Remix’s Battle for Intellectual Property Rights

by yonirusnak

Jonathan Rusnak – z3265857

In 2008 Lawrence Lessig published an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled ‘In Defense of Piracy’. In the article Lessig discussed a case in which a mother Stephanie Lenz, of a 13-month-old baby, Holden Lenz, uploaded a video of her child dancing to Prince’s, “Let’s Go Crazy” onto Youtube. Within a few months Universal, who owned the rights to the song, contacted Youtube and requested that they remove the video for copyright infringement (Lessig, 2008). This case clearly represents the fundamental differences between Remix culture and Old Media establishments. This essay will argue that Old Media is not fundamentally at odds with Remix Culture, but rather that Old Media is at odds with the use of copyrighted material and issues of piracy which surround Remix Culture. To begin, this essay will investigate the views of Old media in regards to Remix Culture and issues of copyright and intellectual property as presented in the case of Stephanie Lenz. Following this it will discuss the ideologies of Remix Culture and how this reflects its tensions with Old Media. Finally this essay will address the current alternative solution which has arisen to prevent future dilemmas such as Stephanie Lenz and other unfortunate tensions between Old Media and Remix culture.

Intellectual Property and Old Media

If we understand Stephanie Lenz’s use of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” as a ‘sampling’ (record or extract a small piece of music or sound digitally for reuse as part of a composition of song), for her reappropriation of it use in the context of her sons triumphant attempts to dance, then Mrs. Lenz’s can be interrupted as a symbol of remix culture. If so, then Universal represents the other side, Old Media. It is important to note that Old media in this case, nor in most cases is ‘Fundamentally at odds’ with Remix culture, but is instead at odds with what Remix Culture can sometimes engage in, the illegal use of copyrighted material. In his article Lessig (In Defence of Piracy, 2008, p.2) describes Old media’s views not as a ‘war on Remix’, but instead as a “’copyright war’. Therefore if one was to remix their old home videos (of which none were copyrighted) and upload it to Youtube for their friends to view, Old Media corporations such as Warner Bros, Universal or MGM would not be threatening Youtube to have it removed (nor would they have the legal rights too). According to Lev Manovich remixing practices began in the 1970’s when DJ Tom Moulton remixed his own song to give it a ‘disco feel’ (Manovich, 2002). Manovich continues by discussing the record ‘Pump Up the Volume’ and how “this record, cobbled together from a crazy selection of samples, fundamentally changed the pop world” (Manovich, 2002, no page). Manovich’s example indicates that Remix practices and therefore Remix Culture was born through the DJ revolution of the 70’s and 80’s. This is a practice which still occurs today in all nightclubs, all over the world. DJ’s, mix, sample and layer songs without the intervention of Old Media institutions. It can therefore be argued that it is not the practice of Remix that Old Media is fundamentally at odds with, but how some remix practices incorporate the illegal use of copyrighted material.

The Growth of Copyright

Copyright was originally invented in the 18th century for the function of “regulating the author’s right over their work” (Onrubia, 2005, p.206). The purpose of the law was not to infringe on the artistic growth of other artists but instead to protect the value of that artists work. Onrubia explains that these laws were enforced on the physical material items but not on the idea from which they were created (Onrubia, 2005). However with the evolution of technology the barriers between the two became increasingly blurred. Lessig (2008), in his book ‘Remix’ offers the example of the player piano and the phonograph as technologies which allowed the reproduction of ideas at a low cost that left the artist unpaid for his efforts. These technologies have continued to evolve and in today’s digital mediascape it is possible to share art, music, movies and other intellectual property at the click of a button.  The original copyright system functioned as an opt-in system where artist would register their work for its protective rights, however in a series of changes which begun in 1976, copyright became an automatic process whereby the original idea and all copies where protected under copyright (Lessig, 2005). This ideal of copyright protection is at the heart of the Remix-Old media debate. Old media believed that it has the rights to its intellectual and physical property while Remix culture believes that such materials are part of the cultural commons and can be reappropriated in order to create new works. In the case of Mrs. Lenz, Universal believed that her unauthorized distribution of “Let’s Go Crazy” constitutes a breach in the laws of intellectual property (Lessig, 2008).

Lessig (2005, 2008) and other scholars such as Ola Erstead (2008) and Paul Miller (2003) believe that cultural materials such as music, art and movies, are part of what Lessig terms a ‘creative commons’. However Berry and Moss contest that such materials are actually not. According to Berry and Moss the commons referred to “natural things that were used by all, such as air and water” (2005, p.3). They further state that the creative commons attempts to create a commons out of private property (2005, p.3). This idea reflects that stance that products such as music and movies are created as private entities and are not of, or subject to the social commons. This notion illuminates the two sides at odds with one another in the Remix – Old Media confrontation. Old Media institutions perceive their products as private property, a piece of intellectual property which allows them the over all control of production, distribution, as is seen in the case of Mrs. Lenz. In contrast, Remix culture views these products (Movies, music, art) as cultural entities which should be part of a creative commons that allows others to rework and reshape their original meanings into new pieces of cultural meaning.

Remix Culture – Sampling society

As expressed above, Remix Culture thrives on building off of pre-existing material. Manovich (2002) explains that the word remix originally was used to describe musical mix’s, but through the 80s, 90s and 2000s began to be appropriated for other forms of remix such as film, video and other visual arts. Paul Miller, a leading post-structural theorist and remix artist, describes today’s mediascape as one “unlike any other culture in human history: today, this interior rhythm of words, this inside conversation, expresses itself in a way that be changed once it enters the real world” (2003, no page). Miller’s argument implies that ideas are no long that of internality, but once they are recorded to a media device become external and therefore subject to alteration. Remix Culture then is about ‘sampling’ from others to make a personal statement about ones surroundings. Lessig (In Defence of Piracy, 2008, p.2) offers literary quoting as a parallel to ‘sampling’. He states however, that while “writers with words have had the freedom to quote since time immemorial, ‘writers’ with digital technologies have not yet earned this right”.  Mrs. Lenz’s use of ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ in this case should be seen as a sampling of Prince’s work to make a personal statement rather than an illegal copy. Lessig (In Defence of Piracy, 2008) explains that the video was of extremely poor quality and that no spectators would think to view it in an attempt to avoid paying for the song. Instead her use of the song was to share a humorous moment with her friends and family, the focus being on Holden and not the song.  The restriction place upon digital sampling, as presented in this situation, is due to the scrutiny of Old Media corporations, which believe that such practices are illegal piracies of its private property. It is therefore important here to clearly separate illegal distribution and piracy from practices of remix. Lankshear and Noble (2008) evoke Lessig in their essay ‘Remixing Elements of Lawrence Lessig’s Ideal of “Free Culture”’ explaining that the reason for remixes illegality stems form its digital nature. Digital technologies by design create perfect copies of the original file with every use. As stated above the feud between Remix culture and Old Media is not in the practice of remix but in its unfortunate position of being grouped with piracy. Lessig (In Defence of Piracy, 2008) contends that peer-to-peer file sharing is the enemy of a ‘war on copyright’ and remix is the collateral damage.

The Solution – Creative Commons

In 2001 Lawrence Lessig sought to end this battle between digital remixers and Old Media corporations. His solution came in the former of new copyright laws known as ‘Creative Commons’ (Creative Commons, 2001). Newsweek quoted Lessig explaining that the “Basic aim of Creative Commons is to get the law out of the way not by abolishing copyright, but by making if easier for people to negotiate it in a digital world” (Braiker, 2004). The new legislative creation allows artists to place their work not under ‘all rights reserved’ but rather a ‘some rights reserved’. The Newsweek article highlights a compilation CD with 13 artists including The Beasty Boys and Gilberto Gil, which was release in 2004 under he Creative Commons (Braiker, 2004). This meant that others were not permitted to illegally distribute the album but had complete freedom to mash, remix, sample and share the songs on the CD. Lessig’s creation appears to bridge the gap between the social practices of today’s digital environment and ideals of Old Media. If Prince’s song had been licensed under Creative Commons, Mrs. Lenz would not have a need to request permission for its trivial use in her home video, and Universal would not have wasted valuable time and money pursuing such frivolous cases of copyright infringement.


In conclusion this essay has endeavoured to express the tensions between Remix Culture and Old Media through the case study of Mrs. Lenz. It has shown that the two sides are not fundamentally at odds with one another, but instead are caught in a battle for copyright. By defining Old Media and its understanding of Remix Culture, exploring issues of copyright, presenting the ideologies of Remix Culture and defining Lawrence Lessig’s ‘Creative Commons’, this essay has attempted to present the tensions on each side of the argument and how what measures have been taken to resolve the matter.


B. Braiker, 2004, ‘Take My Music Please’, In Newsweek, 5 Oct, Viewed 26th of May,

Creative Commons, 2001, viewed 4th of June,

D. M. Berry & G. Moss, 2005, ‘On The “Creative Commons”: A Critique of The Commos Without Commonalty’, In Free Software Magazine, Vol. 5, June, Viewed 3rd of June,

D. V. Onrubia, 2005,’ Doing Business With Ideas: Some Notes on The Privatization of General Intellect’, In ZEMOS98, pp. 205 – 209, Viewed 26th of May,

L. Lessig, 2005, ‘The People Own Ideas!: Do We Want Music, Software, and Books to be Free—or Not?’, In Technology Review, June, pp.48 – 53, Viewed 25th of May,

L. Lessig, 2008, ‘In Defense of Piracy’, In The Wall Street Journal, Viewed 2nd of June,

L. Lessig, 2008, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, Bloomsbury, London

L. Manovich, 2002, ‘Modes of Authorship in New Media’, Viewed 2nd of June,

M. Knobel & C. Lankshear , 2008, ‘Remixing Elements of Lawrence Lessig’s Ideal of “Free Culture”’, In M. Knobel & C. Lankshear (eds) Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices, Peter Lang Publishing, New York, pp.177 – 202

O. Erstead, 2008, ‘Trajectories of Remixing: Digital Literacies, Media Production, and Schooling’, In M. Knobel & C. Lankshear (eds) Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices, Peter Lang Publishing, New York, pp. 279 – 306

P. Miller, 2003, ‘Loops of Perception Sampling, Memory, and the Semantic Web’, In Horizon: Remix, Vol. 08, April/May, viewed 3rd of June,