me as particularly bizarre: the binary Lessig attempts to construct between text and digital media. He boldly claims that

Text is today’s Latin. It is through text that we elites communicate (look at you, reading this book). For the masses, however, most information is gathered through other forms of media: TV, film, music, and music video. These forms of “writing” are the vernacular of today. (Lessig 67)

Wait—really? Even if we narrow Lessig’s definition of “text” to “alphabetic text,” which I believe is what he means, I have a difficult time believing that “the masses” are “gathering information” about the world exclusively through these non-alphabetic media. There’s a crucial distinction to be made here: the non-Latin-speaking ‘commoners’ of the European Middle Ages did not have the literacy necessary to make use of Latin as a medium of communication; the ‘masses’ who consume other kinds of media today are generally  literate in alphabetic texts. Yes, people are watching “New Girl” on TV and streaming movies on Netflix and watching/listening to Britney Spears on iTunes/YouTube/whatever. But they are also reading alphabetic text, even if they are doing so in different ways, in different environments, and surrounded by other media. To find evidence of this, we need only look at Facebook and Twitter, the two most widely used social media programs on the web: these are absolutely alphabetic text-saturated and -reading dependent environments.

No alphabetic text or reading going on here at all, no siree!
No alphabetic text or reading going on here at all, no siree!

The statistics Lessig cites in the same paragraph to claim “falling numbers for text” (67) make it especially apparent that he is falsely distinguishing print alphabetic reading practices from digital alphabetic reading practices. These statistics pit the act of “reading” against “playing games or using a computer for leisure” (67). But is it really not possible that we might read alphabetic texts (both in extended and fragmented forms) while we use our computers for leisure?

What I find particularly problematic about this false dichotomy between “text” and “other media” is that it allows Lessig to then claim that digital media remixes are somehow more convoluted, entangled, or even more creative than textual remixes. Lessig asserts that the ‘quotes’ used in digital remixes “happen at different layers. Unlike text, where the quotes follow in a single line—such as here, where the sentence explains, ‘and then a quote gets added’—remixed media may quote sounds over images, or video over text, or text over sounds. The quotes thus get mixed together. The mix produces the new creative work—the ‘remix’” (69).

As an academic(-in-training), I found myself more than a little irked at Lessig’s oversimplification here of the way that texts and ideas are circulated and remixed through alphabetic writing. In academic writing, we don’t just cite quotations—we cite ideas. Sometimes those ideas get represented through direct quotation, but often they do not: sometimes we paraphrase, sometimes we borrow someone else’s approach and apply it to a new text, and sometimes we do a little thing we like to call academic synthesis wherein we effectively “layer” others’ ideas to produce something new. To borrow some terms and ideas from Joe’s Rewriting, in each of these instances of putting others’ texts in service of our own writing projects, we are effectively rewriting them to say something new—an act I think we can justly call “creative work” and “remix.” Viewed through such a lens, textual remixes seem to me to be at least as complicated and difficult to disentangle as those composed using  digital media.

I highlight all of this in order to suggest that as much as academic culture may have to learn from digital culture (and I think it’s quite a lot!), there may be something digital culture can learn from academia as well. I suspect that the academy values intellectual property as much as the commercial sector, if not more—and yet, it has managed a system of attribution and citation wherein the use of others’ texts and ideas is not just free, but encouraged and expected as a means of contributing to a diverse body of texts and ways of knowing. Citation is more than an obligatory head-nod; it represents coveted influence within the culture. People want their work to be cited, to be rewritten, to be remixed. I am not arguing that academic culture is some utopian ideal, and I recognize that there are issues of compensation bound up in this discussion—issues we’ll no doubt attend to in next week’s discussion of Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence. But I still think there are values inherent to the remix culture of academia that are worth preserving, and worth trying to cultivate in the digital world.

When is spoken word a remix?

On Saturday night, I went out to dinner for a friend’s birthday.  In the space of dinner, drinks, and the car rides to and from Baltimore (about six or seven hours all told), we quoted at least nine or ten different movies or shows- probably more.  Archer, Parks and Recreation, Lord of the Rings, Anchorman, Futurama, and The Godfather all found a way into our conversation, usually to make a humorous point or affectionately mock one of our party.  Four out of the six people present are serious gamers, so quotes from video games made their way into the discussion as well. Someone even asked the waiter if he could make the “James Bond cocktail.”

None of us had invented those phrases or ideas, but we had requisitioned them and incorporated them into our daily life – the ultimate remix and integrated RW culture.  Lessig notes that digitization had “removed the constraints” that kept media tied to it’s physical files in the analog world (38).  Experiencing different types of media and then passing it along through spoken word until it becomes a part of mainstream life even further removes certain types of media from the digital equation.  They just become part of our collective psyche, making our culture into a remix like the ones that Lessig talks about.

I guess what I was thinking about is, at what point does this happen?  When does something become so deeply ingrained in our everyday culture that it is no longer considered as being “remixed?”  When do phrases or media  from copyrighted works stop existing as  “stolen” or “easily available” (44) and start just existing as things that are a part of culture?  I don’t think that there’s a copyright law against spoken word unless it’s preserved on film or in a sound clip, but we were technically adding those things to our conversation and claiming them as our own for that moment.

When I was a final-semester senior  here at Delaware, I served as a Writing Fellow at the  Writing Center.  I worked with a class of fifteen Chinese students (I think they were first years), and one of the first and most pervasive issues we encountered was attribution.  Evidently, schools in China teach what sounds like a more extreme form of the way that Lessig’s friend Ben wrote– a  “collage” that utilized quotes, proverbs, or phrases that were the words of others with little or no attribution.  They were, in effect, remixing the words of experts, leaders, and other individuals to support their argument and have a new meaning.

It particularly struck me, because not only is that behavior accepted, but (on all accounts) seems to be encouraged and is a practice that applies across much, if not all of Chinese culture.  Oral tradition and stories are very important, and have become an element of Chinese culture that is simply regarded as that: a contributing part of their national identity, heritage, and history. Using someone else’s words is seen as a mark of respect to the original creator.  Comparatively, in the western world, people can become very upset if they aren’t given the proper credit.

I apologize for the fact that this likely didn’t make a whole lot of sense- I had a lot of problems making coherent long-form connections to Remix.  On a side note,  has anyone ever been sued or had copyright infringement laws leveled against them for using movie, song, or TV show quotes in regular conversation?  I’d be curious to know. I imagine the corporations and lawyers would make an absolute fortune every time someone did.

“Sorry About That”

I watch a lot of fanvids. Videos Lawrence Lessig would categorize as “remixes” – similar to AMVs (76). In preparation for this response post, then, I went to my favorites playlist on YouTube to find a couple videos to draw our attention to. Going through my list, every 10 or so videos (…let that say what it will about how many videos I’ve favorited) there would be a “Deleted video.” I’ve made a screenshot collage of the main reason offered:

CR1

Copyright claims and infringement.

The two claims on the right were (from top to bottom) a section of the BBC Proms and an artist’s work named Kim Beom where the art was him screaming as he painted with yellow paint. The reason I watched both of these pieces on YouTube was that it was the only site where I could access them – access being a key issue Lessig drives home in his work (46).

The other two videos, however, were fanvids. I couldn’t reliably say what the work on top was, but I do remember the bottom. To summarize it briefly, a youtube user set audio from the film Step Brothers to visuals from Thor – turning the destructive and violent relationship between Thor and Loki into something funny, remixing the two works. It did not replace either film, but brought forward an amusing connection between the work. As Lessig writes of similar videos, “Their meaning comes not from the content of what they say; it comes from the reference, which is expressible only if it is the original that is used” (74). Only actual audio and visuals from both films would create the effect; furthermore, it is an original effect coming from recycled materials.

I thought it would be fun for this post to look at two fanvids about the current television show Hannibal. The first is just two minutes long (and of a serious tone) and I’ve edited the second down to approximately thirty seconds (and it is ridiculous).  I imagine that there those who don’t watch the show will view the videos differently from those that do, as a common, shared knowledge is part of the game with these videos, but for background’s sake, Will Graham (played by Hugh Dancy) is the good guy and Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) is not so good – as I’m sure you know.

And, as I talked about netiquette last week, a content warning here – Hannibal is a very graphically violent show (really gruesome murders and whatnot & all the food is people), so consider yourself warned.

Hannibal – Disney Crack Edition

I thought I would add these videos to our discussion because they serve as illustrations of youtuber’s editing and remixing capabilities. The first, a (I think) beautifully edited and mixed video, draws on the initial statement from FBI profiler Will Graham, “Don’t psychoanalyze me; you wouldn’t like me when I’m psychoanalyzed,” and basically does just that. It explores the darker elements of this character’s mind as he recreates/lives other murderers’ crimes. The song brings forward the seemingly futile effort Will makes to bury this darkness in his desire to save lives and build relationships and friendships (but he is relying on Hannibal as a friend – not the best idea).

The section from the second video flips this serious investigation of Will and the dynamic between Will and Hannibal on its head. Its darkly funny in putting together Hannibal with The Little Mermaid and it relies on viewer knowledge of both to make its point. The production value is lower and the purpose is humor. At the same time, it does have a point, which is that in the show Hannibal does put forth this sincere attitude that he is helping, in his unique way, Will Graham to become his true self. Unfortunately for Will Graham, Hannibal’s version of him is a brutal and vicious killer…

I have absolutely seen videos like these two pulled down after copyright claims have been made. So, while I think that there are certainly limitations to Lessig’s work (for example, his alarmed rhetoric around the moral ramifications of branding a generation as pirates), I think that a focused look at some of the work that people do on YouTube supports his more basic point about copyright in the digital age.

 

A Copyrighting Journey in Two Parts (Plus Cats)

you know you want to
you know you want to

Young Katie: Pro-Copyright

When I was fourteen-years-old and working on my first “novel” (a fantasy book written in a series of notebooks, usually during classes I didn’t like), my programmer-brother showed me how he could download free books on his TI-89 calculator to read during class. This was 1999; there were no e-readers. My brother was really into Linux and open source software and stuff like that. After gushing for a while about these free books, he asked me if I would ever consider publishing my book online for people to access for free: “So many people would read it, Katie! Plus you’re supporting information-sharing!”

He was completely baffled at my refusal to even consider this option. “How will I make money off of it if I make it available? I want to be a writer for my career, so I’ll need to make money in order to survive. Plus, people will steal my work and make money off of it by publishing it as their own,” I argued vehemently.

don't steal from me, you dirty Americans
don’t steal from me, you dirty Americans

Charles Dickens, my first Victorian love, was also really concerned about ownership and the property of one’s work. His travelogue American Notes and novel Martin Chuzzlewit both vehemently attack the US for various reasons, but one of them was due to the really lax copyright laws over books which led to all of his being pirated all over the place. Dickens was concerned both because writing was his way of life and because the pirated editions often twisted things in a way that he wasn’t comfortable (if Dickens loved anything, it was control).

Now-Katie: Anti(ish)-Copyright

But fast-forward to four years ago. My fantasy novel career ended in high school, when I became a more serious writer (and then got writer’s bloc and couldn’t write worth anything). I was an office staff person in a philosophy department and insanely bored most of the time (excepting certain seasons when I got to advise students or build the course schedule).

Due to this boredom coupled with a desire to be helpful, I created a fun blog for non-philosophers about how to understand philosophers. After all, I married a philosopher and worked with philosophers all the time, so why not use my observations to help others? The blog exploded with readers, and suddenly I was beset on all sides with emails (asking ME for advice), angry comments from philosophers who were under the impression that they were special snowflakes, and discussion in the comments sections of each entry. I kept my name off of things, and I tried to make it easy for others to use my blog posts in other things (papers, blog posts, emails; whatever they wanted).

That said, my opinion about copyright law has changed dramatically in the past fifteen years. I went from being adamantly for it to slightly-adamantly against it. Lessig discusses this phenomenon in his chapter “Cultures Compared” in Remix. Lessig quotes Victor Stone’s (of ccMixter) comments to him, which I am going to reproduce here: “You know … this discussion will be over in ten or twenty years. As the boomers die out, and they get over themselves by dying, the generation that follows … just doesn’t care about this discussion, and it’s part of the process and that’s it” (97).

I just want everyone to use my material and alter my material and add their own material. I wonder, though, if I also think this way because I am a liberal-liberal (non-democrat liberal). My value system is such that openness and sharing with others—without expecting payouts—is a really great thing. I have several friends who are still very pro-copyright (and very conservative), so I’m not sure that Lessig is completely correct in that my generation will be cool with less control. I am pretty sure that most of my pro-copyright writing friends* (none of who have actually published anything) are also deluding themselves into believing that they will be able to make a living by writing.

Of course, they also won’t be able to make a living by writing because there are people like me who want to constantly undermine the system with my free-words-for-everyone approach.

It’s not for everyone, though. I’m not sure it’s even a good system. What do you think? Do you have any good arguments for the copyrighting of writing?

P.S. Apologies for anyone who was looking for substantive material in my blog post and stumbled into “Katie’s reflections on her ideology of copyrighting journey.” It happens.

*This is excluding Janel. I’m thinking of my college friends who aren’t close to getting anything published for many reasons (vision, for one).

Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice: That’s What Lessig’s Perfect Remix Is Made of

Back in high school before I came into my musical own, I didn’t understand the appeal of remixes.  My thought was, “Why tamper with a song that’s already great on its own?”  I especially couldn’t wrap my head around the concept of remixing a dance song because doing so seemed redundant: how could a dance song possibly get any dancier or a pop song sound any poppier?  My younger self was clearly a subconscious yet nonetheless firm believer in the “Read/Only” (RO) culture that Lessig attempts to extend in Remix.

As an avid connoisseur of remixes nowadays, I can say with conviction that not all remixes are created equal, that chances are a “majority of remix, like the vast majority of home movies, or consumer photographs, or singing in the shower, or blogs, is just crap” (Lessig 92).  Lessig is right in his assertion that very little follows from this criticism, but I would also stress how crucial it is for us to be aware of how much such a criticism sounds like and essentially is a value judgment, one that is undeniably subject to our individual, capricious tastes.

What I’m unsure of, though, is how self-aware Lessig is of how his own value judgments cloud his argument as he tries to parse out the “differences in value” among remixes, value he qualifies with the rhetorical question, “Is it any good?” (90) His bias is especially apparent, not to mention problematic, when he argues in favor of remix: “I want my kids to listen to SilviaO’s remix of fourstones’ latest work—a thousand times I want them to listen. Because that listening is active, and engaged, far more than the brain-dead melodies or lyrics of a Britney Spears. Her work draws on nothing, save the forbidden and erotic” (95).

Yes, not all remixes are created equal—that fact seems self-evident.  But what makes SilviaO so special, and what is it about her remixes that warrant “active and engaged” listening?  And more to the point: what should a remix have to do, say, be, or sound like in order to foster the kind of listening that Lessig advocates?

And besides, what’s so bad about Britney??

Although Chris Crocker’s impassioned outcry for greater respect for Britney dates back to her Blackout era drama, his sentiments nonetheless apply here as well (especially since Remix was published within a year of the album’s original release).

I’d argue that Lessig’s praise for SilviaO stems from his implicit (explicit?) approval of her involvement with Creative Commons because it shows that she takes an active role in generating creative communities.  But I’d strongly disagree with his implication that “popular” music, with all of the ideological and linguistic issues that Stuart Hall once critiqued intact, like Britney Spears can never be generative, that we should therefore automatically relegate it to a passive, RO listening experience.  Not to mention how Britney Spears is an entirely different kind of artist/chanteuse than is SilviaO.

Such an implication on Lessig’s part ignores a crucial trend in remix culture, one that can be gleaned from even a cursory glance at iTunes: pop music is one of the most heavily remixed genres.  And just like every remix is not created equal, neither does every remix set out to achieve the exact same project.

Because every artist cannot or does not want to be SilviaO or Girl Talk, then, Lessig’s argument begs the question of what needs to be at stake in a particular remix for it to demand our critical attention and thus enable it to transcend the realm of RO culture and enter that of RW.

Remix or Adaptation

I was really surprised to find out that Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (2013) was nominated in Academy Award for best original screenplay. I had been seriously waiting for its nomination, but for best adapted screenplay, and its originality was the last thing in the world that I could talk about while thinking about this particular film. I could not, and cannot, understand how such an obvious adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s globally recognized A Streetcar Named Desire could be considered original and even be nominated for that originality. Could an adaptation suddenly become original just because we do not call it an adaptation or we prefer to see it as an original? Is being an adaptation a subjective label or an objective reality? How would the culture of remix, following Lessig’s terms, draw a definite border between originals and adaptations regarding internal content rather than external form?

According to an extreme critical approach which has always been challenging to me, each new act of creation could be an act of adaptation, there is no originality in the world and each apparently new idea  is regenerating itself one way or the other. I try to expand the same view to the phenomenon of remix in digital age, and I tend to perceive each new product as a new adaptation. Then I would evaluate adaptations, as one usually does in basic adaptation studies, as good ones, bad ones, responsible ones, irresponsible ones, cheating ones, faithful ones, cross-cultural ones, historical ones etc. I would also need to open a category for original adaptations , the nominees would be those works that can get beyond the hunting shadow of their resources. However, analyzing a work of adaptation in the culture of remix is not always as simple as discovering or naming the pieces of music that have been cut and remixed with each other. There are hidden layers to original adaptations!

pointing-fingers

A pervasive culture of remix would be able to produce a complex generation of adaptations that are not going to reveal their origins neither to common audience nor to lawyers. To possess an idea or a process, and to prove its possession would be much more complicated than to possess a form or a product. As the smartest works of remix start to get rid of their evident dependencies on other works, there will be no authoritative origin to point the legal finger at easily. If adaptations populate the stage without introducing themselves as adaptations, how are we going to analyze adapted remixes with the same criteria that we usually have for comparing originals and copies? The answer will define our initial approach and ultimate expectation, as adaptations stand on a grey ambiguous territory between originals and copies. Adaptations are not always easy to decipher.