Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"Glee" and Intelectual Property Attitudes


I've spent a lot of time thinking about how the attitudes of the public intersect with the current regime of copyright law. It seems like a lot of people acknowledge that copying CDs and downloading illegal mp3s is a morally questionable (or even morally wrong) activity. But most of these same people engage regularly in the activity. There's a gulf between the sort of logico-moral approach and the actual activity.

But that's just one illustration of the kinds of thoughts-action duality copyright law can create. In the realm of remixing, reposting and reusing cultural property, the dichotomy isn't really centered in the public. It manifests itself in the activities of large media companies. The most common form of the dichotomy is a large music company playing into the public's love of remix by selling interesting remixes but then cracking down litigiously on those that create unauthorized remixes.

I guess it wouldn't be too challenging to explain this away; the music companies, of course, own the materials they are remixing, and a lay-remixer does not, so the company's remix is legally allowed. But the bottom line is that the anti-remix stance of big media companies is not consistent with their exploitation of the fact that remix sells.

I think the best example, though, is one that was recently explained at the blog Balkinization. The article outlines how the popular television show Glee uses the idea of remix culture to show a group of kids bonding over shared cultural experiences and musical expression, essentially by performing "remixes."* But the show doesn't once mention that if someone were to engage in these activities in the real world, they'd be slapped with giant fines, most likely including some fines from 20th Century Fox, the producers of the show. The media industry is putting out a show glamorizing remixing with one hand, and slapping remixers with the other.

So my take is that the real problem lies with this big media industry; it's an industry that made most of its living in a traditional anti-remix culture that is now trying to sell to a modern pro-remix culture. It leads to inconsistency in both their behavior and in the laws they lobby for, thus creating a big cultural rift that will take major copyright overhauls to heal.

It takes a special kind of hypocrisy to appreciate the market for, and cultural appreciation of, something that you are fighting to destroy. It takes a special kind of day-job book-burner to write novels by night. The big media industry is adept at this kind of hypocrisy, and U.S. copyright law makes it possible.**

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* I'd just like to clarify that "remixing" isn't only the activity of slicing up music and recombining it to make new songs. It's also changing the context of some bit of media to comment on it, or recreating that bit of media slightly differently to change its effect, etc. Lawrence Lessig talks a lot about the various ways of doing "remixing" and the cultural implications in his book, Remix.

** This is, of course, an oversimplification. The article I linked to has a much more sophisticated discussion of the role of U.S. copyright law in this discussion, specifically in creating the balance between promoting cultural development and rewarding past creators.

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