Watching Kirby Fergueson’s ‘Everything is a Remix‘, as well as his other videos, and reading Lessig’s book ‘Free Culture‘, one points seems to come up time and time again. Creators have always borrowed, or outright stolen from the ideas of others. Many of Ferguson’s suggestions came from musicians in the 1960s, and refer to cases where one musician has tried to sue another for copyright of the original work.
This reminded me of a lecture I had on popular music in my first year of my music degree. Our lecturer (the wonderful Tony Bennett) was an expert in Broadside Ballads of the 18th/19th Century. These were the popular songs of the time, written and distributed on songsheets for people to sing along to as home entertainment. Here’s an example of one.
The songsheet only contains the words – after all, most people couldn’t read music. Instead of trying to provide a new tune, the composer has used an older tune (“Blithe, Blithe and Happy are we”) which audiences would be familiar with, and written newer, and in this case more politically and culturally relevant words. This practice was extremely common, as it allowed Ballad writers to churn out literally hundreds of songs in a short space of time, which would have their day and then be replaced by a new popular song, which might be based on the same tune.
There are two notable things here – one is that in the 18th/19th century there were no copyright laws to prevent this. However the introduction of enforced copyright on music doesn’t seem to have had any check on music ‘stealing’ – plus parody of a song (so keeping the original music but changing the words) generally comes under the definition of ‘fair use’, so copyright doesn’t apply.
The other is that ‘Remixing’, that is, not stealing another’s work, or taking influences and inspirations from it to create your own, but clearly changing another piece of work, while owning up to it, has always been a big part of entertainment and art. As I pointed out before, it is common practice, people even come to expect it. I agree with the point made by Simon Reynolds in his article “You are Not a Switch: Recreativity and the Dismissal of Modern Genius”. Remixing has not replaced creativity and originality, instead it stands side-by-side with it as it always has done.