April 20th, 2004


The Right to Remix

Should I be allowed to cut up a book I bought and paste the bits back together in a different order, for my own amusement?
Should I be allowed to cut up a book I bought and past the bits back together in a different order and show it to my friends?
Should I be allowed to cut up a book I bought and past the bits back together in a different order and then sell those bits to someone else?
Should I be allowed to distribute instructions to other people on how to cut up their book and stick it together in the way that I did?
Should I be allowed to make a machine that could cut up a book and stick it back together in a specific way and then sell/give this machine to others?

To reframe some of those:
Should I be allowed to remix music for myself?
Should I be allowed to remix music for my friends?
Should I be allowed to give my remixes away?

Now, of course, there's a fundamental difference between music and books in this case - if I give away the transfigured book then I don't have it any more, if I give away the remixed music I still have the original. So performing remixes for my friends and giving them away is violating copyright which, all arguments notwithstanding, is currently illegal. However, this doesn't apply to the last two.

Should I be allowed to tell other people how to remix their own music?
Should I be allowed to write a program to remix other people's records automatically?

Take, for instance, The Grey Album, in which The Beatles' White Album and Jay-Z's Black Album were mixed together. Releasing this was obviously illegal - but would it be illegal to release a piece of software which, when fed both albums, automatically produced the remix in real-time by playing parts of each at the right time? I can't see any way in which you could argue that it would be - if it's permissible for a person to remix their own music, how can there be a problem with the computer doing it for them.

And yet, this is exactly what Clearplay are being sued for. They produce a DVD player that, when playing a DVD, will automatically edit out any obscenities, nudity or excessive violence. The Director's Guild of America are deeply unhappy that someone would edit their movies. Except that nobody is editing the movies - you can take the film out of the DVD player and stick it in any other player and it plays just fine. You can even turn the filtering off in the players (or set it to a variety of different levels) - the choice is down to you.

A couple of years ago a similar thing almost happened with Windows - Microsoft wanted to introduce smart-tags that would automatically add links to pages in Internet Explorer that pointed to useful definitions. The problem being that Microsoft would decide which definitions to use. Of course, there'd be ways to turn this off, but Microsoft being a monopoly and most users being technically terrified the chances are that people would stick with the default. And this would mean that when you accessed someone's writing it would be modified by Microsoft before you saw it. People were up in arms about this and Microsoft backed down. But should they have done? Shouldn't the user be allowed to edit text on it's way from the server to their browser? After all, I do much the same myself - turning off Flash animations and freezing animated GIFs before they can appear. Is there really a huge difference between that and automatically modifying the text before it's displayed?

Do people have the right to do this? Can they take a work of art and change it in any way they want? Can they use any tool they want to shred, remix, resculpt or otherwise transmogrify copyright works for their own ends? And if so, considering that modern computers have such incredible power that they can seamlessly re-edit in real-time, doesn't that mean that artists have lost control over what other people can do to their work?