Everything is Not a Remix (Vid Review)

February 4, 2015


Kirby Ferguson


Everything is a Remix


http://everythingisaremix.info/ via YouTube video



The Gist

Ferguson makes the case that all creative works and inventions are derivative from other works.
The video explores the recent histories of Western writing, music, movies, and electronic advancements.
A contrast is drawn between our apparent appetite for “remixing” with counter-productive laws and modes of society.

The Good

  • The video exposes tricks used by various industries to market derivative works as entirely original.
  • There is definite truth in the notion that to truly master an art or science, a person almost always copies prior work at some point.
  • Girl Talk is based.

The Bad

  • Ferguson claims that great ideas are simply the product of “ordinary thought” while implying that anyone is capable of them.
  • Ferguson entirely dismisses the notion of ideas as property.
  • Most examples of music sampling weren’t really that clear, and in some cases the similarity was so faint that I’d be hesitant to call it derivative.

The Questions

  • Is it really fair to say that everything is derivative?
  • Who is the arbiter of the distinction between what we consider original or a remix?
  • Not everyone has the same potential, and while it makes everyone feel good to think that, it’s simply not true.

I really like the idea of this video. The idea of making it more culturally acceptable to use derivative works and acknowledge how much they are used. Ferguson makes some good points, yet these are overshadowed by poor examples and, in some cases, ignorance of some elements of psychology. When I was experiencing Ferguson’s comparisons of Led Zeppelin and music they “sampled” from other artists, I disagreed that Led Zeppelin’s works were derivative. In many of the examples, the similarities were too intermittent, subtle, or downright altered to resemble, at least to me, the work from which they came. I’m troubled by Ferguson’s conflation of “remixing” with what I’d refer to as influential or inspiring work. Using vaguely similar instrumentals is quite different than literal sampling (i.e. the verbatim use of a prior recording). A quite egregious well-known contemporary example of sampling is “Let’s Go” by Lil’ Jon, the instrumentals of which consist of a barely altered “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne.

Star Wars is cited by Ferguson as a combination of prior ideas, with examples of similar elements from other films. I submit that this isn’t fair to the film because humans tend to enjoy a story being told in a certain way, with a balance between moments of tension and calm. This can be represented as a curve on a graph, though there is no singular graph that perfectly fits the perception of every person. Star Wars follows this general concept extremely well, as do most highly regarded stories. A reference is not the same as a sample.

The video does a great job illustrating that current laws and policies involving copyright law do more harm than good. Yet its outright dismissal of ideas as property isn’t compatible with capitalism. Like it or not we have to contribute to society for a living. Computing is my trade. It costs me time and money to form ideas and produce things. Ferguson’s correct that ideas depend on other ideas and they are intertwined and entangled with one another. Yet, tangible work goes into the production of ideas. Whether we’re talking about code or movies, a person’s labor went into the production of such a good, and in a liberalized capitalist society, the laborer is compensated.

This is what gives rise to the beauty of free and open source code. It is a fountain of knowledge for everyone involved. A fantastic showcase of one’s technical and group skills. Yet, as both a capitalist and a human, I have needs and wants. I want to benefit others with work I create, but I also want a new motorcycle. How could I have learned without the examples of others? It is a fine balance between what knowledge I choose to withhold and release. Most of the time, I release it. But when I choose not to, I have a good reason, and since I made the content, at least some of the choice is mine.

To be sure, I in no way mean to defend the inane and abhorrent practices of the copyright/patent industry. From secret trade agreements to suing little girls, their actions disgust. But it is that abuse of the system that should be rallied against, not the concept of the legal protection of ideas by those who create them. In a perfect fantasy world where the economy runs on sunshine and butterflies, intellectual property laws wouldn’t need to exist. But we don’t and they do. Which is funny, because Ferguson proclaims that the “free flow” of ideas is “social evolution” and “not up to governments, corporations, or lawyers. It’s up to us.” While that is a heart-warming video-ender, what, then, do governments, corporations, and law firms consist of? Lizards?

Rating: 2.5/5

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