Get RIP(ped)!

Believe it or not, I got in a little “work” during the Athfest-ivities last weekend. Taking a break on Saturday afternoon from the crippling Georgia heat, I retreated to Cine, Athens’ cool (literally, thank the gods!)  independent movie theater, which was featuring a number of rock docs as part of the weekend’s events. I caught the free showing of RiP: A Remix Manifesto, a film by Brett Gaylor that takes a look at how the age of digital music has opened a can of copyright worms.

Gaylor’s argument is essentially the copyleft claim that there should be less restrictive copyright protections on the products of creative and intellectual endeavor – music, movies, literature, etc. – in order to foster a dynamic and productive “remix” culture. This argument may be familiar to many of you, having been delivered by folks like Lawrence Lessig, whom Gaylor interviews in the film. He also plugs one of Lessig’s pet endeavors, Creative Commons, the alternative licensing option that allows producers of intellectual and cultural property to specify more clearly (and more leniently, usually) how others may use, modify, rework, or profit from their work.

If you’ve looked at this blog closely, you might have already noticed that, at the bottom of the main page, there is a Creative Commons license. I chose this option, rather than the standard copyright notice, for a simple reason: to show my support of the general principles of the copyleft.  So I found myself on Saturday, in the cool of Cine’s Lab theater, vigorously nodding in agreement as Gaylor rocked and remixed his way through an hour and a half argument for the importance of making culture available to those who would rework it in order to make something “new.” And I put new in quotes there for a reason (I’m not just being all ironic with the air quotes, I promise). A big part of this argument rests on the belief that there really is nothing new under the sun, that all cultural production is essentially a remixing of or building on what has come before. Just as Walt Disney refashioned Steamboat Willy into his first Mickey Mouse cartoon (and then, ironically, clamped down hardest on those who would similarly rework his own “creations”); just as Shakespeare reached back to the myths and legends and histories that he refashioned into Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night and Antony and Cleopatra; just as Satre interpreted Heidegger, who built on Husserl, whose phenomenology was built on a foundation that includes the bricks contributed by a whole long line of previous philosophers: we all build on what has come before.

In reading through the program for Athfest, I was struck by how many of the musical acts were described by comparisons to other artists or by reciting a litany of influences. Two examples direct from the official Athfest 2009 program distributed at the festival and with that week’s Flagpole magazine:

Velveteen Pink This matching-outfit-clad quartet of funksters…plays electro-based, groove-laden, upbeat stuff in the Prince, Stevie Wonder and Jamiroquai style.

Heavy Feather This local band plays hook-heavy rock influenced by the pop harmonies of Big Star and The Beatles.

Just two examples, but there were plenty more, and all this tells me is that musicians take what has come before and build on it, taking the past and making it the present.

Yes, sometimes one of us produces a breakthrough insight or a brilliant recasting or a hauntingly allusive retelling or even a happy accident. But to suggest that we (or, more accurately, our progeny) should be allowed to refuse others the right to cite, to play with, to rework what we’ve done for nearly a century after it was originally produced (and profited from, if there was profit to be made)? No.

Such a commodification of intellectual property and its cultural products is too venal and it has the potential to bankrupt our cultural heritage. I do think that artists, thinkers, musicians, and the like should be allowed to profit from and receive credit for the fruits of their labor. However, if they’re honest, I’d like to think most of those creative geniuses would readily acknowledge the debt they owe to the work of those whose influence infuses their work. Personally, I’m not so foolish or arrogant as to think that my writing and thought are such original works of genius that no one else but me should be able to cite, remix, disseminate, or (if the day ever comes that I produce something that someone wants to pay money for) profit from for all eternity (or, more accurately, my lifetime plus 75 years, the current term of copyright protection). I mean, once I’m dead, what difference does it make anyway, right? Why should J.K. Rowling’s heirs get to profit from the sweat of her brow ad infinitum? [If you’re perceptive, you might be inferring my feelings about such things as estate taxes right about now.]

Bottom line (and I should be getting to that now, I know): RiP is a great argument for a particular point of view regarding copyright and intellectual property law. It does have its failings in that it doesn’t rigorously engage with the arguments of those on the other side – the copyrightists – and they do have good points (all that stuff about artists profiting from their work). But, as the title states explicitly, this film is a manifesto, a position statement, if you will, for the copyleft and, as such, it is affecting and powerful. And fun to watch. And Gaylor puts his money where his mouth is – he’s put the film up online and invites anyone to download it (using the name your price model used by Radiohead so memorably for the release of their “In Rainbows” CD) and then to mash it up, remix it, make it your own.

So, take a look at RiP. Remix it. Build on it. Take it to task. Whatever you like. And let me know what you think.

Edited to add: On a similar note, I just started following John Perry Barlow on Twitter and have been really enjoying the Tweets from one of the original free culture (“information wants to be free”, the EFF) proselytizers.

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