His observations are astute. If you work in the creative industries, his recommendations for the future of copyright law may provoke, dismay, shock, delight or inspire you. It really depends on your point of view.
I’d like to mention Lessig here because, whether you like him or not, you cannot ignore the remix, mash-up and reappropriation mindset which totally pervades our culture right now.
If you’re a writer, artist, musician, photographer, record label, song publisher, book publisher, production company or TV channel, his work will in some way already intersect with what you do.
Here’s an interview between Lessig and presenter Stephen Colbert, originally broadcast on US television on 8th January 2009. If you’re not familiar with Colbert, his signature deadpan style can be an acquired taste. It’s better to view this whole clip as a stunt, for reasons I’ll describe below.
Certainly Lessig has a lot of insightful things to say but, in among the joking from Colbert, you won’t get the subtleties here. You get a mere taste of what’s in his new book, simply entitled Remix.
It’s somewhat ironic that an early copy of this video stream was removed at the request of Viacom, who – despite what Colbert or Lessig might say – are the actual owners of the footage. If you’ll recall, Viacom fought an expensive legal battle with YouTube to assert just that, with regard to hundreds of other clips.
So if it has been taken down by the time you read this, in the clip Colbert repeatedly tells us NOT to remix the clip.
Of course, in keeping with his affected comic personality, Colbert is in full knowledge that he’s baiting the bedroom video editors and remixers around the globe.
These are people familiar with music sampling (whether via hip-hop records, Fatboy Slim or Kylie), copying, parodies, re-edits, homages, music mash-ups, LOLcats, Banksy… and much more. Oh, and Sleeveface.
Original is best right? Well, not always.
Besides, what original version? Back in my schooldays I originally heard the tune Can I Kick It? by A Tribe Called Quest years before discovering the original source of the bassline, Take A Walk On The Wildside by Lou Reed. This was my first awareness that digital sampling was taking place in music – which blew my young mind. (I learned about the intricacies of copyright law much later.)
Back to Lessig and Colbert – and it wasn’t long before the remixes did appear.
Here’s one unofficial remix of the Colbert clip with Lessig. At the time of writing, YouTube alone has 17 search results for “colbert lessig remix”.
I can’t vouch for the quality or content of any of these DIY remixes. That’s a job for the vociferous YouTube commenters. But we do know that the remixes are reaching people who would never have seen the original programme. People who had never previously heard of Colbert or Lessig.
Marketing people, take note.
All this may explain why rap artists often put out acappella versions of their tracks, usually on the official release. Remix-friendly stuff! Let’s face it, hip-hop is a genre of excellent marketers and self-promoters.
We live in a world where a large section of the population feels that they “own” their favourite songs, books and shows. Of course, when copyright law is taken into consideration this is technically mistaken. And there are huge problems with this. Copyright is not only a legal structure which allows revenue generation but one which protects moral rights.
But what happens if we forget about the problems for a moment? There are opportunities here.
What if we could get the marketing department and the legal department to trade places? If only for one day?
Actually let’s forget about monetising, owning or controlling views of a particular piece of content. Again, this is just for a moment and just for a thought experiment. Let’s imagine one of the best items of work from your catalogue being deliberately released in a different way.
What if the ONLY thing we cared about was having people consume and spread that piece of content? And then to adapt it, re-appropriate it or engage with it? Imagine it. Colbert did, can you?
I have so many more intriguing examples to share. But let’s leave this open for now.