Monday, December 31, 2012

Oh Ars Technica no

“She didn’t write it…  She wrote it, but look what she wrote about.  She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art….  She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly.” – Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Women’s Writing.

The latest round, from this Ars Technica article about why DRM on music has declined while DRM on e-books is still widespread:

Another possible explanation over the lack of outrage is that within music, not only is the market larger, but there’s more of a tradition of turning the original work (a song) into a derivative work, like a remix.

“When iTunes was introduced no one was thinking: ‘When I buy this, can I cut it up into ringtones?’” Higgins added. “They weren't thinking, ‘Can I set this to a rhythm game and play fake guitar to this?’ Because people love music, there's avenues for that remix. With books, especially with e-books, books as codecs aren't a very remixable form. People don't really know to do anything with them except start at the beginning and read to the end.”

That’s incredibly dumb, except for just two words: “as codecs.”  Books are hugely remixable!  Though the tradition of scrapbooking, which involved physical collages of images and text on a very wide scale (there were patents; Mark Twain was involved in trying to make money off of the phenomenon; etc.), has faded somewhat, we never lost the tradition of remixing stories.  It’s just that you don’t need to break DRM to remix a story!   There are interesting things to be done with DRM-free books, but the basic condition of remix is pretty firmly ensconced in literary traditions.

The article continues, informing me that Alissa Quart says that “even the biggest literary fans generally don’t do much besides read or perhaps quote other works that they like. ‘There's not really a culture of remix amongst book readers,’ she said. ‘There's a literary culture of appropriation and interesting fair use but I don't think a lot of readers have that relationship to it.’”  Oh, really? 

Look, the set of readers who write fan fiction, create fan art, etc. is smaller than the set of heavily invested readers and also of course smaller than the set of casual readers.  But I call shenanigans on the idea that the proportions are wildly smaller than the analogous music remixers:serious music fans:casual music listeners relation, which is the very comparison we’re supposed to be making.  And I especially call shenanigans on the idea that this conclusion is so obvious it needs no factual investigation.  Maybe is out there and maybe it has 650,000 Nine Inch Nails remixes, but until you show me that, Harry Potter fandom remains king.  (Or perhaps that should be Weasley remains king.)  “Aside from zombie crossover fanfic, few outside the ivory tower are interested in remixing the written word,” another quote from the article, is kind of like saying “aside from blue cars, the highways aren’t that crowded.”  It’s just so aggressively wrongheaded!  (Also, it’s disappointing to see a geeky publication denigrate geek genres—but then, Joanna Russ wouldn’t be surprised at the structure of the Geek Hierarchy.)

The question of why DRM survives on books but not music is an interesting one both theoretically and practically.  But the article does no good by positing an answer that erases transformative literary fandoms instead of one that focuses on the affordances of technology and the kinds of transformative practices that aren’t bothered by DRM.  This false explanation further throws the article off track because it focuses on books v. music, ignoring video, which retains its DRM (thus requiring us to get DMCA exemptions for remix) and has its own histories of remix. 


Anonymous said...

All I can do is wonder how many people will understand the reference in your subject line.


tim maguire said...

While I may cite no more studies than they do, I would be very surprised if they are not in the main correct. Fan fiction may be no less common than the mashup, but back in the day, virtually every teenager made mix tapes and they expect today to be able to move their music around as they see fit. There is no equivalent to that in literature. The average person buys the book, reads the book, forgets the book.

Rebecca Tushnet said...

Valiant effort, but that's not in the slightest what the article says, which is that very few people (except for the zombie crossover writers) remix fiction, with remix defined as chopping into the actual work itself so that it is a different work. If the article had been about mix tapes, or even about the specific types of remix that involve knowing what a codec is, it wouldn't be so wrongheaded. (As a side note, though a phenomenon need not be common to be important, I'm not willing to accept that mashups etc. are even as common as fan fiction/art absent actual evidence.) You are addressing the phenomenon "outside a certain set of technophiles, people seem less bothered by DRM on books than on music," which I agree is a phenomenon worth addressing, but you are not engaging with my point, which is that the explanations offered by the article are wrong, and wrong in a way that relies on the invisibility of certain kinds of creativity.

Bruce Boyden said...

The transparency of words.

Rebecca Tushnet said...

Bruce: sadly, I have to go with "invisibility" here, since it's not that the article treats transformative literary works as having one easily fixed meaning but rather that it looks, but does not see.