Our Inability To Recognize That Remixing Art Is Transformative Is Now Leading To Today’s AI/Copyright Mess
from the everything-is-a-remix,-even-ai dept
If you’ve never watched it, Kirby Ferguson’s “Everything is a Remix” series (which was recently updated from the original version that came out years ago) is an excellent look at how stupid our copyright laws are, and how they have really warped our view of creativity. As the series makes clear, creativity is all about remixing: taking inspiration and bits and pieces from other parts of culture and remixing them into something entirely new. All creativity involves this in some manner or another. There is no truly unique creativity.
And yet, copyright law assumes the opposite is true. It assumes that most creativity is entirely unique, and when remix and inspiration get too close, the powerful hand of the law has to slap people down. As such, copyright is often anti-creative. It is designed to slap down those whose creativity reveals just a little too openly how the sausage is made.
Most often, the slapping down of creativity targets marginalized creators who don’t have the power to stand up and speak out. This is why the recording industry only seemed to really get worried about copyright law locking down entire styles of music once popular white artists started getting sued.
Of course, back in the 80s and 90s, when it was mostly black hip hop artists getting sued for sampling, there was much less concern outside of specific music communities, and we’d get ridiculous court rulings that refused to consider things like fair use at all.
It would have been nice if society had taken this issue seriously back then, recognized that “everything is a remix,” and that encouraging remixing and reusing the works of others to create something new and transformative was not just a good thing, but one that should be supported. If so, we might not be in the utter shitshow that is the debate over generative art from AI these days, in which many creators are rushing to AI to save them, even though that’s not what copyright was designed to do, nor is it a particularly useful tool in that context.
However, as we’ve explained, the legacy gatekeeper middlemen (whom copyright was designed to benefit over the actual creatives) have spent so many decades pushing propaganda and nonsense about how copyright was the only tool by which creatives could protect themselves (all while using that strengthened copyright to enrich the gatekeepers, while exploiting the creatives) that many people don’t quite realize how they’re playing into the hands of the biggest companies by demanding copyright come to the rescue.
I was thinking about all of this in reading a recent piece by musicologist Toni Aittoniemi, highlighting how AI art is also a form of remix, while similarly noting that if we had properly established that remixing to create art is not only legitimate, but basically a necessary piece of how culture works, that these debates wouldn’t be so fraught.
The moral panic is largely an epistemological crisis: We don’t have a socially acceptable status for the legibility of the remix as art-in-it’s-own-right. Instead of properly appreciating the remix and the art of the DJ, the remix, or the meme cultures, we have shoehorned all the cultural properties associated onto an 1800’s sheet music publishing -based model of artistic credibility. The fit was never really good, but no-one really cared because the scenes were small, underground and their breaking the rules was largely out-of-sight. In the case of Hip-Hop music, the issues of licensing beats were pushed into the background, while the rapper took the mantelpiece of ”the original artist”. Controversies with sampling were discussed as anomalies, from which culture largely rubber-banded back into the old model.
As Aittoniemi notes, perhaps this is a chance for us to correct the wrongs of what happened with copyright in the past few decades:
I concur that the AI art tools are simply resurfacing an old problem we left behind unresolved during the 1980’s to early 2000’s. Now it’s time for us to blow the dust off these old books and apply what was learned to the situation we have at our hands now.
We should not forget the modern electronic dance music industry has already developed models that promote new artists via remixes of their work from more established artists. These real-world examples combined with the theoretical frameworks above should help us to explore a refreshed model of artistic credibility, where value is assigned to both the original artists and the authors of remixers, who use their originals to tell a new story, fitting the particular life-story of the particular viewer. Like a deejay spins just the tracks you needed to hear at that particular night of your life at that particularly important moment, the value of the experience encapsulates both the original artform and it’s application to the particular context.
To fully appreciate and integrate AI art in our culture, we cannot rely only on our established models of artistry and credibility. From what was once only a fringe endeavor of collague or plunderphonics artists, mass production tools have forged a mainstream phenomenon. This is however, not our first contact with art like this, and we do have the theoretical frameworks available to form a new class of art, if we reach just a little further into the long corridors of university libraries and humanities departments for them.
From there, the suggestion is that rather that the focus should be on the transformation and how it adds value:
Art, especially popular forms of it, has always been a lot about transformation: Taking what exists and creating something that works in this particular context. In forms of art emphasizing the distinctiveness of the original less, transformation becomes the focus of the artform instead. In electronic dance music, the songs do sound good by themself but the complete artform only becomes visible when hundreds to thousands of people assemble together in a remote location and set up a festival. In the context of the festival’s (or a techno club’s for that matter) transformation function all the artforms meet and become more than the sum of their parts. And should we then assign the transformation function artistic value itself, we can also see that the festival itself is an artform that keeps repeating and transforming previous festivals to best fit to the current particular situation, and that the repetition of this process is the lifeblood of all the artforms that make it up in return.
The process above is healthy when the transformation function adds value.
There are a lot of questions about how that would actually work in practice, but I do think this is a useful framework for thinking about some of these questions, challenging some existing assumptions, and trying to rethink the system into one that is actually helping creators and helping to enable more art to be created, rather than trying to leverage a system originally developed to provide monopolies to gatekeepers into one that is actually beneficial to the public who want to experience art, and creators who wish to make art.