Culture Enriches Everything: Fair Use And The Office Time Machine

from the culture-good dept

If you’re looking for proof that new cultural works speak to and are embedded within a vast array of pre-existing works and ideas, you can’t do much better than “The Office Time Machine,” a new art project by video remix artist Joe Sabia. Over the course of the last 18 months, Sabia has isolated every pop culture and real world reference from the US television show “The Office,” and arranged them by the date of the events, people, and media they reference. It’s much more fun to look at than to read about, so feel free to check it out before reading on.

All the cultural references from 1988 in The Office

It’s an impressive piece of technical work, and it will certainly be interesting for fans of the Office to see the incredible range of allusions embedded in the show—Sabia clipped out and identified over 1,300 from 9 seasons of the program. But it also makes an important point about copyright and culture, and is itself a perfect demonstration of how certain assumptions baked into our current law are out of line with reality.

This isn’t Sabia’s first time pushing the boundaries of those assumptions. He’s got an impressive portfolio of video work, much of which relies heavily on the fair use doctrine, like this supercut of every cigarette smoked in the series Mad Men. But “The Office Time Machine” makes the point even more explicitly: the show is better for its ability to refer to and incorporate a common culture. As Sabia puts it on the project page:

Culture enriches everything. The Office is relatable (and hilarious) because it borrows so much from culture, and people get the references. Culture is society’s collected knowledge, art, and customs. It’s what surrounds us and unites us, and it allows us to collectively laugh at a joke in The Office about Ben Franklin or M. Night Shyamalan. Culture, simply put, is the seasoning in a meal.

That’s a great point, and it’s a valuable message for art to deliver.

But here’s another message: to make this work, Sabia had to run a legal gauntlet—one that would discourage many artists. For one, to get the source videos in high quality, Sabia rented and ripped every episode of “The Office” on DVD. DVDs come with digital restrictions management software installed. Even if the intended use is a fair one, as in this case, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) prohibits circumventing that DRM.

There’s a bit of a safety valve, fortunately: the Librarian of Congress is authorized to grant exemptions for appropriate purposes. EFF has been fighting to expand that safety valve for years, and one of the exemptions EFF successfully fought for in the last round was for ripping DVDs and online streams for non-commercial remixes, giving artists like Sabia some breathing room to engage in his work. We quoted Sabia in our testimony for the exemption, and cited his work with ACLU documenting the media narratives surrounding the War on Drugs.

The exemption puts Sabia in the clear, but highlights an issue with the rule making process: if the exemptions must be reviewed from scratch every three years, it can be dangerous to take on a long project like “The Office Time Machine,” which took 18 months to create.

Then, once the artist has gotten the materials together, they can face lots of fear, uncertainty, and doubt about whether their use can be considered fair. There are plenty of examples where fair use is abundantly clear, and courts can find fair use even when the new work is commercial, or copies the entire original, or enables people to make their own copies.

Taking portions of a work and rearranging them for a totally transformative purpose is a classic fair use, but courts have sometimes imposed additional limits. In one such example, a court in the Harry Potter Lexicon case sided mostly with author J. K. Rowling against a publisher selling a fan encyclopedia incorporating text from the book.

Finally, while “The Office Time Machine” will hopefully stay up and available for a long time to come, there’s the risk that an algorithmic copyright cop like YouTube’s ContentID will remove or flag the videos that make it up. Even if the law is on Sabia’s side, an automated match could force him to go through the site’s appeal process just to keep the video up. Video artist Jonathan McIntosh faced that situation last year when a fair use remix of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Twilight movie series was flagged by Lionsgate Pictures.

EFF is working on making it easier and safer for people like Sabia to make and share works like “The Office Time Machine.” As lawmakers and the public continue to review copyright law, we should aspire to a policy that would foster works like this—not inhibit them.

Reposted from EFF’s Deep Links blog.

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Comments on “Culture Enriches Everything: Fair Use And The Office Time Machine”

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jupiterkansas (profile) says:

I wouldn’t be surprised if The Office lawyers licensed every one of those references – not because they had to but because they think that’s how it should be done, and anyone that references The Office should do the same. And their reasons are always “to protect us from lawsuits.”

Great system if you can afford it (but then again, they only want people that can afford it to be in the game).

zip says:

If I want to use a short clip from “The Office Time Machine” – might I be violating the copyright of the video’s producer, the copyright of the TV show, or possibly both?

I seem to recall that a few years ago MTV was issuing DMCA claims to Youtube whenever anyone posted that short clip showing Kanye West on stage famously jerking the microphone out of Taylor Swift’s hands — even though that same clip was played repeatedly on TV stations across the country without a peep of protest from MTV.

So basically it was “fair use” for a TV news program to broadcast the clip, but apparently *not* fair use for someone to record that segment of the news broadcast and post it on Youtube.

On the other hand, it’s quite possible that MTV’s claim of copyright infringement (and hyper-aggressive enforcement of that claim on Youtube) of a 15-second clip taken from a two hour show had much more to to with “damage control” than actual copyright issues. (not unlike Uri Geller’s takedown of James Randi’s Youtube documentary by claiming copyright infringement due to a 5 second clip within it)

But until Congress passes some sort of “anti-SLAPP” law protecting fair-use rights, it seems exercising those rights will remain risky — especially on critical work.

WDS (profile) says:

What Fun

I know the purpose of this article is fair use, but the Time Machine itself is just a lot of fun. I put in 500 BC and got multiple reference for the millennium containing 500 BC.

It appears that the system automatically expands the time period to give a reasonable amount of references. I got a decade worth putting in 1840 AD, the millennium worth previously mentioned for a BC entry, and of course just a years worth for more recent times.

There was a lot of work put into this both in finding and extracting the references, but in writing the program to present them. Again “What Fun”.

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