|Everything is a remix - remastered (Kirby Ferguson)|
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Remixing is a folk art but the techniques are the same ones used at any level of creation: copy, transform, and combine. You could even say that everything is a remix.
Everything is a remix is a four-part video series about the influence and appropiation in creation. And a deep reflections about the topics and contexts surrounding copyrights, patents, ideas, invention... and what social evolution means regarding to that issues.
Remix. To combine or edit existing materials to produce something new.
The term “remix” originally applied to music. It rose to prominence late last century during the heyday of hip-hop, the first musical form to incorporate sampling from existing recordings.
Early example: the Sugarhill Gang samples the bass riff from Chic’s “Good Times” in the 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight”.
Since then that same bassline has been sampled dozens of times.
Skip ahead to the present and anybody can remix anything — music, video, photos, whatever — and distribute it globally pretty much instantly. You don’t need expensive tools, you don’t need a distributor, you don’t even need skills. Remixing is a folk art — anybody can do it. Yet these techniques — 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.
To explain, let’s start in England in 1968.
Jimmy Page recruits John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, and John Bonham to form Zed Zeppelin. They play extremely loud blues music that soon will be known as—uh, Wait, let’s start in Paris in 1961.
William Burroughs coins the term “heavy metal” in the novel “The Soft Machine,” a book composed using the cut-up technique, taking existing writing and literally chopping it up and rearranging it. So in 1961 William Burroughs not only invents the term “heavy metal,” the brand of music Zeppelin and a few other groups would pioneer, he also produces an early remix.
Back to Zeppelin.
By the mid-1970s Led Zeppelin are the biggest touring rock band in America, yet many critics and peers label them as… rip-offs. The case goes like this:
The opening and closing sections of “Bring it on Home” are lifted from a tune by Willie Dixon entitled — not coincidentally — “Bring it on Home.”
“The Lemon Song” lifts numerous lyrics from Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor.”
“Black Mountain Side” lifts its melody from “Blackwaterside,” a traditional arranged by Bert Jansch.
“Dazed and Confused” features different lyrics but is clearly an unaccredited cover of the same-titled song by Jake Holmes. Oddly enough, Holmes files suit over forty years later in 2010.
And the big one, “Stairway to Heaven” pulls its opening from Spirit’s “Taurus.” Zeppelin toured with Spirit in 1968, three years before “Stairway” was released.
Zeppelin clearly copied a lot of other people’s material, but that alone, isn’t unusual. Only two things distinguished Zeppelin from their peers. Firstly, when Zeppelin used someone else’s material, they didn’t attribute songwriting to the original artist. Most British blues groups were recording lots of covers, but unlike Zeppelin, they didn’t claim to have written them.
Secondly, Led Zeppelin didn’t modify their versions enough to claim they were original. Many bands knock-off acts that came before them, but they tend to emulate the general sound rather than specific lyrics or melodies. Zeppelin copied without making fundamental changes.
So, these two things
Covers: performances of other people’s material
And knock-offs: copies that stay within legal boundaries
These are long-standing examples of legal remixing. This stuff accounts for almost everything the entertainment industry produces, and that’s where we’re headed in part two.
Wait, one last thing. In the wake of their enormous success, Led Zeppelin went from the copier to the copied. First in the 70s with groups like Aerosmith, Heart and Boston, then during the eighties heavy metal craze, and on into the era of sampling. Here’s the beats from “When the Levee Breaks” getting sampled and remixed.
In Zeppelin’s defense… they never sued anybody.
Perhaps it's because movies are so massively expensive to make. Perhaps it's because graphic novels, TV shows, video games, books and the like are such rich sources of material, or perhaps it's just because audiences just prefer the familiar. Whatever the reason most box office hits rely heavily on existing material.
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 comic books, videos games, books and so on. Transforming the old into the new is Hollywood's greatest talent.
At this point we've got three sequels to a film adapted from a theme park attraction. We've got a movie musical based on a musical which was based on a movie. We've got two sequels to a film that was adapted from an animated TV show based on a line of toys. We've got a movie based on two books, one of which was based on a blog, which was inspired by the other book, which was adapted into the film.
Do you follow? We've got 11 Star Trek films, 12 Friday the 13ths, and 23 James Bonds. We've got stories that have been told, retold, transformed, referenced and subverted since the dawn of cinema. We've seen vampires morph from hideous monsters to caped bedroom invaders to campy jokes, to sexy hunks to sexier hunks.
Of the few box office hits that aren't sequels remakes or adaptations the word original wouldn't spring to mind to describe them. These are genre movies and they stick to pretty standard templates. Genres then break up into subgenres with their own even more specific conventions. So within the category of horror films we have subgenres like slasher, zombie, creature feature and of course torture porn. All have standard elements that are appropriated, transformed and subverted. Let's use the biggest film of the decade as an example.
Now it's not a sequel, remake or adaptation but it is a genre film, sci-fi and most tellingly it's a member of a tiny subgenre where sympathetic white people feel bad about all the murder, pillaging and annihilation being done on their behalf. I call this subgenre "Sorry About Colonialism". I'm talking about movies like Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, The Last of the Mohicans, Dune, Lawrence of Arabia, A Man Called Horse and even Ferngully and Pocahontas.
Films are built on other films as well as on books, TV shows, actual events, plays whatever. This applies to everything from the lowliest genre film right on up to revered indie fare. And it even applies to massively influential blockbusters, the kinds of films that reshape pop culture. Which brings us to…
Even now, Star Wars endures as a work of impressive imagination, but many of its individual components are as recognizable as the samples in a remix. The foundation for Stars Wars comes from Joseph Campbell. He popularized the structures of myth in his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Star Wars follows the outline of the monomyth, which consists of stages like The Call to Adventure, Supernatural Aid, The Belly of the Whale, The Road of Trials, The Meeting with the Goddess and a bunch more.
Also huge influences were the Flash Gordon serials from the thirties and Japanese director Akira Kurasowa. Star Wars plays much like an updated version of Flash Gordon, right down to the soft wipes and the opening titles design. From Kurosowa we get masters of spiritual martial arts, a low-ranking bickering duo, more soft wipes, a beneath-the-floorboards hideaway, and a boastful baddy getting his arm chopped off.
War films and westerns were also huge sources for Star Wars The scene where Luke discovers his slaughtered family resembles this scene from The Searchers. And the scene where Han Solo shoots Greedo resembles this scene from The Good The Bad And The Ugly. The climatic air strikes in The Damnbusters, 633 Squadron and the Bridges at Toko-Ri play very similarly to the run on the Death Star And in many cases existing shots were used as templates for Star Wars special effects
There's also many other elements clearly derived from various films We have a tin man like the tin woman in Metropolis, a couple of shots inspired by 2001, a grab-the-girl-and-swing scene like this one in the 7th Voyage Of Sinbad, an holographic projection kinda like the one in Forbidden Planet , a rally resembling this one in Triumph Of The Will, and cute little robots much like those in Silent Running.
George Lucas collected materials, he combined them, he transformed them. Without the films that preceded it there could be no Star Wars. Creation requires influence. Everything we make is a remix of existing creations, our lives and the lives of others. As Isaac Newton once said, "We stand on the soldiers of giants". Which is what he was doing when he adapted that saying from Bernard de Chartres.
In Part 3 we'll further explore this idea and chart the blurry boundary between the original and the unoriginal.
One last thing:
George Lucas was the most movie saturated film maker of his era but that baton has since been passed to Quentin Tarantino's remix master thesis, his Kill Bill, which is probably the closest thing Hollywood has to a mash up packed with elements pulled from countless films. Kill Bill raises filmic sampling to new heights of sophistication. The killer nurse scene in particular is almost entirely a recombination of elements from existing films. The basic action is the same as this scene from Black Sunday where a woman disguise d as a nurse attempts to murder a patient with a syringe of red fluid . Darryl Hannah's eye patch is a not to the lead character in The Call Her One Eye and the tune she is whistling is taken from the 1968 thriller Twisted Nerve. Capping it off the split screen effect is modeled on techniques used by Brian De Palma in an assortment of films including Carrie. For an extended look at Kill Bill’s references, check this out.
The act of creation is surrounded by a fog of myths. Myths that creativity comes via inspiration, that original creations break the molds that they are products of geniuses and appear as quickly as electricity can heat filaments.
But creativity isn't magic. It happens by applying ordinary tools of thoughts to exciting materials. And the soil from which we grow our creations is something we scorn and misunderstand even though it gives us so much, and that's copying.
Put simply, copying is how we learn. We can't introduce anything new until we're fluent with the language of our domain and we do that through emulation. For instance all artists spend their formative years producing derivative work. Bob Dylan's first album contained eleven cover songs. Richard Pryor began his stand-up career by making a not so good imitation of Bill Cosby. And Hunter S. Thompson retyped The Great Gatsby just to get the feel of writing a great novel.
Nobody starts out original. We need copying until the foundation of knowledge and understanding. And after that... things can get interesting.
After we've grounded ourselves in the fundamentals through copying it's then possible to create something new with transformation. Taking an idea and creating variations. This is time consuming tinkering but it can eventually produce a breakthrough.
James Watt created a major improvement to the steam engine because he was assigned to repair a Thomas Newcomen's steam engine. He then spent twelve years developing his version. Christopher Latham Sholes modeled his typewriter keyboard on a piano. This design slowly evolved over five years into the QWERTY layout we still use today. And Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb. His first patent was "Improvement in electric lamps" but he did produced the first commercially viable lamp after trying 6000 different materials for the filament. These are all major inventions but they're not original ideas so much as tipping points in a continuous line of invention by many different people.
But the most dramatic results can happen when ideas are combined. By connecting ideas together creative leaps can by made producing some of history's great breakthroughs. Johannes Gutenberg's printing press was invented around 1440 but almost all of its components had been around for centuries. Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company didn’t invent the assembling line interchangeable parts or even the automobile itself. But he combined all these elements in 1908 to produce the first mass market cat, the Model T. And the internet slowly grew up for several decades as networks and protocols merged. It finally hit critical mass in 1991 when Tim Berners-Lee added the World Wide Web.
These are the basic elements of creativity copy, transform, and combine. And the perfect illustration of all these at work is the story of the devices we’re using right now. So let’s travel back to the dawn of the personal computer revolution and look at the company that started it all: Xerox .
Xerox invented the modern personal computer in the early seventies. The Alto was a mouse-driven system with a graphical user interface . Bear in mind that a popular personal computer of this era was operated with switches and if you flipped them in the right order you got to see blinking lights. The Alto was way ahead of its time.
Eventually Apple got a load of the Alto and later released not one but two computers with graphical interfaces the Lisa and its more successful follow-up, The Macintosh. The Alto was never a commercial product but Xerox did release a system based on it in 1981 the Star 8010 two years before The Lisa three years before the Mac. It was the Star and the Alto that served as the foundation for the Macintosh.
The Xerox Star used a desktop metaphor with icons for documents and folders. It had a pointer scroll bars and pop-up menus. These were huge innovations and the Mac copied every one of them. But it was the first combination it incorporated that set the Mac on a path towards long-term success.
Apple aimed to merge the computer with the household appliance. The Mac was to be a simple device like a TV or a stereo. This was unlike the Star, which was intended for professional use and vastly different from the cumbersome command-based systems that dominated the era. The Mac was for the home and this produced a cascade of transformations.
Firstly, Apple removed one of the buttons on the mouse to make its novel pointing device less confusing. Then they added the double-click for opening files. The Star used a separate key to open files. The Mac also let you drag icons around and move and resize windows. The Star didn’t have drag-and-drop you moved and copied files by selecting an icon pressing a key then clicking a location. And you resized windows with a menu.
The Star and the Alto both featured pop-up menus but because the location of these would move around the screen the user had to continually re-orient. The Mac introduced the menu bar which stayed in the same place no matter what you were doing. And the Mac added the trash can to make deleting files more intuitive and less nerve-wracking. And lastly through compromise and clever engineering Apple managed to pare down the Mac’s price to $2,500 still pretty expensive but much cheaper than the $10,000 Lisa or the $17,000 Star.
But what started it all was the graphical interface merged with the idea of the computer as household appliance. The Mac is a demonstration of the explosive potential of combinations. The Star and the Alto on the other hand are the products of years of elite research and development. They’re a testament to the slow power of transformation. But of course they too contain the work of others.
The Alto and the Star are evolutionary branches that lead back to the NLS System which introduced windows and the mouse to Sketchpad the first interactive drawing application and even back to the Memex a concept resembling the modern PC decades before it was possible.
The interdependence of our creativity has been obscured by powerful cultural ideas but technology is now exposing this connectedness. We’re struggling legally ethically and artistically to deal with these implications and that’s our final episode, Part 4.
What if Xerox never decided to pursue the graphical interface? Or Thomas Edison found a different trade? What if Tim Berners-Lee never got the funding to develop the World Wide Web? Would our world be different? Would we be further behind?
History seems to tell us things wouldn’t be so different. Whenever there’s a major breakthrough there’s usually others on the same path. Maybe a bit behind maybe not behind at all Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz both invented calculus around 1684. Charles Darvin proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection of course but Alfred Russel Wallace had pretty much the same idea at pretty much the same time. And Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray filed patents for the telephone on the same day. We call this multiple discovery the same innovation emerging from different places.
Science and invention is riddled with it but it can also happen in the arts. In film for instance we had three Coco Chanel movies released within nine months of each other. Around 1999 we had a quartet of sci-fi movies about artificial reality. Even Charlie Kaufman’s unusually original film, Synecdoche New York, bears an uncanny resemblance to Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder. Both are the stories of men who suddenly become wealthy and start recreating moments of their lives even going so far as to recreate the recreations. And actually this the video you’re watching was written just before the New Yorker published a Malcolm Gladwell story about Apple, Xerox and the nature of innovation. We’re all building with the same materials. And sometimes by coincidence we get similar results but sometimes innovations just seem inevitable.
The genes and our bodies can be traced back over three and a half a billion years to a simple organism LUCA: the Last Universal Common Ancestor. As LUCA reproduced its genes copied and copied, and copied and copied... sometimes with mistakes. They transformed over time is produced every one of the billion species of life on earth, some of these adapted sexual reproduction combining the genes of individuals and all together the best adapted life forms prospered.
This is evolution, copy, transform and combine. And culture evolves in a similar way but the elements aren't genes they are memes, ideas, behaviours, skills. Memes are copied, transformed and combined. And the dominant ideas of our time are the memes that spread the most.
This is social evolution, copy, transform and combine. It's who we are, it's how we life and of course it's how we create. Our new ideas evolve from the old ones.
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.
From almost our entire history ideas were free. The words of Shakespeare, Gutenberg and Rembrandt could be to be openly copied and built upon.
But the growing dominance of the market economy where the products of our intellectual labours are bought and sold produce and unfortunate side effect.
Let's say a guy invents a better light bulb. His price needs to cover not only the manufacturing costs but also costs of inventing the thing in the first place. Now let's say a competitor starts manufacturing a competing copy. The competitor doesn't need to cover those development costs so his solution can be cheaper. The bottom line, original creations can´t compete with the price of copies.
In the United States the introduction of copyrights and patents was intended to address the imbalances. Copyrights covered media, patents covered inventions. Both aimed to encourage the creation and proliferation of new ideas by providing a brief and limited period of exclusivity, a period when no one else could copy your work.
This gave creators a window in which to cover their investment and earn a profit. After that, their worked entered the public domain where it could be spread far and wide and be freely built upon. And it was this that was the goal: a robust public domain, an affordable body of ideas, products, arts and entertainment available to all. The core belief was in the common good, what would benefit everyone.
But overtime, the influence of the market transformed this principle beyond recognition. Influential thinkers proposed that ideas are a form of property, and this conviction would eventually yield a new term: INTELECTUAL PROPERTY. This was a meme that would multiply wildly, thanks in part to a quirk of human psychology know, as LOSS AVERSION.
Simply put, we hate losing what we have got. People tend to place a much higher value on losses than on gains. so the gains we get from copying the work of others don´t make a big impression, but when it´s our ideas being copied we perceive this as a loss and we get territorial. For instance, Disney made extensive use of the public domain. Stories like Snow White, Pinocchio, and Alice in Wonderland were all taken from the public domain. But when it came time for the copyright of Disney's early films to expire, they lobbied to have the term of copyright extended.
Artist Sheppard Fairey has frequently used existing art in his work. This practice came to a head when he was sued by the associated press for basing his famous Obama Hope poster on their photo. Nonetheless, when it was his imagery used in a piece by Baxter Orr, Fairey, threatened to sue.
And lastly, Steve Jobs was sometimes boastful about Apple´s history of copying.
"We have, you know, always been shameless about stealing great ideas".
But he harboured deep grudges against those who dared to copy Apple.
"I’m going to destroy Android, because it´s a stolen product. I´m willing to go thermonuclear war on this".
When copy we justify it. When others copy we vilify it. Most of us have no problem with copying.... as long as we´re the ones doing it.
So, with a blind eye towards our own mimicry and propelled by faith in markets and ownership, intellectual property swelled beyond its original scope with broader interpretations of existing laws, new legislation, new realms of coverage and alluring rewards.
In 1981 George Harrison lost a 1.5 million dollar case for "subconsciously" copying the doo-wop hit "He´s so fine" in his ballad "My sweet Lord".
Prior to this, plenty of songs sounded much more like other songs without ending up in court. Ray Charles created the prototype for soul music when he based "I got a woman" on the gospel song "It must be Jesus".
Starting in the late nineties, a series of new copyright laws and regulations began to be introduced... and many more are in the works. The most ambitious in scope are trade agreements. Because these are treaties and not laws, they can be negotiated in secret, with no public input and no congressional approval. In 2011 ACTA was signed by President Obama, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreements, currently being written in secret, aims to spread even stronger US style protections around the world. Of course when the United States itself was a developing economy, it refused to sign treaties and had no protection for foreign creators... Charles Dickens famously complained about America´s bustling book piracy market, calling it "a horrible thing that scoundrel-booksellers should grow rich".
Patent coverage made the leap from physical inventions to virtual ones, most notably software. But this is not a natural transition. A patent is a blueprint for how to make an invention. Software patents are more like a loose description of what something would be like if it was actually invented. And software patents are written in the broadest possible language to get the broadest possible protection. The vagueness of these terms can sometimes can reach absurd levels. For example, "information manufacturing machine", which covers anything computer-like, or "material object", which covers pretty much anything. The fuzziness of software patents boundaries has turned the Smartphone industry into one giant turf war. 62 percent of all patent lawsuits are now over software. The estimated wealth lost is half a trillion dollars.
The expanding reach of intellectual property has introduced more and more possibilities for opportunistic litigation: suing to make a buck. Two new species evolved whose entire business model is lawsuits: sample trolls and patent trolls.
These are corporations that don´t actually produce anything. They acquire a library of intellectual property rights, then litigate to earn profits. And because legal defence is hundreds of thousands of dollars in copyright cases and millions in patents, their targets are usually highly motivated to settle out of court. The most famous sample troll is Bridgeport Music, which has filed hundreds of law suits. In 2005 they scored an influential court decision over this two-second sample. That´s it. And not only was the sample short, it was virtually unrecognizable.
This verdict essentially rendered any kind of sampling, no matter how small infringing. The sample-heavy musical collages of hip hop´s golden age are now impossibly expensive to create.
Now patent trolls are most common back in that troubled realm of software. And perhaps the most inexplicable case is that of Paul Allen. He is one of the founders of Microsoft. He is a billionaire, he is an esteemed philanthropist who´s pledged to give away such of his fortune. And he claims basic web page features like related links, alerts and recommendations were invented by his long-defunct company. So the self-proclaimed idea-man sued pretty much all of Silicon Valley in 2010. And he did this despite no lack of fame or fortune.
So to recap, the full picture looks like this. We believe that ideas are property and we are excessively territorial when we feel that property belongs to us. Our laws then indulge this bias with ever-broadening protections and massive rewards. Meanwhile huge legal fees encourage defendants to pay up and settle out of court. It´s a discouraging scenario, and it begs the question: what now?
The belief in intellectual property has grown so dominant it´s pushed the original intent of copyrights and patents out of the public consciousness. But that original purpose is still right there in plain sight. The copyright act of 1790 is entitle "An Act for the Encouragement of Learning" . The patent act is to promote the progress of useful arts. The exclusive rights these acts introduced were a compromise for a greater purpose. The intent was to better the lives of everyone by incentivizing creativity and producing a rich public domain, a shared pool of knowledge, open to all.
But exclusive rights themselves came to be considered the point, so they were strengthened and expanded. And the result hasn´t been more progress or more learning, it´s been more squabbling and more abuse.
We live in an age with daunting problems. We need the best ideas possible, we need them now, we need them to spread fast. The common good is a meme that was overwhelmed by intellectual property. It needs to spread again. If the meme prospers, our laws, our norms, our society, they all transform.
That´s social evolution and it´s not up to governments or corporations or lawyers... it´s up to us.