Thursday, April 24, 2008

Remixing Piracy

I wonder sometimes, when I go on one of my rants singing the praises of 'free culture,' what some of you make of that, or if you really get what the motivations are. I suspect some among you might think that proponents of free culture are looking for a free for all, a grab bag mentality where anything can be stolen and misrepresented as the work of the thief. This is how the word 'piracy' gets bandied about, which is accurate, albeit misleading. It is piracy [outlaw types go outside the system to obtain what they want] but it is also, as Matt Mason's The Pirate's Dilemma points out, a remix.

I still maintain Mason's book has a bit of a brochure feel [it could have been a couple magazine articles and gotten all the points across; after 150 pages it starts to feel like the point gets beleaguered], he devotes an entire chapter to how the idea of the remix has permeated more aspects of art and culture than you think. From Jamaican record producers putting instrumental b-sides on their singles so the sound system MCs could work the crowd more easily, to the 12-inch extended disco mix, to Kool Herc setting up two copies of the same record so he could just play the breaks the crowd liked, remixing has always been a part of reggae and hip-hop, but Mason points out that even Paul McCartney admitted he once nicked a bassline from an old Chuck Berry tune for an early Beatles song. Is anyone upset that he did?

Fast forward to now: video games are being modded by fans into successful spin-offs like Counter-Strike and long running Machinima series like Red vs. Blue and clothing designers like Nigo of A Bathing Ape are remixing Nike's Air Force Ones by replacing the swoosh with a star, outfitting them with garish colours and selling limited runs at $300 a pair. Is the iPod anything more than a remixed portable transistor radio? Same concept [portable music on demand] updated with current technology.

Remixing is not piracy. Yes, there is some yoinking of intellectual property, but the goal is to use the original as a tool to create something new. What was James Brown doing in the late '70s before hip-hop started sampling him? Where would rock music have gone if Paul McCartney hadn't nicked the occasional Chuck Berry bassline? Now throw in graffiti and culture jamming, and public spaces are even being remixed. Blogs like this one remix information on a daily basis, pulling content from a myriad of sources and spitting them back to you in bite sized chunks, all the while increasing awareness of the source material.

Hopefully the growing popularity of the Creative Commons License [think 'some rights reserved' instead of all] will give people more opportunity take old ideas and build them into something new. I think culture's more exciting that way.


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