Monday, March 3, 2008

Anti-authority culture and the mashup

My mother, a sweet and kind first grade teacher, tells the story of being so naïve that when she first saw the bumper stickers “Question Authority” in the 1960's, she assumed it meant that the individual in the car was an authority on questions. My father, an autocratic artist and self-proclamied socialist who chaired the UCLA art department for a record thirteen years, took a very different stance. His attitude that no one should be presumed to deserve ultimate control was reinforced by an episode when I came home from school having committed some perceived misdeed in a class where I was otherwise scoring top grades. The teacher sent home a slip of paper describing my failure in conduct to my parents. My father discussed the situation with me, heard my side of the story, and responded to the teacher by writing on the back of the slip, “Nonny tells me that YOU do” such and such. It was a lesson that generally (although not always) served me well in my journalistic career – never trust that having a title equates having rightful authority.

It is not surprising, therefore, that I am enjoying reading about the antics of early computer programmers described in Steven Levy’s book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. The first machines were locked away from those young programmers and they had to go through a series of “priests”, doorkeepers, who would take their punch cards from them and feed them into the computers. The frustration these programmers felt at not being able to really tinker or get their hands ON, to be stopped by such baseless authority, helped create a mentality that is summed up in what Levy describes as the tenets of the hacker:

• Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race or position
• You can create art and beauty on a computer
• Computers can change your life for the better
• People shouldn’t have to pay for software – information should be free

So that brings us straight to how that culture still permeates the digerati and why they battle copyright. DEATH TO THE AUTHORITARIAN GATEKEEPERS!

I’ve had a film of mine "Unconstitutional," mashed up for use by someone else -- none other than USC professor Steve Anderson. When he showed it to me, I was thrilled – it meant the message of the film was going to live on, even if in a kind of Chinese whispers sort of way, altered beyond recognition. Interestingly, Steve and his cohort on the project (and wife), Holly Willis, just won $61,000 from the MacArthur foundation to build “Critical Commons” – you guessed it, a site devoted to issues surrounding fair use. (You can get the skinny at: MacArthur Winners or at the IML website.)

Steve mashed up my footage as part of his anti-MPAA piece which parodies the “You wouldn’t steal a handbag campaign.”

(If you haven’t been tortured by the MPAA message which is even embedded on children DVDS - too violent for my kids -- watch it here.)

I enjoy Anderson's irony of mashing up footage to spoof the MPAA message but I decided I should explore the issue further. However, I found myself again and again agreeing with Anderson -- and Lessig -- that copyright issues have been co-opted by the larger entities, especially given how little they actually pay writers and creators. The blog copyfight wrote a great commentary on a February 15 article in the LA. Times:

“To say that [the studios] lie, cheat, and defraud doesn't begin to cover it. In this case the victim is one Deborah Gregory and the villain is Disney but the same story could be told hundreds of times - just change the names and it's the same again and again. In this case Gregory started as a successful but naive author, then signed with Disney for 4% of net. After two movies, millions of CD and DVD sales, and god-knows-how-much spin-off merchandising, Gregory has gotten exactly nothing for any of this. In fact, Disney won't even give her statements showing revenue and expenses that would allow her to pursue her share of the profits. As the Times piece points out Hollywood has been using shady accounting and unfair contract terms to screw people for decades. They have all the power, especially when dealing with newcomers, and they use it shamelessly. Keep that in mind the next time they cry about how much money they're losing to "piracy"; I'm not a big fan of theft, but I sure do love schadenfreude.”

Here’s a little more scholarship from American University on fair use that came out just this past fall that adds to the argument:
The Cost of Copyright Confusion for Media Literacy -
Educators today have no consensus around what constitutes acceptable fair use practices. The report concludes with a call for educators to develop a consensus around their interpretation of their most valuable copyright tool: fair use.
Download full report here.

It seems Harvard University faculty agreed, having just voted for open access on all of their papers. (Read more at the blog If:Book: A project of the Institute for the Future of the Book.)

However, whatever the academics may be saying and doing, their work isn’t as much at issue. So I leave with a Cory Doctorow piece in the UK Guardian: "Copyright law should distinguish between commercial and cultural uses."

Finally, just for the fun of it: a parody of the Yes We Can video substituting McCain as the candidate called

And if you've made it this far, just to let you know I have fixed my problems with the DIY 24/7 conference blog. A couple of fun things to watch if you want and now I've got the html,xml etc for the blog down pat! I hope...

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