Mashups and piracy in the service of education

I’ve read and listened and viewed, and I still have no idea what my view is on mashups.

The copyright idea means paying people for their publicly-distributed intellectual property. In the U.S., this is as basic as the idea of a patent — you made it, you monopolize it for a determined period. There are people trying to make a living creating things, and if society doesn’t pay them they can’t afford to do that.

The “copyleft“  seems to consist of a range of views, including that all information should be free, that the copyright laws are unfair or trap things for too long or don’t pay the creators anyway, or aren’t flexible enough for education (the latter is where I’ve stood for many years).

I watched Rip! A Remix Manifesto 2008 (or if you like commercials and Hulu’s new business model, you can watch it here) My first response was horror because I was clearly hearing a Brian May guitar riff while being told it wasn’t Queen but something a mashup artist created. In the film, they show very small bits and pieces going into a mashup, tens of songs with little bits pulled out, but if I could recognize the guitarist and the riff (and I am neither a music expert nor a Queen nut), then the issue is not creating content in a way that truly changes the sources.

So I started looking at those kind of mashups, where people are combining recognizable things (audio, video, not just notes) in order to make a different point from the ones intended by the original creators.

I came to the conclusion that since copyright law protects usage for the purpose of criticism, we can define criticism fairly broadly, even to the point of simply combining other people’s work in order to make a different argument.

But there are value judgements here, and we shouldn’t pretend they aren’t there. Perhaps there is good use and not so good use in a mashup?

A good use of other people’s material might be something illustrative of a concept, such as the videos Blooms Taxonomy According to Pirates of the Caribean or Origins of the Moonwalk. They illustrate an idea, regardless of their quality.

A good use might also mean good attribution. At the end of the Origins of the Moonwalk video, the dancers who appear in the video are listed at the end (though not the composers and cinematographers, etc). This seems good, giving attribution to those doing the hoofing. But in the Top 25 songs of 2009 mashup, the artists were just listed in notes under the video on the YouTube page, which didn’t seem the same. Should attribution be part of the work?

A couple of week’s ago, Ola was inquiring in Twitter about some sources. Alec’s advice was to be sure to attribute items if they were “copyleft”:

This implies that using copyrighted stuff was not OK, and using open stuff still required a citation.

I went looking into Alec’s view on copyright, and found a reply to Minhaaj on his blog in Feb 2009:

“I was pretty much a copyright abolitionist. However, two things changed my mind. 1) I feel that I need to be more understanding of those who create content as their career. At my institution, as a professor, I am paid for research, scholarship, and community service. I am paid whether or not I create or sell content. I can give my content away, and do not have to rely on making my living that way. I personally publish everything under copyleft licenses (NC/ATT/SA), but I do not believe I have the right to enforce this upon others. Licensing content should be a choice. 2) Copyleft is a reaction to too much ownership of content in society. However, copyleft does not work as a legal mechanism without the existence copyright law. In other words, without copyright, there is no copyleft. Sure, another system may come around to replace copyright, but it does not yet exist. This is actually why there are many critiques of copyleft as well.”

The first point is one I have come to as well, not just from reading Jaron Lanier (I’ve linked him enough, I think), though that started it. But how would I feel if someone took my voice from one of my lectures and made a mashup promoting anti-Semitism or violence against women or Middle Eastern wars? Does it matter how I’d feel? And even if it does, will copyright law actually prevent this sort of thing? Nope. That’s why the second point, that it’s all based on copyright enforcement anyway, makes me sad.

All in all, I was unable to draw any lines anywhere.  Copyright is a good idea, because it allows the creator of a work to be paid for their work. That’s capitalism, but even in a non-capitalist system someone would be paying these creators for creating.

But then we come to the nitty-gritty: my own use of copyrighted resources for teaching.

I am an educator at a public institution, paid for by public funds. When I use copyrighted material, I am supposedly covered by and responsible for the rules of the US Copyright Law’s Fair Use provisions .  To make it work for online, one has to consider an online class as a “similar place devoted to instruction”, but I have no issue with that.

We also have the TEACH Act of 2002 , which was supposed to lighten things up in a digital environment by amending the Copyright Code. Although I lauded it at the time, I now see it as more restrictive than the original code, in the sense that it demands that the copyrighted work distribution must be technologically limited to enrolled students, providing a boon for proprietary learning management systems and a restriction on open education.

SO….am I engaging in civil disobedience or passive resistance in the interest of educating my students? Have I been for years? Or was I “protected” (at least since 2002) by my LMS? or perhaps I always have been in line with original law. I didn’t think teaching required a lawyer, but I could be wrong.

I made my first mashup a little while ago, and it wasn’t really a mashup at all. I had a scene from a modern movie that I wanted students to see because the actors were wearing very accurate historical costumes. I didn’t want the modern soundtrack, so I replaced it with music, taken from a CD I own, that was right for the period. When I uploaded to YouTube, I got:

So, arrrgh, I have joined ye pirate ranks by putting the right music with the right clothes for teaching purposes at a public institution and posting it in a public place where someone else might learn from it too.

So here goes, my (very uncertain) conclusions:

  • Artists and authors in our society should be paid for their work.
  • My role as a teacher is not as a consumer of such work, but as a user of it in the interests of education.
  • Sources should be attributed, period, even if it’s 1,000 of them.
  • The issue of wanting to educate everyone everywhere will always come up against the issue of copyright, because everyone on the web could be considered a teacher, even people who make very bad mashups.

And all I can really promise is to never play a Brian May riff for my students and pass it off as my own work. 

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2 Responses to Mashups and piracy in the service of education

  1. Lisa, I love this post. I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues lately as well, in no small part because of all the furor — in politics as well as pedagogy — about what constitutes “legal content” and about who has access to use, share, and/or profit from it.

    I think there are a lot of misunderstandings about copyright law. But I also think there are many ways in which those very laws are grossly antiquated and really do not account for the ways in which Internet technologies have transformed the creation and the distribution of creative works.

    I predict that copyright will be one of the major battles we must fight in the next year, and I do hope that educators help students understand how to “cite their sources” but that educators (and the rest of us) are not hamstrung by laws that stop us from taking full advantage of the creative opportunities afforded us via technology.

    Awesome post (as always).

  2. llane says:

    I completely agree, Audrey. And institutions vary widely on the extent of interference and in their own interpretation of the law. The TEACH Act was supposed to be an update, and its greatest feature seems to be making it easier for faculty to understand what’s covered. When I wrote this post I had to look more closely at the original law, and really think it already covers a lot of (formal) educational uses. But in an era of people getting sued for downloading music, it’s frightening to stick your neck out against such restrictions.