Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Breaking Free: The Continuing Fight for Control of the Future

As I sat on a plane last month on the way to Scotland for a road trip with my father, I used the time to finally get around to watching RiP!: A Remix Manifesto. The fact that the film was offered as in-flight entertainment seemed simultaneously ironic given the subject matter and appropriate considering the airline. I still think it’s funny that Air Canada actually managed to make me feel national pride during a sequence in which Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks with Stephen Harper about tightening copyright laws. Director Brett Gaylor labels Canada as one of the largest breeding grounds on Earth for intellectual freedom, and it’s just this kind of freedom that terrifies the Governator with regards to media piracy and makes me thankful I grew up in Ontario instead of California.

But wait, I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

RiP!: A Remix Manifesto is an “open source documentary,” which is to say that it is comprised of various collaborative and remixed works from a proliferation of authors. They describe and demonstrate this better in the movie, but to explain it more simply, the documentary is largely pieced-together from user-generated content that draws from both copyrighted materials and that of the public domain. These works were submitted to www.opensourcecinema.org specifically so that Gaylor could use them in his film, and thereby rhetorically mirror his message through the medium.

The film is about “the changing concept of copyright,” the shifting definitions of property and creation, and the battle for freedom. The titular “remix manifesto” is as follows:

1. Culture always builds on the past
2. The past always tries to control the future
3. Our future is becoming less free
4. To build free societies you must limit the control of the past

The movie demonstrates and explores this manifesto by telling the history of copyright laws, focusing on individuals and entities that have significantly challenged the limitations and utilizations of these laws, such as Gregg Gillis (AKA Girl Talk) and Dan O’Neil. Gillis features prominently in the documentary as he is one of Gaylor’s favourite artists, and the potential legal dangers he faces as a result of his works largely inspired Gaylor’s impetus to make a film about changing copyright laws. O’Neil is a cartoonist who challenged Disney itself in the 1960s by redrawing Mickey Mouse as a drug dealing revolutionary, and was summarily sued for violation of intellectual property. I’ll let the movie tell that particular story, but hearing it reminded me of something from my childhood that I think makes a similar and interesting point.

When I was about ten my parents bought me a book called Breaking Free, which was a graphic novel featuring the cast of the Tintin comics in a story about a revolution in England from the perspectives of the anarchist rebels. I remember getting it at a garage sale, with my parents thinking it was just another adventure story, and it was only much later that I became maturely aware of the political leanings of the text. In the book Tintin throws Molotov cocktails, gets beaten down by vilified police officers, and becomes a revolutionary leader. At one point Captain Haddock and his wife make love as a brief respite from the horrors of everyday life and the mistreatment of the insurrectionary proletariat. It’s an interesting book that outlines the reasons behind political insurrection and some ways by which to achieve it, validity and quality not withstanding. It targets both a new, younger, and impressionable audience through the appropriation of Tintin, me being the case in point, and also all those for whom the image of Tintin holds meaning.

After watching RiP! I’m finally aware of the text’s greater implications. I always recognized the importance of the politics behind Breaking Free, or at lest I comprehended their presence very soon after I first realized that it wasn’t a typical Tintin story. But the fact that some political activist(s) took such resonant images and appropriated them to make a revolutionary and, importantly, anarchist statement says something equally powerful about property, creativity, and the impetus to build on the past.

The appropriation of concepts that are necessarily and undeniably public in order to effect a meaning based on their cultural weight is something that has always been an important aspect of creative works, and it has proliferated with the advent of digitally reproducible technologies to such an extent that laws have now been adapted/perverted such that they label any sort of reference as theft instead of acknowledgement. The film draws an illuminating comparison between textual citation in writing and the musical citation of artists like Girl Talk, and this reveals an unjustifiable distinction that is completely based in economic potential as opposed to relevance and precedence.

When I used to download music on my PC I used a program called Soulseek, and I set the preferences such that I could download music from other users but they were given no access to my files. While this was admittedly a great way to save myself bandwidth charges, I really only did so because I waned to limit my culpability since in Canada it is not illegal to download, only to share. After watching this documentary, though, even that seems like a concession, an unwarranted admission of guilt in the face of businesses and business models designed to favour profitable hierarchies instead of individuals, and executives instead of authors.

I wish I’d downloaded this movie, but if I had to watch it in any sort of “official” context, one that was provided for me and which I had to pay for, I’m glad I did so in Canada. At the same time, I know that this could, realistically, only have happened in Canada, and that makes me proud but also sorry for those who don’t have the benefit of coming from a country whose legal understanding of the changing nature of property in the age of the internet is at least somewhat contemporary.

RiP! may have only come out in 2009, but Girl Talk and the artists that influenced him have been around for years, and the film actually shows clips from Girl Talk’s performance at the Coachella Valley music festival that I attended in 2007. This is a battle that has been going on for a long time, and to be perfectly frank the side of the “CopyLeft” (as the film identifies all those on the side of intellectual freedom) is starting to win. The proof: the release of major albums like Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” as essentially free digital downloads; the (admittedly limited) backing off of the RIAA in their inhumane lawsuits against everyone from six year-old girls to dead men; and the fact that the movie RiP! exists in any context beyond the internet. Copyright freedom is gaining strength. In fact the very existence of RiP!, as a film that pushes the boundaries of copyright infringement and ownership through its content and existence as an online, “open source” manifesto for an unbridled collective imagination, speaks to the legitimacy and possibility of the burgeoning cultural and legal upheavals that are only now, with the internet, finally becoming possible.

I initially had a long rant encouraging you, the reader, to go forth and download, rewrite, remix, cite, etc., to help the cause of copyright freedom by partaking in it, but that came off just as trite as it sounds when I describe it. Instead you should stop reading and go watch the movie. It’s available for free right where you are, right now, in varying degrees depending on where that is (for some reason only Americans can download it), so you really have no excuse. It’s an important film because the changing nature of copyright and property is an important issue. We’re all living in the evolving reality of a world connected through the internet, and trying to determine the full implications of that fact on the societal foundations it’s built upon. As the film openly states, this is something that you need to be thinking about, otherwise the past will control the future.

Watch RiP!: A Remix Manifesto at http://www3.nfb.ca/webextension/rip-a-re

For more information on Breaking Free, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Adventures_of_Tintin:_Breaking_Free

To read Breaking Free, visit http://tintinrevolution.free.fr

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