Pirate utopianism (DIY video)

SHUT UP AND MAKE SOMETHING, says the back of my tight-fitting volunteer T-shirt. I’m not too good at either, so I’ll compromise by making a blog entry. Whether that counts as shutting up and making something or doing the opposite, I leave up to your interpretation.

I was very interested in the discussions of intellectual property, which felt especially relevant given that so much of the video art to which the weekend was devoted can be characterised as infringing in some way or another — three of the genres represented (anime music videos, vidding and political remix) are forms that remix and remake visual and audio footage produced by media companies. There was a lot of utopian rhetoric floating around at the conference, with which I have varying degrees of sympathy (I am fairly sure that my dissertation is going to center on the concept of utopia; but that’s because I find I have a constant need to redefine it). My own (critical, negative, or some other as yet unnamed adjective) utopian feelings popped up most often around the questions of IP and fair use.

One of my favourite presentations was by the Electronic Frontier Foundation‘s Fred von Lohmann, who talked about the difference between intellectual property law based on licensing (getting permission to use work someone else made in advance, like TV shows have to do) and the law to which online services are subject, in which users can do what they like until someone complains and sends a cease and desist letter, after which they have to take the offending content down. For creators, he said, if you’re willing to be sued, you can reach an audience, and that’s a better system than ever before in US copyright media law.

Lohmann spoke about his concerns regarding the tightening of copyright laws, that automated systems may soon refuse to accept copyrighted materials on media sharing sites, and worried about the effects this could have on remix and appropriation artists. He used the metaphor of a net, and wondered how the legitimately transformative dolphins could be separated from the illegitimate and illegal tuna of unedited uploaded corporate-owned media. My notes, at that point, say “free the fishes?!”.

I’m a vegetarian who regularly lapses into pescetarianism myself. Somehow this seems relevant.

Although I have all the support in the world for fair use defenses of appropriative/derivative art, I always want to think about the ‘unfair’ uses — sadly mourned tvlinks, BitTorrent, whole episodes available on YouTube, etc. Or, as Lohmann pointed out, using HandBrake to rip copyrighted DVDs.

Speaking after Lohmann, Johei Benkler made the point that “disregard” for copyright law is a significant force in the world of the internets; in another panel, Eric Garland talked about the ever-growing world of less than legal filesharing, making the familiar point about distributed networks’ unsuability. These uses of digital media’s possibilities seem to me to be inseparable from the “fair” ones; I wonder what it means to disavow them in our defenses. Is it (just?) a strategic deflection to focus on what can easily be defended? Are there ways to think about wide-ranging appropriative practices that pose a challenge to legalistic copyright frameworks?

My utopian impulses in favour of unfair use are mostly about my desire to imagine and/or recognize a world in which filesharing and stealing would not be theft, not exploitation, and not a zero sum game, as well as to think about what such uses do with and for the world’s current dystopian dynamics. And I would relate them to questions about capital that were also in the air at DIY, at some times more obliquely than at others.

For some speakers, the extent to which DIY media production relies on not only the profits of social networking websites but also on the global exploitative dynamics that allow shiny computers to get made and sold in the first place was not a primary concern. For others, it was (although I think I missed the panel where that was raised most forcefully). For me, the exploitation and domination embedded in the happy online worldmaking practices I like to write about is something I try not to let too far from my mind. The idea of a filesharing, transformative media pirate commons may not challenge any of that, but it brings up the conflicts and contradictions involved in thinking DIY and the globalized, capitalist culture industry together; and while I may not often know quite what to do with them, I think those are important.

Relevantly, this AMV got a great audience reaction at one of the screenings:

I have more to say, about videos and vidding and such things. We’ll see how much of that makes it out here.

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