Rewatch, Remix, Reinvent

The Power of Fan Culture in the Internet Age

Rewatching is increasingly easy with on-demand streaming, and remixing to reinvent is likewise growing due to democratizing technology. Remixing content is not new — it is even privileged in the case of classical music and literature — but the notion of content ownership and copyright can make it a difficult situation to approach as the digitization of content leaves it easier to share and adapt. The notion of ownership and freedom to remix is important for media critics and consumers alike, and the debate on the role of amateur, fan creations will only continue until a solution to fair use in remixing is reached.

US copyright law automatically protects the content creator by default, as a work is copyright as soon as it is created. According to the United States Copyright Office:

Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.

Copyright is established by default upon authorship, then, and media properties are often further restricted by the companies who own the rights to the content, rather than the authors themselves.

In Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven Johnson argues for the value of mass culture to counter the views of classical media theorist Theodor Adorno. While Adorno would claim that everything produced by the culture industry is inherently and essentially intellectually worthless, Johnson claims that consumer media is becoming more intellectual, and it is fallacious to dismiss a text purely because of its commercial origins:

[f]or decades, we’ve worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a steadily declining path towards lowest-common-denominator standards … [b]ut in fact, the opposite is happening: the culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not less. (9)

If the content for remixing is growing in complexity, as Johnson claims (and the claim cannot be debunked by simply pointing out reality shows — it is an average change in complexity), then, too, should the complexity of fan creations from the works. The lowering of the barriers to obtaining material and the rising complexity that encourages interaction with the text make remixing almost more inevitable in the age of the Internet than before. The tools are increasingly simple and more powerful, and with the Internet, it is easier to rewatch — simply grab a copy of the episode or episodes in question, usually easily available from illegal file-sharing websites — and far easier for users to remix and reimagine the source text.

Henry Jenkins suggests in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide that fan remixing — particularly fan fiction — is a sort of apprenticeship of the fan creator to the creator of the original work. In “Why Heather Can Write,” Jenkins’ discussion of fan fiction, he makes a defense of fan fiction in light of its increasing visibility and the decreasing age of the publishing authors:

Historically, young artists learned from established masters, sometimes contributing to the older artists’ works, often following their patterns before they developed their own style and techniques. … Building their first efforts upon existing cultural materials allows [writers] to focus their energies elsewhere, mastering the craft, perfecting their skills, and communicating their ideas. (182)

The apprentice creators are able to use the scaffold of existing content to forward their own skills. Because that content is easier to access, fan creators grow from their experiments more easily, and often share those experiments with other fan creators for feedback and sometimes, even further remixing.

Lawrence Lessig’s book, Remix, specifically addresses the notion of copyright and remix culture. Drawing on the freedom of digitized content, Lessig suggests privileging remix creators — amateur creators rather than professionals — and protecting their right to use commercial works in a non-commercial context. While that approach is not precisely perfect either, Lessig stands behind his own principles: he released Remix free under a Creative Commons license, allowing users to adapt and remix his book as long as they do not use it for commercial purposes.

Fan culture has grown, and each new technology simply adds to the abilities of amateur fan creators to adapt and work in the same space as the original content creators. The Internet empowers creators to obtain source material for remixing purposes and allows them to disseminate their work to a wider audience for a lower cost than traditional commercial publishing or even self-publishing to physical media. When bits are bits, remixing is inherently inevitable.

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