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Fair Use And Remixing Post-Literate Thought


There will be no laughter. No enjoyment of any kind. As Laurie Anderson once said, “sit bolt upright in your straight-backed chair, and button that top button,” the words, images and videos assembled on this page are for the purpose of either commentary, criticism or education. Please keep this in mind as you “read.”

Good evening. Welcome to Difficult Music Hour.
The spot on your dial for that relentless and
impenetrable sound of difficult music [music, music, music]
So sit bolt upright in that straight-backed chair,
button that top button
and get set for some difficult music:

Laurie Anderson
Difficult Listening Hour

Sequences of letters, especially in the form of typography, have the wonderful quality of hiding their origins. We dip our hand into the cloth bag, pull out some scrabble tiles and fashion words which we string together into original sentences. The audience’s attention is misdirected, and we magically produce language out of thin air. Images and sounds, on the other hand, betray their origins— collaged or remixed, we recognize the original context. It’s a snippet of this song, a clip from that movie, or a fragment of a rather famous photograph.

Even text has taken on the attributes of recorded media. Printed sequences of words become an image of text. An image that can be matched to other images to determine whether a particular flow of words actually manifested ex nihilo or was, in fact, a photocopy of previously recorded material. Mike Masnick asks whether King Lear could be written under current legal conditions— its sources are legendary. As the digital swallows all other media, we can see, with eventualities like Google Wave, text will be recorded as it is typed— with instant universal playback at our finger tips.

I remember you typing that letter to me. I watched as the characters filled in one by one— moving across my screen. You mispelled the word “ambidextrous” and the spell checker caught it in real time. The rhythm of the typing was hypnotic. I play it back often, just to watch the letters dance.

If images, video and sound were to be embedded in the substance of a stream of thought, could the thinker be sued for copyright infringement? And could that stream really be called thought? If there is such a thing as post-literate thought, and it has a beat you can dance to— what would distinguish it from music? But the more important question is: is it really necessary to keep music/video/images out of thought? It’s a  question first seriously addressed in the conflicts of Byzantium between the iconoclasts and the iconodules.

Kurt Weibers, in his Marshall McLuhan Remix, takes some of these issues head on. The project is presented in three parts and is well worth your time. Although please keep in mind that these videos are for your edification only, any enjoyment, finger snapping or inappropriate context switching could put Mr. Weibers in legal trouble. So, button your top button, and press to play…

An interesting coda to Mr. Weibers’s production is the revelation of his correspondence with YouTube over the use of samples from a song recorded by the Talking Heads, called “Take Me To The River.” The epilogue [3/3] of the work was blocked by YouTube, and Mr. Weibers disputed the action based on the definitions of  fair use in the copyright act. YouTube responded quickly and unblocked the video.

These questions are not simple ones. While it’s true that the remix is the medium of our time, the issues permeating the economics of the transition are very serious. When the value of music was thought to be price one could charge to see a performance, signing a recording contract that paid a small fixed fee for the session seemed to make sense. We have yet to discover the economics of the remix, but discover them we must.

Published in collaboration digital economics language looping media performance