by Joshua Hilst
Perhaps it was John Logie in “Champing at the Bits: Computers, Copyright and the Composition Classroom” from 1998, or perhaps it was sooner. At some point, we began to concern ourselves, as educators, with the business of copyright. Yes, the Fair Use exemption for copyright exists. But, as many are aware, that’s a legal defense, not an exemption. That is to say, use copyrighted material and you can pay a lawyer to argue Fair Use, but that won’t get you out of a court date. Copyright, as noted by Remix and Higher Education, is intimately linked with the concept of and the ability to remix—that is, to take preexisting work and cut and paste and mash-up to create something new. “Remix,” generally speaking, is a modernist technique: we might think here of the “Exquisite Corpse,” Burroughs’ cut-up technique, decalcomania, automatic writing, and many others. The ethic of remix made its way into the collective consciousness with the rise of personal, digital media. As Victor Burgin reminded us in The Remembered Film, “The same technology that has constructed the audio-visual machine has put the means of configuring its products into the hands of the audience” (110)
Since interest in the relationship between creativity and copyright has increased in recent years, we’ve seen a proliferation of arguments suggesting that copyright’s “original intentions” have been abused by the powers that be. Burgin follows his optimistic proclamation that the audio-visual apparatus is in the hands of the audience with the stern warning that “when two-thirds of global copyrights are in the hands of six corporations, the capacity to rework one’s memories into the material symbolic form of individual testament and testimony is severely constrained” (110). And that’s really the rub of remix and media: our memories exist in media. We need to be able to rework them. The tension between personal memory and the supposed “public” benefit of copyright begins to obtain. Probably no more famous crusader exists in favor of the individual right to remix memory than Lawrence Lessig, whose famous appearance on The Colbert Report yielded a challenge to viewers to remix the interview with often stellar (and hilarious) results.
Following on the heels of educator interest in the concepts of remix (as well as the recent CCCC Louisville theme of Remix) comes this rather interesting and altogether nicely assembled project. The project takes its audience (educators and, perhaps a secondary audience—the students themselves) through some of the tenets of remixing: purpose, history, locations, and even a starter set of how-to’s. The purpose of the project is educational in nature. To that end, it serves as a mission statement for remix (Why Remix?), as well as a sort of informative brochure. The authors share with us the words of Lessig, who argues that we do not have a good grasp of copyright law. Elswhere, taking his audience through the history of copyright (especially in Free Culture), Lessig indicates that copyright was developed for a specific medium—print. Changes in technology must therefore call for a change in the understanding of copyright. Herein lies a critical question that the website helps to raise: What is the exigency of copyright?
Woodmansee and Jaszi argue in The Construction of Authorship that our concept of the author as owner of copyright and all her intellectual property is an intensely romantic one, reliant on a certain conception of the self-contained individual (especially a Kantian conception). The subject as distinct from others and from environment remains at the heart of copyright. In order to attribute a piece of content to a distinct owner, there must be a conception of owner as distinct. Moreover, that owner must be the sole progenitor of some content. However, as recent scholarship from both the sciences (see Antonio Damasio) and the humanities (Thomas Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric is a shining example), we are part and parcel of our surroundings. They include the individual, and they are more than the individual. Rickert suggests that our surroundings, our ambience both includes and exceeds the subject. There is no strict dividing line between my self and the other. “I” am not the originator of content, it comes from others (both human and not) that affect and effect every thought I have. Ergo, the discussion to which Remix and Higher Education leads us is to one about our ambience, and the change in ambience wrought through new technology. New ambience must lead to a new conception of the “owner” of content, and hence an alteration in how we (as producers of remixed content, if not always the legal establishment) understand copyright.
Remix, make no mistake, can be a dicey business. It treads in the nether region between that which is protected by law, and the right of individuals to rework memory into “individual testament and testimony.” As the authors remind us, “Remix is the heart of creativity.” Such a statement is intriguing, however, for the boundless optimism that has often surrounded the concept of remix. This optimism becomes grist for the mill of Evgeny Morozov (among others), the title whose book, To Save Everything, Click Here, reflects a skepticism toward this notion that remix, the Internet, the digital apparatus, and the like are going to be a means toward a creative salvation.
Both questions—about exigency and about the optimism of remix—are far too dense and complex to even muster part of an answer in this response. Nevertheless, I’d argue that it’s a credit to the authors of these pages that they manage to create not only a straightforwardly informative and educational website, but one that creates questions and discussion for educators to think through the difficult issues created by copyright and remix. To what extent have we surpassed (legally, scientifically, theoretically and conceptually) the exigency that gave rise to copyright? How might a copyright that responds to more contemporary explorations of selfhood appear? How optimistic ought we to be about remix? What does it give us? If it is indeed at the heart of creativity, what is yielded when we arrive at that heart. These are valid questions, and important ones, raised by an excellent project.