This Song is My Song

After Texan Brad Neely watched the first Harry Potter movie, he decided to DIY it into something new, writing and performing an alternate parody soundtrack that anyone can download and play while watching the movie. In his version, Wizard People, Dear Reader, Harry, Hermione, and Ron are alcoholics and Quidditch has homoerotic undertones. His new version has been shown at the New York Underground Film Festival and the San Francisco Indie Fest.

Using elements of others' works can lead to new art, but it can also be seen as a form of poaching someone else's creative output. Others believe that remixing culture is part of a vibrant new cultural movement. One of the strongest advocates for this movement is DJ/conceptual artist Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky).

Recently, DJ Spooky has been touring, presenting his video remix of D.W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation called "Rebirth of a Nation." DJ Spooky is part of a larger cultural context for remix culture. On his web site (Djspooky.com), DJ Spooky explains that he created this new version to challenge the way people view the original film and history itself. While the original film is disturbing and racist, used as a propaganda tool by the Ku Klux Klan, DJ Spooky does not veer away from the artistic intensity of the original film. "Repressing memory is not a good way to make sure that we learn from the mistakes of the past," he said in a phone interview.

"DJing helps people view collective memory, to help us understand how we create culture from digital memory. [Remixing culture helps us] to have tools to think of the present and to understand the past. The hardest part is for America to live up to its ideals ... which is due to lack of awareness of history." In addition to remixing Birth of a Nation, DJ Spooky has remixed the Blue Series, an influential jazz release, into "Celestial Mechanix." He also plans to continue to remix films – his next film-based project is a remix of Nazi-era propagandist Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will.

Remixes aren't always done with artistic motivations, but can sometimes just serve as the results of a frustrated fan armed with video editing software. Many fans of the original Star Wars trilogy who had waited almost 20 years for more movies from George Lucas were disappointed with the new movies. One anonymous fan took action in 2001, by creating "The Phantom Edit" from the movie Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, by re-editing the movie, eliminating the reviled Jar Jar Binks character and focusing on action sequences. While DJ Spooky is able to re-edit Birth of a Nation any way he wishes because the copyright has expired, those remixing more contemporary work, such as the Phantom Editor, face a host of legal entanglements.

Fan-created film remixes allow individuals to have control when previously they could only be passive participants in their fandom – now they can remix their fandom into "perfection." After all, what really makes film remixes different from adaptations – except that remixes are not always "authorized"?

Even more than video sampling, music sampling has become a ubiquitous part of our culture, but not without its own legal consequences. When the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique was released in 1989, it was considered a masterpiece of sampling, including over an estimated 200 samples. However, it took the Beastie Boys 12 years after the release of Check Your Head in 1992 to clear a six-second three-note sample of jazz flutist James Newton's composition "Choir" used in "Pass the Mic."

Once a composer of a song authorizes a recording, anyone can then record the same song – U.S. copyright law does allow for "covering" an entire song. This is how Orgy was able to cover New Order's "Blue Monday" in 1998. This is also why the profoundly creepy Kidz Bop CDs have all of your favorite adult-oriented and sexually suggestive songs sung by children, lyrics intact, such as Britney Spears' "Toxic," and Maroon 5's "This Love" ("I tried my best to feed her appetite/Keep her coming every night/So hard to keep her satisfied" and "My pressure on your hips/Sinking my fingertips/Into every inch of you/Cause I know that's what you want me to do"). What this means is if Joe Blow's punk band records a whole album of MC5 covers, the music publisher is required to give them clearance – as long as the band pays for it.

This leaves artists in the peculiar position of seeing their entire compositions redone by others without their permission, but still able to keep others from using small parts of the whole. While sampling has become accepted as a form of cultural remixing (if the right people are paid), mash-ups have become controversial.

The latest form of sampling, mash-ups, layer or twine two different songs, often of differing genres, together. Mash-ups are different from traditional sampling because they often layer two or more complete songs, rather than using small portions of a song. Most mash-ups are not legal; however, mash-ups are all over peer-to-peer networks and remix web sites. Fans and DJs have created these new songs for a variety of reasons, but originally there was no commercial potential due to potential copyright issues.

Fear of lawsuits did not keep an unauthorized mash-up of Nelly's "Work It" and AC/DC's "Back in Black" from being played extensively on several radio stations. DJ Danger Mouse created a well-publicized mash-up, "The Grey Album," from Jay-Z's The Black Album and the Beatles' White Album. In response to being threatened by the Beatles' record label, on Feb.24, 2004, (aka "Grey Tuesday") over four hundred web sites hosted MP3s of "The Grey Album."

There has recently been a wave of authorized mash-ups, with more mainstream artists finding the commercial value in using this new art form. At the Brit Awards 2002 (UK version of the Grammy Awards), Kylie Minogue performed "Can't Get Blue Monday Out of My Head," combining the lyrics of her song "Can't Get You Out of My Head" with the music to New Order's "Blue Monday." After the positive reaction to this performance by an artist loved by remixers, the music industry abandoned its resistance of this new musical form. On this side of the Atlantic, MTV recently announced the creation of a new show: "MTV Ultimate Mash-up." The first product of this show is a Jay-Z/Linkin Park collaboration – including a mash-up of Linkin Park's "Numb" and Jay-Z's "Jigga What."

An art form that was originally created by fans and DJs can now be used by corporations who have the money to clear any music that was used, but still leaves many of the non-corporate mash-ups in limbo. Like early jazz, rock, and rap artists, the innovators are not the ones who will be benefiting primarily from this new art form. While corporations will use the innovative artistic techniques and art forms created by others, when corporations own creative work, they are not as free with sharing.

Art is built on the past, but the present realities of copyright law often stand in the way of using the creative output of others in new ways. While music traditions including folk and gospel have allowed artists to copy and retell the songs of others, contemporary artists are expected to obscure how they use previous art to create their own. Directly using the work of another runs the risk of landing in court.

When a political parody web animation, JibJab, rewrote the lyrics and used the music the song, "This Land is Your Land," by Woody Guthrie, to poke fun at the presidential election, a company claimed ownership of the song's copyright.

While it turned out that the copyright had expired, the idea that "This Land is Your Land" could not be used for remixing is antithetical to the way in which the song itself was created. "This Land is Your Land" was created within the folk music tradition where artists borrowed freely from each other and earlier artists, sampling and copying considered to be part of what makes music work. According to the Electronic Freedom Foundation's web site, which includes musical samples, "Woody Guthrie lifted the melody of 'This Land Is Your Land' essentially note-for-note from 'When the World's on Fire,' a song recorded by country/bluegrass legends the Carter Family 10 years before Guthrie wrote his classic song." It is difficult for the law to fit situations like this where long-term collaboration leads to the production of music – and other creative works.

Based on the idea that new art is intrinsically linked to existing art, in late 2002 and early 2003, Stay Free magazine hosted a unique art exhibit, "Illegal Art," in New York and Chicago, composed of remixed culture. As stated in the exhibit's materials, "Borrowing from another artwork – as jazz musicians did in the 1930s and Looney Tunes illustrators did in 1940s – will now land you in court. If the current copyright laws had been in effect back in the day, whole genres such as collage, hip-hop, and Pop Art might have never have existed." This exhibit shows the vitality of remixed art, not through direct copying, but through incorporating elements from previously created art.

Culture builds upon past culture regardless of copyright law or threats of lawsuits. The latest examples of remix culture are part of a tradition that builds upon previous culture the same way that folk music, gospel music, and storytelling does. "Remixing is not destroying the original," says DJ Spooky. It is like Lego blocks, [allowing us] to build upon and reinterpret. "Another world is possible, remixing helps us see it."

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