When Media Becomes Culture: Rethinking Copyright Issues

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by: danah boyd

After listening to representatives from the RIAA and EFF speak past each other, i found myself frustrated at how to push the debate further.

It looks like such a religious issue (two sides who simply can't understand each other) but i have to think that there's a way of progressing the debate. I turned to Mimi and asked her what she thought. She pointed out that the most important issue is always lost in these discussions: the use of media in remix (and other "infringement") is primarily not about art or creative expression, but about communication. This hit me over the head like a hammer.

Mass media has done such a good job at embedding their copyright into culture that it has become culture itself. The watercooler effect is what happens when media becomes the bits of communication – it's what lets us share our values and interests, determine common ground, etc. Conversations swirl around TV characters, brands and movie quotes. I remember two kids in college deciding to only express themselves through Monty Python quotes in conversation. They felt that every question or comment necessary was already present in the movie. Of course, much of the language that i use is straight from media. Take a look at my posts and you'll find littered references to songs and movies, sometimes cited, sometimes not. Perhaps the language of cinema truly is universal?

With new media, we have begun to communicate using more than just words. You see LJers use different photos and animated gifs on different comments as their signature of sorts. Personalized ringtones are all about associating sounds with people, building in-jokes and cultural references into the communication channels. Hip-hop certainly has an artistic bent but there's also a long-standing tradition of telling your story. Remember mixed tapes as a way to say something to someone? Or when girls made collages out of YM magazines? Lives are littered with media and as we become adept at using it to communicate our thoughts, it will appear more and more, in spite of copyright.

To magnify the issue, our communications have become increasingly persistent. While we still produce a great deal of ephemeral communications, digital and mobile technologies make much of our communication persistent. The remixed sounds of the local club suddenly have mass appeal. But at what cost? On one hand, folks want to get their expressions out to the masses, but when their expressions include copyrighted material, they are at risk.

But with media saturating our culture, how do we express ourselves devoid of references to copyrighted material? Why can't a kid wear a hand-made iPod costume for Halloween? Why can't i tell my story through the songs that i've listened to over the years? Media is the building block of storytelling and it has become so essential to what we do.

The RIAA (and other such organizations) have been so successful at getting their media distributed that they have become culture. In turn, this means that they are the building blocks in which communication occurs. At this, they balk. Do they have the right to? Do they have the right to limit culture built on top of culture? If i want to tell my story using the cultural elements that have become a part of my life, do i need to recognize the RIAA and such as the controllers of culture? This is a dangerous limitation.

Copyright was meant to help artists get their work out. Mickey Mouse is out there; they were super successful and the copyright owners made billions. But now Mickey Mouse is culture – it symbolizes far more than Disney. Do the copyright holders have the right to control culture in this way? They've succeeded beyond most artists.

We have rights for parody and fair use, but perhaps we need to push it further, to make space for when copyright becomes culture. And then let it at the hands of the culture.

Of course, power likes to maintain power, even when it means forgetting what it was originally fighting for. The RIAA and such want to own culture – that power is so tasty. But why should we let them? When they restrict the growth of culture, they are no longer serving the people or the intentions of copyright – they are simply serving themselves. They are also unfortunately doing a good job of convincing artists that the only way to become part of culture is to go with their model. I realized that we don't need to educate the masses – we need to educate these behemoths about culture, its creation, their role and the intentions behind the laws that they've used as shield for so long.

Creative Commons is fighting the RIAA on their terms, helping cement the legal structure as is. But honestly, CC is not creating culture in the same way that mass media products are. Sure, many of us want that to be the case, but will Christina and Britney ever be CC artists? Will Fox ever make its TV shows CC? Will indie ever overcome pop? The very nature of pop is that it's about mainstream and this means buying into the power holders instead of the underdogs. That makes it really hard to overturn the cultural empire. Perhaps we should think about how to reframe the debate, focusing on the cultural output of mainstream artists rather than trying to play on their turf?

Honestly, i don't know how but i definitely agree with Mimi that the debates miss the communication and cultural sharing aspect, focusing instead on the material component.

Update: i wrote a Part Two

Original Post: http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2005/09/29/when_media_beco.html