A few months ago I got an email from Blogger.com regarding a blog I run in my spare time. It read: “Blogger has been notified, according to the terms of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), that certain content in your blog infringes upon the copyrights of others.” Blogger had taken down a post that I had written a few days earlier because it allegedly contained copyrighted material and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry had sent them a nasty letter. The funny thing was: it was an mp3 of my own music they took down.
Maybe I should explain a bit first. Back in 2006 when I was finishing up my undergrad degree I had a part-time job DJing at a campus bar. To keep my sets interesting I’d make little blends and edits of tracks on my computer to play later on in the club. I’d take the acapella of one song and layer it over the beat from another, that sort of thing. It’s an old trick but crowds eat it up. Over time the edits got more and more elaborate to the point where I was putting in totally original music underneath the vocal tracks; I was making my own unofficial remixes.
At some point I got it in my head to remix the new (at the time) Timbaland single “Give it to Me”. I took the original, a mid-tempo hip-hop song, and worked into a whole new beast. I sped it up, added a new chord progression, elongated it by a few minutes and generally just turned it into a big dance track. As a derivative work, I was clearly infringing Timbaland’s copyright. To my surprise, people loved it. It eventually made its way onto music blogs where it took on a life of its own. I soon started getting emails from webmasters saying my remix had been downloaded 10,000 times, 100,000 times, at last count it was over 1 million times (and that was just on one blog). My little remix became a minor internet hit.
That remix kick-started a very modest music career for me. On the strength of that one song I got to tour around Canada and the US DJing and I started getting requests to do official remixes for some pretty decent artists. I even got signed to a small record label and put out an EP of original music. And sure enough, two years down the line when I got that DMCA take down email from Blogger it was one of my own remixes that was causing all the trouble. So what gives, Blogger?
My story illustrates what I think is a greater trend away from the classic model of authorship that we’re all used to and that is anticipated by the existing copyright schemes. The days of an author creating his or her work in a vacuum and releasing it to a passive public are numbered. Technology has allowed everyone with a computer become their own publisher, and it has ushered in a new dynamic and collaborative model of creativity. People are commenting, re-interpreting and re-imagining creative works in ways that have never been done before. To trot out a few well-worn examples, consider some of the most popular web sites on the internet: Wikipedia, Youtube, and Twitter. All of these sites are driven by interactivity and user-generated content. Consider even this blog post: It was written in response to Mr. Castle’s article, which itself was a response to Mr. Engstrom’s article. Reinterpretations, critiques and remixes have their own cultural value that people enjoy for their own sake, independently of the works on which they are based. I firmly believe that this culture of interactivity and individual creativity should be encouraged by copyright law, not stamped out.
The issue really boils down to this: Should I have had to get Timbaland’s permission before I made a remix of his song? Should it be up to him and his record label to decide whether people can interact with his music or not? I would argue no. If I had tried to get clearance before making my remix it simply would have never been made, and there would be one less song out there for the public to enjoy. For all its internet popularity I never made a dime off of the Give it to Me remix; but I’d like to think that if I had I would have gladly shared some of it with Timbaland. A mandatory licensing scheme would have worked perfectly as far as I’m concerned. I think this is an attitude that a lot of young creators share: Give us the ability to collaborate, comment, borrow, and remix, but when it comes time for us to sell our own original works make sure we can still get paid.
On its face, the Pirate party seems to support artists like me. They talk about fostering creativity and interactivity through copyright reform and embracing new technology, which is all well and good. But remember: These are the same people who run the Pirate Bay, the world’s largest illegal bit torrent tracker. The party is tightly knit with the site’s recently jailed moderators, and the party’s membership numbers surge with news of their ongoing legal troubles. Considered in context, it seems clear that the Pirate party is more concerned with protecting the users of its website than the creative people who generate its content. They’re more interested in stealing movies and video games than they are in “encouraging culture”.
Nevertheless, there are aspects of the Pirate party’s platform that ring true. The whole Lawrence Lessig “remix culture" is indeed a real thing, and it’s only going to become more prominent moving into the future. The law can either adapt to embrace changing ideas of authorship, or it can resist them and risk creating a permission-based culture that silences young creators in favour of established ones and their publishing companies.