Kutiman's "Thru-You" Mashes Up Copyright Concepts
It's an ingenious mash-up cooked together by an Israeli musician who calls himself Kutiman. He spent weeks finding YouTube videos with sample-worthy bits he could splice together -- and not just as audio clips, but as video snippets playing alongside each other. It's a remarkable feat of after-the-fact conductorship.
It's also a situation that our copyright laws may not quite address fairly. Two things about this video seem inarguable:
1) Kutiman took a lot of other people's work without permission (though he does credit and link to them on his site);
2) The results are fabulously creative and amount to far more than the sum of their constituent bitstreams.
I don't know that the existence of this video demonstrates that all of our existing concepts of copyright have become obsolete, as Stanford law professor/author/copyright-reform advocate Larry Lessig suggests. But it does point out that the longstanding "fair use" doctrine, which allows for the reuse of copyrighted material for some limited purposes, doesn't cover what happens when you build a new creative work entirely or largely out of snippets of other people's work -- a task that was painful or impossible before computers, but now within the reach of anybody with the right consumer-level software.
In some ways, Kutiman's video is an easier case to judge; you can hear enough of many of its samples to identify them. But what if somebody cooks up a work of art based on unidentifiable ingredients? Back in 2005, I watched Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee and funk godfather George Clinton debate this issue at a conference in D.C. Shocklee played increasingly short snippets of a song and wondered how much he should pay for the right to use each sample, as commercial hip-hop artists routinely do. Eventually, only a fraction of a note was left. "Am I stealing your performance... or am I just looking for the sound?" Shocklee asked.
More recently, the artist Shepard Fairey has run into a similar issue for his iconic painting of Barack Obama, modeled after an Associated Press photograph that nobody recognized as the source until months after the painting's release.
I suspect that at this point, some of you are saying "Rob, are you nuts?! You're a writer! Without copyright protection, your work could be stolen by anyone!"
My response to that would be that because I'm a writer, I want to have a little creative flexibility. I hate cliches and take great pride in being able to come up with a turn of phrase nobody else has used before, but sometimes I can make my point more effectively by reusing somebody else's three or four-word phrasing in some new way. I also don't want to have a squad of copyright lawyers clear everything I write before publication.
That may not be the easiest distinction to write into law. But how will trying to account for every single reuse of copyrighted material not lead us into a quagmire of unending litigation? How will that promote the progress of the arts?
Those of you who observed yesterday with a glass of Irish whiskey may be familiar with the term "the angels' share"-- the whiskey that evaporates out of the barrel while it ages. I will end this little essay with by borrowing the wonderful analogy I heard a few months ago from Old Dominion University media-studies professor Tim Anderson. There's always going to be some uncompensated, yet creative reuse of other people's work -- sampling, mash-ups, maybe something we haven't thought of yet -- and in a sane copyright system, you have to let that go as the angels' share.
March 18, 2009; 12:40 PM ET
Categories: Digital culture , Music
Save & Share: Previous: Apple Previews iPhone 3.0 Software
Next: Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 Springs Forward, Falls Back
Posted by: Bush--notrelated | March 19, 2009 6:07 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: gyniahouse | March 19, 2009 8:03 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: jamshark70 | March 19, 2009 8:46 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: GWGOLDB | March 19, 2009 10:26 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: channing1 | March 19, 2009 10:39 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: washpostdh | March 19, 2009 4:00 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: washpostdh | March 19, 2009 4:03 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: washpostdh | March 19, 2009 4:10 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: j24w | March 19, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: channing1 | March 19, 2009 5:22 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Joran | March 19, 2009 5:54 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: channing1 | March 19, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: robpegoraro | March 19, 2009 5:59 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: channing1 | March 19, 2009 10:37 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: channing1 | March 19, 2009 10:54 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: sasha_j | March 20, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.