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Sat, 05 Jan 2019


Copyright, Culture, Sharing, Remix... And A Congresswoman Dancing As A College Student

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So... this post is going to discuss something involving freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. For a variety of reasons -- some good, some bad, some truly awful -- Ocasio-Cortez (or AOC, as people call her) seems to elicit quite a strong reaction from people, both pro and con. This post is not about her, or her views, or whatever you happen to think about any of it. If you want to argue about her in the comments, feel free, just know that you'll be off-topic and will look silly. Rather, this post is about copyright -- a topic that we talk about frequently, and one on which AOC, in her new job, may at some point be asked to weigh in on as a legislator.The latest "controversy" (if you can even call it that) began as one of the various attempts by some of her critics to dig into her past to try to prove... something(?!?), in this case by unearthing a video of her in college dancing. I remain unclear of what awful thing her critics thought this proved, but apparently it was something about how people can't possibly have been poor if they once had fun dancing. At least that was the suggestion I saw passed around, and it's about as nonsensical as copyright term extension, but alas...There's actually a much more interesting copyright story underneath all of this, much of the history of which we've covered in detail on Techdirt in the past, but which Parker Higgins did a great job recounting on Twitter on Thursday afternoon:

Wired later turned much of Parker's thread into an article as well. The short version is that almost exactly 10 years ago, Sarah Newhouse put together a video taking scenes from various 1980s "brat pack" movies (mainly, and most prominently, Breakfast Club, but a few others as well) and put clips of the actors dancing to a (then) new song by the band Phoenix, called Lisztomania:
Notably, that is not the original video. Despite the band being super happy with that video (and everything that later came from it), somewhere along the way, Newhouse got dinged for it and other videos and had her entire YouTube account taken down over copyright infringements. Gotta love that DMCA requirement for a "repeat infringer" policy.Soon after that video, a guy named Ian Parker, inspired by Newhouse's video, recreated it with his friends on a rooftop in Brooklyn:
That version is still online. It then inspired a ton of other people and social groups to build on that work and create their own, starting with a group in San Francisco. Except... that version is no longer online due to a claim by IFPI that the use of the song is infringing (remember, the band itself was thrilled about the attention this gave them...). But, of course, another version has popped up:
And there are lots and lots of others... including one from Boston University, which has a (just slightly) younger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez having fun with some friends and recreating a localized BU version of the same video. That one's been online since 2010, just months after this whole craze started:
It is not entirely clear why the sudden spreading of clips from this video were seen as "new" since that original video has been up for nearly a decade, and it's also not at all clear why the "new" video changed the music, though if it was an attempt to hide where it originated from, that failed. I saw the initial tweet that was promoting the video, and it was obvious from the clips that this was one of the many Lisztomania videos, and it would be obvious to anyone who watched a bunch of them back then.Earlier in 2010, Julian Sanchez had done a fun explainer video on the Evolution of Remix Culture, which we talked about a few times over the years:
Sanchez makes a few points in that video, but the key one is that the complaints that traditional copyright folks have about remix culture totally misses the point. These videos and the sharing of our unique versions of such memes is not about "freely" using someone else's stuff, but about social interactions with our own friends and communities, and putting our own stamp on things. Sanchez doesn't make this point, but it's actually a very similar situation to the way culture used to happen: storytellers would take the ideas of others and build on them and make their own versions and spread them.Of course, Sanchez's own video was taken down (multiple times) with various bogus copyright claims. While one might argue that the fair use claims on the original videos were less strong (I'd disagree, but there are better arguments there), the idea that Julian's video was not fair use was... crazy. He was clearly commenting on the use of this music and videos for remix purposes, and it would meet all four criteria for fair use easily. Eventually, after Sanchez complained publicly about the takedowns, the demands were removed and the video lives on.Soon after Sanchez's presentation, Larry Lessig himself used this example of remix culture -- highlighting Sanchez's video... and a whole bunch of these videos.
However, a few years later, as we covered here at Techdirt, the label with control of the copyright, Liberation Music, issued a takedown on one of Lessig's lectures about this. This was, exceedingly bizarre. Remember: Lessig was using the video clips from Julian's video, which is an explainer about the social situation and copyright policy questions raised by all of the other videos... and Liberation claimed it was infringing. Even worse, when Lessig counternoticed, Liberation told him if he didn't remove the counternotice, it would sue him. Lessig and EFF then sued Liberation seeking a declaratory judgment of non-infringement and (importantly) seeking fees for violating 512(f) of the DMCA -- which is the almost entirely toothless clause for pushing back against bogus DMCA takedowns. This was one case where it might actually have teeth. Realizing it was sunk, the following year Liberation ended up settling the case and paying an "undisclosed sum," while promising to adopt new fair use-respecting policies.And that was, more or less, the end of that meme, until it suddenly came rushing back due to some people's infatuation with a particular Congresswoman. But there are a lot of really important copyright points embedded in this story -- starting with all of the lessons both Sanchez and Lessig highlighted in each of their videos (seriously, watch them both). But it's even more punctuated by the fact that so many of the videos that I discuss above were at one time or another taken down by copyright claims -- many of which seem entirely bogus -- and where the band has made it clear it was thrilled with these videos (as it should have been, as it gave that song a huge boost in attention). Indeed, Phoenix issued a statement (miraculously still available on Tumblr) stating: "We support fair use of our music" and also (apologies for the all caps screaming, but that's how they wrote it):
NOT ONLY DO WE WELCOME THE ILLUSTRATIVE USE OF OUR MUSIC FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES, BUT, MORE BROADLY, WE ENCOURAGE PEOPLE GETTING INSPIRED AND MAKING THEIR OWN VERSIONS OF OUR SONGS AND VIDEOS AND POSTING THE RESULT ONLINE.ONE OF THE GREAT BEAUTIES OF THE DIGITAL ERA IS TO LIBERATE SPONTANEOUS CREATIVITY - IT MIGHT BE A CHAOTIC SPACE OF FREE ASSOCIATION SOMETIMES BUT THE CONTEMPORARY EXPERIENCE OF DIGITAL RE-MEDIATION IS ENORMOUSLY LIBERATING.WE DON'T FEEL THE LEAST ALIENATED BY THIS; APPROPRIATION AND RECONTEXTUALIZATION IS A LONG-STANDING BEHAVIOR THAT HAS JUST BEEN MADE EASIER AND MORE VISIBLE BY THE UBIQUITY OF INTERNET.IN A FEW WORDS:WE ABSOLUTELY SUPPORT FAIR USE OF OUR MUSIC,AND WE CAN ONLY ENCOURAGE A NEW COPYRIGHT POLICY THAT PROTECTS FAIR USE AS MUCH AS EVERY CREATORS' LEGITIMATE INTERESTS.
So, we have a copyright policy that pissed off the actual artists -- and only served to stifle or silence many people who were building off of it in truly creative ways that enabled a community endeavor. As Julian noted in his talk (and Lessig specifically called out), a big part of the question here is "what level of control copyright has over our social realities" and how copyright policy that is too locked down serves to limit our ability to express and share our social realities.In his big thread, almost as an aside, Parker made a key point in this discussion that is worth repeating (over and over and over again):
Indeed, this is the entire point that the Article 13 debate in the EU is about. The supporters of Article 13 are demanding -- literally -- that the entire internet "be licensed." But think about how the above story plays out in such a world. In short, it doesn't. And while that might mean one less way for some internet morons to self-own themselves in trying to make fun of a new Congresswoman, I'm not exactly sure that's what we should be optimizing for.Indeed, this whole story is a lesson in the power of culture and communities to actually rise above the ridiculousness of today's copyright laws (mostly) to actually showcase their communities and personalities, and that's something we should be championing. And one hopes that when copyright policy is up for discussion in Congress, that AOC gets that, now having some firsthand experience with it.Oh, and I should note that the nature of remix and copyright and culture has continued to expand. Following from this whole mess with AOC, someone has set up a Twitter account called AOC Dances To Every Song, and it delivers exactly what it claims to. Here are just a few examples:
There are a lot more... though it would not surprise me at all to find that account is eventually shut down for... claims of copyright infringement. Because this is the insane world we live in.For what it's worth, AOC herself has now evolved this even further by dancing in a new video, and making fun of the "controversy."
I wonder if copyright maximalists will demand that she also "license" that clip as well?

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posted at: 12:20am on 05-Jan-2019
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