Is “Intellectual Property” a Faulty Construct Today? Everything is a Remix [Video]By Kadley Gosselin June 14, 2012
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Kirby Ferguson’s Everything is a Remix is a four-part video series that examines the evolution of derivative works and addresses some of our misconceptions about the nature of creativity and intellectual property, demonstrating how many of the most successful and critically acclaimed records, films, books and more, are often not the first of their kind. Given the advent of the Internet and our increasingly participatory media culture, intellectual property rights are getting “messy,” leading to complex (and, sometimes, seemingly silly) legal disputes. This thoughtful video series begs the question: in a fast-paced world where anyone can create and sharing is instantaneous, do we need to re-think the point of intellectual property and how we define its boundaries?
Remixing is a folk art but the techniques involved — collecting material, combining it, transforming it — are the same ones used at any level of creation. You could even say that everything is a remix.
The first episode introduces the overarching concept for the series but focuses largely on how it applies to “remixing” in the music industry, using the numerous adaptations of the bass riff from Chic’s “Good Times” and Led Zeppelin’s well-documented reinterpretation of others’ music as examples. Ferguson touches on the point that the commercialization and subsequent simplification of products which give artists remixing control also opens up the opportunity for anyone to be able to remix content, not just those who spent years acquiring these skills. For a more in-depth (and copyright-focused) look at this phenomenon, check out the similarly focused film RiP Remix.
Of the ten highest grossing films per year from the last ten years, 74 out of 100 are either sequels, or remakes of earlier films, or adaptations of other media.
Part 2 delves into the film industry, teaching that many films which seem to be “original content” are actually genre movies that stick to templates, right down to the plot lines, character selection and even cinematographic elements. Ferguson uses Avatar as an example: it’s a sci-fi film, but it also belongs to a tiny sub-genre Ferguson refers to as “Sorry About Colonialism.” He demonstrates (as many other movie critics, news publications, etc. also did) that, while Avatar pushed the boundaries in terms of its execution and production, it shares a similar plotline to a number of films including Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, The Last of the Mohicans, Dune, Lawrence of Arabia, A Man Called Horse and even Ferngully and Pocahontas.
We can’t introduce anything new until we’re fluent with the language of our domain, and we become fluent through emulation.
This segment explores the concept that creativity is based on reproduction, reinterpretation and transformation, either by or after copying other content. It stresses the importance of collaboration and uses major milestones in the development of technology (e.g., Xerox’s Alto leading to the Macintosh desktop) to point to the theory of multiple discovery which professes that most scientific discoveries and inventions are made independently and often around the same time by different people.
But our system of law doesn’t acknowledge the derivative nature of creativity. Instead, ideas are regarded as property, as unique and original lots with distinct boundaries. But ideas aren’t so tidy. They’re layered, they’re interwoven, they’re tangled. And when the system conflicts with the reality… the system starts to fail.
The closing episode of the series looks at the failing system that is copyright and patent law today. Ferguson explains that the concept of a market economy has spilled over into intellectual property and complicated the regulatory system around ideas. He claims that it was built for a much different reason: to protect creators and cover their investment so they could earn a profit, but eventually turn ideas over into the public domain, for the general good, after a period of exclusivity. The availability of copyright and patent extensions now prevents the public domain from growing and encourages an increasing sense of property entitlement around ideas, which makes it difficult for the remixing and collaboration essential to innovation to take place.
Header image courtesy of Randy Adams
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