i dream of being possible

Free Culture, Fanfiction, and Publishing Elitism

When I was shown Brett Gaylor’s Remix Manifesto in a library school class, my first thought was: “Why is he focusing on mashups and a white artist, when the issue of digital sampling/remixing has been an ongoing issue in Hip Hop?”

It was an incredibly jarring moment to see that when remixing and ‘copyleft’ participants are white men, only then are we supposed to understand this being revolutionary and, more importantly, as something that a culture or movement should be created around these activities to support and defend them as being activities that are fundamentally changing how we should understand intellectual property and copyright.

The lack of historical and racial context is only enforced and entrenched when the video goes on to discuss the first statement of the manifest: “artists build on the past”. There is a clever segment about 14 minutes into the video where he shows how Muddy Waters used material from the fields to, in part, create the blues and then how Led Zeppeline later stole his song.

It caps off with the white artist, Girl Talk, using a sample (not the same one) and a reminder that artists build on the past. The argument is that we need a good/healthy commons in order to have a vibrant culture of creativity.

At no point in the video does he either connect the notion of remixing and digital sampling to its creators and innovators (most of whom are Black Americans) nor does he seem to realize the deeply troubling framing of that segment on artists building on the past. Because, it is fairly well known that – and this is something that is still happening today (see Miley Cyrus) – many white artists have built their careers by exploiting Black American music or culture.

It is this lack of understanding about the serious issues of exploitation and structural inequality that has largely made me apathetic and uninterested in the free culture movement. Since, Gaylor likely thinks he was making a point about artists building on the past, but all I saw was an argument that the cultural products of Black Americans should always be exploitable and profitable for white people. That when Black Americans literally create the very thing the video talks about – digital sampling and remixing – it not only deserves some kind of mention, but that the revolution, and the reasons why it happened, will be lost to history (by this I mean racial oppression, poverty, the ghettoization of Black Americans, the prison industrial complex, the war on drugs, etc, etc).

It sets up a general perception that mashups are for freedom, while ‘gangster’ rap is essentially just low-brow, commodified corporate culture.

Likewise, when you see discussions on free culture or the sharing economy rarely, if ever, does it mention fan fiction and the contributions that the communities have made to our current ideas and practice of ‘free culture’. Indeed, you can see that fan fiction communities probably adhere more closely to the notion of ‘free culture’ out of their ongoing and serious commitment against commercialization (this might be changing based on the whole 50 Shades phenomenon). Very possibly, we can (and maybe should) understand these communities to be maintaining the purest version of free/remix culture.

This, despite the fact that fan fiction communities have participated in driving innovation for the Internet (in terms of creating and maintaining scalable, searchable, document repositories). In terms of participation and values fan fiction communities can only be seen to be continuous and part of the remix ‘revolution’.

Of course, the difference here is that these communities are largely composed of women. And rather than creating super important cultural products like mashups, they write a variety of genre fiction for themselves. Fiction that often (and continues) to push the boundaries of social norms surrounding publishing by an emphasis on queer relationships, explicit sexual content, and a host of other things.

And, as with hip hop, fan fiction is also not worthy of an entire cultural movement to advocate for its values, worth, and contributions/challenges that the communities have made to our cultural understanding of ‘original’ creative work, intellectual property, copyright, and sharing economies.

What, then, is the substantive difference between ‘remix’ culture and either fan fiction or hip hop? What do the remix/free movements gain from presenting their values and practices in an ahistorical and revolutionary fashion? What could the movement gain by locating it in a larger historical context?