Sunday, September 07, 2008

Originality: not what you think.

Starry Night, by Robert Silvers

Technically speaking, according to current copyright law, the above work is completely unoriginal. It's a replication of a famous Van Gogh painting, and it's made up of NASA images. There's nothing original about it! This is highway robbery!? Let's sue Robert Silvers. Cunningly, Silvers copyrighted his artistic Photomosaic method, and can, I'm sure, wiggle his way out of copyright battles at this point. But many musicians, who aren't millionaires, CEO's, and legal wizards, and who do essentially the same thing with audio, have a lot to worry about. But isn't Silvers' work an originality mindfuck? I applaud him for that.

Ben Franklin said that "originality is the art of concealing your sources." Girltalk, Robert Silvers, and others may have altered this philosophy.

I wrote a pretty long comment on a NewMusicBox post about sampling, Girltalk, and intellectual property law, so I thought I'd just post it here. I'm a little disappointed that no one else responded...The original post, by Carl Stone, brings up the familiar debate over originality, and what defines this concept today versus what it used to mean. You can read my thoughts on the topic below.
I'm glad to read many similar thoughts to my own in an interesting NMB post. Since taking a class on fair use in the music world (and really, before that), I came to realize how the legal system (especially in America) is always so horribly behind mainstream culture. (Gay marriage is still illegal in most states. The death penalty is still legal in many states. The list goes on.) At least in terms of copyright, this is probably largely the result of "case law," which only gets built slowly, over time, and, maybe, less the fault of insane, fundamentalist Supreme Court judges who would be better off behind bars than in a post appointed by the president. Maybe Girltalk is the first one to break through to the next generation of musicians who can sample electronically in just the same manner, as you write, as Brahms and Bach and everyone else did acoustically. I see absolutely no difference in what Girltalk does and what any Baroque or Classical composer did (and what many of these composers' instituational incarnates continue to do now, acoustically). But the world's collective consciousness still won't equate the two - we still haven't accepted the digital as "the real." And it's not. But it's a perfect simulacrum of the real--meaning it resembles the real so accurately as to take its place--and therefore, as far as we can tell, it is the real. That could be why the courts can't change the laws just yet - it is so seemingly real, whereas a reorchestration is somehow so different (but really not). I agree that Girltalk is recontextualizing the hits he mashes up to the point of fair use, or de minimis, or however you want to classify it, but I'm pretty sure if he was taken to court, it'd be copyright infringement for sure. The point at which the legal system's assault on this particular component of our creativity will stop is when it and the record labels realize that allowing this type of creativity is more profitable than the court settlements that prohibit it. Maybe that's finally happening right now--I wouldn't be surprised if Girltalk is getting courted by a couple big labels, or will be soon.

This quote from the NYTimes opinion piece sounds quite familiar: "All aspects of creativity are basically reconstituted bits and pieces of things we've seen, heard and experienced, finely or not-so-finely chopped and served in a form that hopefully blends the ingredients into something 'new.' The ancient Greeks seemed to know this, expressed in their belief that the Muses of creativity were the daughters of Mnemosyne, Titan goddess of memory."
It resembles Fredric Jameson's extensive writing on originality and "death of the subject" from the 1980s. He apparently agreed with the Greeks. But now, over 20 years after he wrote about these topics, I wonder what he thinks, though I hear he still buys the same music that Adorno was praising in the early to mid 20th century. Still, every piece I've read by Jameson has amazed me with its foresight and analogies. But the realization that Girltalk really is original, that the digital age has spawned an original form of originality in itself, is something that the courts haven't grasped yet, and Jameson couldn't in the 1980s. What the current discussions of originality today are missing is that a) originality has changed--we can't discuss it today with the old definition, and b) it's pointless to discuss originality at all today, because it either doesn't exist, if you buy into Jameson, or it has changed so much in the last few decades that we need a new word for it. Furthermore, maybe Jameson is right--subjects are dead--how can anyone today begin to claim that she's 100% original with no outside influence?

I personally stick to the word "innovation," and wholeheartedly believe in the obsolescence of the greedy, money-driven copyright industry--and that's why I spent most of the day remixing the final movement of Mozart's 40th.

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