part and parcel, bytes and biters
it's been over a month since the conference (i.e., eons in blogtime), but, having lost my initial post to an IE meltdown, i've only recently felt up to the task of re-reflecting on all the signal and noise i heard last month.
in seeking to advance the conversation about copyright and creativity, the berkman center's second signal or noise conference proposed a refreshing focus on the creative side, with plenty of artists on-hand amidst the lawyers. the prevailing feeling, if i may so assert, was that the current IP status quo operates with very little understanding of how "art" is made these days (or ever, really). (and, yes, i put "art" in quotes because i'm uncomfortable with the word, which usually serves to value certain kinds of expressions over others. i much prefer thinking in terms of "cultural practice," these days, though i'm sure a better paradigm will reveal itself before long.)
at any rate, what is at stake here is the freedom of all kinds of creators--self-appointed artists and other "producers" of various media--to do what they do. the copyright crusaders will argue that one needs a system of incentives in order for creation (or the sharing of creations) to happen at all. that system of incentives, as currently defined, deals with one's ownership of the expression of an idea. (and not, mind you, the idea itself--as a number of conference-goers noted, one does not "lose" an idea by sharing it with others.)
fundamental to the conference's implicit challenge to the copyright status quo is an acknowledgment that no invention, no creation ever really comes from nowhere. (unless you believe in "intelligent design" or some such nonsense. really, what is wrong with kansas?) thus, one term that was thrown around at the conference was "sequential innovation"--a term that, seemingly, seeks to validate a certain, common type of innovation that builds on previous innovations. while such a term might serve to correct the common sense of certain IP indoctrinees, i think it creates a more serious problem by implying that there is any such thing as "non-sequential innovation," thus ultimately reinforcing a status quo that believes in and values a totally imaginary kind of creativity.
fortunately, most of the artists, musicians, critics, and academics--and even some of the lawyers--seemed to affirm that, in their own experience (or that of their clients or "subjects"), the creative process takes place not in a vaccuum but in a cultural context--a context created by previous creators and their inspiring works. we heard example after example of this sort of thing, from mike doughty reflecting on his songwriting process to michael bell-smith demonstrating, quite audibly, the ways that music-making software turn even the most recognizable sounds into raw materials. we also heard stories about the absurdity of the copyright regime and the ways that "ownership" operates on artists--my favorite was the one where george clinton gets sued for sampling himself. (bridgeport music, the "publishing company" that "owns" most of clinton's back catalog--not to mention many other funk classics that they knew they could clean-up on in the sampling age--has instigated over 800 suits against artists/labels they allege are using "illegal samples" from "their" catalog. [sorry again about the quotes, but i really can't validate this bullshit.])
the best examples from the conference, in my opinion, took the form of clearly derivative works that, nonetheless, demonstrated themselves to be clearly "original" creations, and thus argued for their own existence in a most convincing, compelling, and artistic manner. my favorites of these are:
1) the grey video - a mashup video to accompany one of dangermouse's grey album tracks; very skillfully done and very entertaining. the world would be worse-off without this in it. no doubt. the amount of joy that i and my friends and my students have derived from it is enough.
2) red vs. blue - an example of the emerging (or is it exploding?) medium known as machinima, red vs. blue imagines the existential dialogue between characters of a popular video game. and it's hilarious. i was heartened to learn that a number of video game producers are now enabling this sort of thing by making their code more easily "hackable," in a sense, and even including modules for creating one's own facial expressions for characters.
of course, we were also pointed to new works making these same arguments in a more rhetorical manner: films such as copyright criminals, books such as kembrew mcleod's freedom of expression, and, of course, the ever-illuminating words and works of siva vaidhyanathan.
my own talk at the conference was intended to demonstrate that reggae and hip-hop provide ample examples of the same phenomenon: building on, riffing on, signifyin(g) on, versioning, sampling, and otherwise alluding/referring to other people's musical ideas in the creation of new music. rather than simply seeking to show that this kind of practice is something one "happens" to find in hip-hop and reggae, i argued that such practices are, in fact, part and parcel of hip-hop and reggae expression (not to mention just about any other style of music). really, there is no hip-hop or reggae without, not just the music of the past but, an active dialogue with the music of the past. to make my points, i used my favorite ol' riddim, the mad mad, to illustrate the various ways that reggae and hip-hop artists have made use of music of the past. of course, this takes various forms, from homage to ironic quotation to afro-caribbean cultural politics to the invocation of tradition or the simple use of a shared musical-vocabulary. one would be hard-pressed to tell the roots radics that they couldn't re-lick an old studio one favorite (which is like telling charlie parker not to play over the rhythm changes), or to tell krs-one that he can't quote yellowman in order to represent the boogie-down to the fullest, or to tell tupac that he can't attempt to skewer biggie smalls by quoting biggie's quotation of krs/yellowman, or to tell tego calderon that he can't mobilize an afro-puerto-rican identity or praise ganja or ask "what good's bling-bling if it ain't got that swing?" by sampling the mad mad, replaying bdp's beat, and invoking an old duke ellington tune. that's just how music is made. plain and simple. can't stop won't stop.
but don't take my word for it, take my word for it. that is, feel free to give a listen. my talk has now been uploaded, so any of y'all that would like to hear it, complete with sound clips (and a few too many um's, perhaps), can do so here: real audio stream / mp3 download.