Many commentators today are talking about the “age of the remix”, a practice enabled by widespread access to sophisticated computer technology whereby existing works are rearranged, combined or remixed to create a new work. They make it sound as if remixing were a novel phenomenon, but a brief glance at human history reveals that it is in fact nothing new.
Most cultures around the world have evolved through the mixing and merging of different cultural expressions. The US media scholar Professor Henry Jenkins argues that “the story of American arts in the 19th century might be told in terms of the mixing, matching and merging of folk traditions taken from various indigenous and immigrant populations.” Another historical example of remixing is Cento, a literary genre popular in Medieval Europe consisting mainly of verses or extracts directly borrowed from the works of other authors and arranged in a new form or order.
Similarly, the arts and architecture of Renaissance Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries derive directly from Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece. Another example is found in Persian traditional music. Drawing on the work of different artists stored in a repertoire known as radif, performers create new musical variations and improvisations around common themes. Their similarity with the original work is such that listeners often feel they have heard the musical theme before. Throughout history, the public has been actively involved in creating and re-creating culture, a phenomenon referred to by the US academic Lawrence Lessig as the “read/write” culture.
A shift in the creative landscape
However, technological changes that emerged throughout the 20th century enabled the widespread distribution of music, prompting a shift in the creative landscape in favor of an increasingly passive “read-only” culture. “The 20th century was the first time in the history of human culture when popular culture had become professionalized, and when the people were taught to defer to the professional,” Professor Lessig notes.
In a further twist, widespread access to ever more sophisticated computers and other digital media over the past two decades has fostered the re-emergence of a “read-write” culture. Today, anyone with access to a computer and an internet connection can create remixes, mash-ups, and spin-offs combining musical and audiovisual elements to create new works.
Where does copyright stand in all of this?