Last night I watched a favourite old episode of The Simpsons, titled The Day the Violence Died. The basic plot summary goes something like this: Bart and Lisa meet a homeless man named Chester J. Lampwick who claims to have conceived the idea for Springfield’s famous Itchy and Scratchy cartoon television show. Lampwick convinces the children of his claim by showing a grainy old black and white cartoon reel in which a mouse named Itchy and an unnamed cat sailing down the river on a steamboat when suddenly Itchy pulls out a gun and shoots the unsuspecting cat. The children can see similarities between Lampwick’s cartoon and Itchy and Scratchy and as a result feel that Lampwick deserves recognition as the rights holder for imagining the concept of Itchy and Scratchy. A hilarious court battle ensues and Itchy and Scratchy chairman Roger Myers Jr. is found guilty of copyright breach and ordered to pay excessive damages to Lampwick. The court battle bankrupts Myers and Lampwick suddenly becomes rich.
Lampwick is, of course, a fictionalised version of Mickey Mouse co-creator Ub Iwerks. Iwerks was an American animated who was responsible for the design and animation of Disney’s Mickey Mouse. Iwerks work on Disney’s most iconic, and lucrative character left an immeasurable mark on the film industry (and Walt Disney’s hip-pocket), yet history routinely fails to acknowledge this contribution, instead it is Disney who is afforded the accolades.
As I sat watching this episode I began to think about the contradictory nature of copyright in the information age; an age dominated by the internet. The Internet is a copy machine at its most fundamental level. Every message, video, photo, or meme that you see online is a copy. Gone are the days where creating a perfect copy involved laborious tinkering with a printing press or a cd burner. The internet allows files to be shared instantaneously all across the globe with the click of a button, all without diminishing the quality of the original content. Content now flows freely through the web as users share files with the greatest of ease.
The pervasive new world of media sharing and copying has brought about immense changes to the way we copy and share files, yet copyright structures have not kept up. Rather, we find ourselves in a paradigm where the flow of content online is at odds with existing copyright laws. Internet users are prosuming content by remixing, reworking, reinterpreting and reimagining existing content. The formerly atomised, passive, media consumers have now become active content creators. Dr. Ted Mitew refers to these prosumers as “the people formerly known as the audience”. Media Prosumers may be seen as the media consumers of the twenty-first century.
If media users have become prosumers, copyright law has become a regulator of media use. Realistically I could go on all day about how ridiculous it is to apply 20th-centuryry copyright laws to 21st century media consumption habits, but instead I will pose a quote by media scholar Clay Shirky that I think sums up the situation very well.
What we need is a government willing to say “Copyright is and has always been a bargain between creating a market for creative work to create incentives, and creating a cultural commons to create value for the citizens,” and then start reasoning about how such a bargain will be worked out in a world with an Internet.
Essentially Shirky is suggesting that we would benefit from abolishing existing copyright structure, instead looking to find a model that protects financial incentives for content creators, whilst simultaneously acknowledging and embracing the cultural capital of internet media prosuming. The regulation imposed upon creative processes by current copyright structures is a hindrance to our social capital (which I would argue is vastly more important than economic capital).
There are examples of artists and creative who are bucking the trend and embracing internet sharing and prosuming culture whilst still earning a living in the process. One such example is Slovenian music producer Gramatik. Not only does Gramatik sample other people’s works to create his music, he also encourages users to download, remix, and play his music for free. Recently, Gramatik published his entire downloadable discography for people to download for free via a partnership with BitTorrent. After downloading the file multiple users were notified by Time Warner that they were committing an offence by downloading Gramatik’s music, even though the artist himself had permitted fans to do so. This example highlights the ludicrous nature of current day copyright structures. Gramatik decided that giving his music away for free would result in a positive outcome for both himself and his fans, yet the antiquated pre-internet copyright laws still attempted to prohibit fans from obtaining this content. For more information on this baffling tale click here.
The examples provided by Clay Shirky, Gramatik, Copyright and Prosumer culture all share a common theme: media regulation. The copyright laws that we still live under are regulating our media use and inhibiting our ability to harness our full creativity online. The reason I pointed to The Simpsons at the top of this article was that it epitomizes the potential of remix culture. Roger Myers Jr. may have shared, remixed, or even stolen the concept for Itchy and Scratchy from Chester J. Lampwick, but the end result was the production of a concept that would not have otherwise seen the light of day. Lampwick deserved some level of credit for imagining a concept, but Myers should not be severely punished for bringing the idea to fruition. Myers Remixed Lampwick’s Itchy and Scratchy concept much to the disdain of copyright law-makers and the cultural fabric of Springfield is stronger for Myers having done so. In the same regard, the cultural fabric of our world will benefit significantly from altering our current copyright structures to accommodates the copy-machine we know as the internet.