Monday, November 24, 2008

To speak is to remix

Kevin Kelly’s feature in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Becoming Screen Literate, is a fascinating read. Kelly argues that the average person’s ability to engage in visual remix is finally catching up with her ability to engage in verbal remix. One of the most striking things about the article, though, is that it doesn’t mention copyright at all. For Kelly, remix practices proceed unhindered by technological barriers (backed up by the DMCA’s anticircumvention provisions) or legal threats (such as the hundreds/thousands of DMCA notices received by YouTube users every day). It’s true—in practice, there’s a lot of remix, and that’s great. But the law is vastly out of tune with practice, and that’s a serious problem, both in terms of legitimacy and for the unlucky few who get singled out for threats by copyright owners.

Anyway, here are a couple of passages I found most noteworthy (and notice how I don’t fear a DMCA notice for my quotes; if Kelly’s article were a movie, how different matters would be):

An emerging set of cheap tools is now making it easy to create digital video. There were more than 10 billion views of video on YouTube in September. The most popular videos were watched as many times as any blockbuster movie. Many are mashups of existing video material. Most vernacular video makers start with the tools of Movie Maker or iMovie, or with Web-based video editing software like Jumpcut. They take soundtracks found online, or recorded in their bedrooms, cut and reorder scenes, enter text and then layer in a new story or novel point of view. Remixing commercials is rampant. A typical creation might artfully combine the audio of a Budweiser “Wassup” commercial with visuals from “The Simpsons” (or the Teletubbies or “Lord of the Rings”). Recutting movie trailers allows unknown auteurs to turn a comedy into a horror flick, or vice versa.

Rewriting video can even become a kind of collective sport. Hundreds of thousands of passionate anime fans around the world (meeting online, of course) remix Japanese animated cartoons. They clip the cartoons into tiny pieces, some only a few frames long, then rearrange them with video editing software and give them new soundtracks and music, often with English dialogue. This probably involves far more work than was required to edit the original cartoon but far less work than editing a clip a decade ago. The new videos, called Anime Music Videos, tell completely new stories.

AMVs are singled out in Kelly’s account, but the related (yet also very different) practices of largely live-action “vidders,” who are mostly female, are nowhere to be found, despite the nearly four decades of history of vidding. Francesca Coppa has written and spoken about the importance of claiming a place for vidding in both histories of remix and current understandings of remix culture.

As Kelly points out, what is so hotly contested by audiovisual copyright owners is standard practice with written works:

In fact, the habits of the mashup are borrowed from textual literacy. You cut and paste words on a page. You quote verbatim from an expert. You paraphrase a lovely expression. You add a layer of detail found elsewhere. You borrow the structure from one work to use as your own. You move frames around as if they were phrases.

….With powerful search and specification tools, high-resolution clips of any bridge in the world can be circulated into the common visual dictionary for reuse. Out of these ready-made “words,” a film can be assembled, mashed up from readily available parts. The rich databases of component images form a new grammar for moving images.

After all, this is how authors work. We dip into a finite set of established words, called a dictionary, and reassemble these found words into articles, novels and poems that no one has ever seen before. The joy is recombining them. Indeed it is a rare author who is forced to invent new words. Even the greatest writers do their magic primarily by rearranging formerly used, commonly shared ones. What we do now with words, we’ll soon do with images.

And here’s where copyright-blindness really hurts the article. The search and specification tools, which Kelly notes are already under development, could be used to free up creativity. But they’re being funded in significant part for the purpose of scanning the web for footage taken from existing mass media works—in other words, this powerful form of search will be used to subtract creativity rather than enhance it. Only a powerful account of fair use, one that is accepted by large content owners, will enable the new language of audiovisual creativity to survive and thrive, the way verbal creativity has.

1 comment:

rbarenblat said...

I too was struck by the omission of vidding from the article. (And also, by the juxtaposition of the Lewis Hyde profile in last week's NYTimes magazine, and this week's NYTimes magazine's theme of screens and literacy. Hyde's work on creative gift economies is very resonant within media fandom, and I think there's a point of intersection here that the magazine could have chosen to address but didn't...)