Tribute and comment v. stealing ideas

MULTIMEDIA: Sally Gross, University of Westminster, discusses the idea of recycled or renewed art

READ: Tribute artists and political remixers defend their transformative works.

Should a work that is built of the creative products of others ever be called original? Political remixers and transformative artists would say an emphatic yes.

Taking clips from popular films to represent a century old anti-Arab bias in Hollywood; protesting Geoge Bush or lauding Obama; bringing together Buffy and Edward Cullen - last decades's coolest vampire slayer and this season's most lusted after vampire - to make a statement about feminism.

Or just telling a popular story from the point of view of a largely ignored character in someone else's fiction - all examples of either political remixes or ‘transformative works.’

The US Supreme Court defines a transformative use as one that “adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the [source] with new expression, meaning, or message."

“It’s new and it challenges social norms and myths about societies,” says Jonathan McIntosh, political remixer and author of the viral Buffy-Cullen video on his website.

“Artistically, they are often highly skilled, handcrafted, and personal artistic responses to mass media cultural products like television shows, and films,” says Francesca Coppa, representative of the Organization For Transformative Works.

Representing women and minorities

Historically, the transformative works movement among fans of popular media has been especially strong among women and minorities. Experts believe it has become culturally significant in getting their voices heard.

According to a paper published by Mary Ellen Curtin, fan historian and member of the Star Trek fan community herself, 83% of publishers and writers were female during the first wave of Star Trek fanzines (magazines with material by fans) between 1967 and 1971.  

“Mainstream culture rarely talks to them directly or making works that cater to their tastes, especially in the still heavily male-dominated areas of action-adventure, science fiction and fantasy,” says Francesca.

“The ‘common wisdom’ is that women don't like these genres, but that isn't my experience at all. We love action and science fiction, but we also want more emphasis on interpersonal relationships, better depictions of and larger roles for women and minorities. We get these from fan fiction, fan art, [fan]vids, and other transformative works.”

A similar need for expression is believed to have led to the rise of urban music in minority communities, such as hip hop in the US and more recently, grime in the UK.

Artist DJ Shadow has been quoted as saying, “Cutting and pasting is the essence of what hip-hop culture is all about for me. It's about drawing from what's around you, and subverting it and de-contextualizing it."

Piracy, plagiarism or transformation?

According to experts on copyright, such as Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, these works challenge ideas of authorship and redefine what is considered as ‘original’ creative content.

The creation of transformative works involves the art of ‘sampling’. In music, this involves using audio from bits and pieces of existing media to create new songs or new mash-ups.

However, samples used are more often than not under copyright. The political and social worth of the resulting material is not always clear,  and thus, these works are often the subject of copyright claims.

Obtaining a license from media companies to use the songs is expensive.  And if the purpose of the transformative work is critique, the permission may well be denied.

Artists like Negativeland, Public Enemy and Shut Up and Dance (UK) have been embroiled in copyright infringement claims for using unauthorised samples. The artists from the US have defended their works as ‘fair use’, but with mixed results.


Next: Fans in trouble for copyright infringement.

Previous: What happened when rock group Nine Inch Nail encouraged fans to remix their music?




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