By Jason Lipshin
Although copyright and fair use have traditionally been seen as the specialized purview of lawyers and big media conglomerates, it has become increasingly clear that such terms are beginning to hold importance for anyone and everyone who consumes and produces culture. Particularly during the last few decades, we’ve seen a massive and important transformation in who constitutes a producer, the breadth of tools used to produce, and the availability of those tools to a wider subset of the population. Over the next few weeks on this blog, I’d like to examine the terms of fair use and copyright in relation to this wider conceptualization of the producer from various perspectives, starting with some historical/theoretical background then moving into more pressing, contemporary arenas.
First off, I want to apologize for all the dry and abstract, academic history. However, at the same time, I want to underline the fact that this theory truly does seem important in order to fully understand the terms of the debate over copyright that we are having today. If we didn’t have this academic background, we might not be able to fully understand the importance of this epochal shift, and to eventually put it into action. So with that disgruntled concession, let’s begin…
In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” told us that the mystifying “aura” and monetary value surrounding the original piece of art would be destroyed as the work was mechanically reproduced, allowing it to be appropriated, added to, and recreated by anyone according to their subjectivity and context. Roland Barthes even went so far as to claim “the death of the author,” saying that the individual genius of any work was always co-authored by the particular effort and sensibility of the active reader.
Off of their model, we can conceive of copyright and intellectual property in the following way: as an institution built on particular notions of the Romantic, individual genius and “original ideas” which are totally ahistorical, and which have historically been shown to limit, rather than “protect,” the progress of knowledge (more on this in the coming weeks). Barthes and Benjamin would say that you can’t truly own an idea or call it your own or original, because ideas always build on a tradition of the past. Likewise, the artistic work is never a piece of original genius, but an amalgamation of choices from a distinct set of languages or codes, with novel juxtaposition producing the impression of what we call “originality.”
Helping to pull these valuable concepts from what he calls “the academic book store ghetto,” Henry Jenkins saw many of these same aspects in the activities of fans working within the Web 2.0 context of the internet. Terming them “prosumers” (a hybrid producer-consumer), he later expanded the breadth of the concept to describe the current “fan-ification” of the general audience that we have today. From Harry/Malfoy slash videos on Youtube to a DJ’s mash-up of her favorite songs to Shepard Fairey’s infamous appropriation of an AP photo as fodder for his Obama Hope poster, there are numerous examples of everyday consumers taking the “found objects” of pop culture and the ideas of the public domain, and creatively using them as elements of their self expression.
But then again, isn’t all creativity appropriation? How is this practice any different from the pastiche of any Quentin Tarantino film, or the tropes of any genre film for that matter? Or Picasso paying homage to African art, and making it a paradigm of modernist painting? Or even a student citing the ideas of an author as the building blocks for the rhetorical argument of her paper, much as I have done here? It would seem that, when it comes to the visual, aural, or artistic, people have a tendency to think of these works as if they were thought up out of thin air. Thus, I would argue that we need to see them not as whole pieces of raw, original expression issuing forth from the unconscious of an artist, but as texts consisting of historical tropes or codes juxtaposed in novel or interesting ways. If we can just get away from this romantic notion that every thought or art work is somehow the product of one individual, we might just realize that we are building on the foundations of our histories and each other, and that a language exists for anyone and everyone to use –not just the rarified artist of essential genius. Perhaps too, if it is acknowledged that we speak through images and music just as we speak with words, we couldn’t brand a generation that has finally taken a hold of their culture with the pejorative label of pirates or thieves….More on this next week.