On “Becoming Screen Literate” by Kevin Kelly

In last week’s Screens Issue of the New York Times Magazine, Kevin Kelly had a long article called “Becoming Screen Literate.” I first became aware of Kevin Kelly and his greatness when I read another of his NYT Magazine articles in May 2006, Scan This Book, about the impact of mass digitization on the future of the book, and I’ve been following his work ever since.

I loved “Scan This Book” because of its optimistic and utopian vision for the future of books in a world of networked bits. Not only did Kelly write favorably of libraries’ participation in Google’s scanning project (for which I am totally in the tank), but he imagined a highly appealing textual landscape in which everything is flexible, linkable, and infinitely copyable. Most compellingly, the article tied Kelly’s fantastic potential future to the legal and economic challenges of the present; he called the indefinite extension of copyright terms “perverse” and titled a section “When Business Models Collide.” The article was both dreamy and grounded. Seriously, you should read it.

When I saw Kelly’s latest article, I hoped that it would do for screens what the previous one had done for pages: frame the astounding potential for a technology in the limitations of the present. I did not quite get what I was looking for. The article is great, and worth reading, but it is a more purely futuristic work.

The basic premise is that new tools will soon make it possible for many people to develop a “screen literacy” that maps very closely to textual literacy, where textual literacy is the ability of a user “to cut and paste ideas, annotate them with her own thoughts, link them to related ideas, search through vast libraries of work, browse subjects quickly, resequence texts, refind material, quote experts and sample bits of beloved artists.”

Kelly argues that “Literacy… required a long list of innovations and techniques that permit ordinary readers and writers to manipulate text in ways that make it useful,” and now new innovations and techniques will permit ordinary people to do the same with moving images.

If text literacy meant being able to parse and manipulate texts, then the new screen fluency means being able to parse and manipulate moving images with the same ease… It took several hundred years for the consumer tools of text literacy to crystallize after the invention of printing, but the first visual-literacy tools are already emerging in research labs and on the margins of digital culture.

These tools will the remix and the mashup to a whole new level, to the point where we can index, reference, and annotate moving images without resorting to screen shots. Neat, right? But then Kelly loses me. He goes on:

The holy grail of visuality is to search the library of all movies the way Google can search the Web. Everyone is waiting for a tool that would allow them to type key terms, say “bicycle + dog,” which would retrieve scenes in any film featuring a dog and a bicycle.

At which point I become irretrievably distracted from the coming screen literacy, and focus on something else entirely. Why? Because there are approximately 3,500 words in this article, and none of them are “copyright,” “intellectual property,” or “lawsuit.” It’s lovely to talk about the technical challenge of building a visual search engine for a universal library of moving images, but how can you not mention that whoever builds it is likely to face exactly the same kind of legal challenges that Google’s book scanning project did? Worse, really, because book publishers are newcomers to the “sue your fans” business model, while the movie industry has been fiercely litigious since birth.

I understand that maybe Kelly didn’t want to retread old ground, and that harping on problems with copyright law gets boring after awhile, but it’s hard for me to believe in an a vision of a screen-fluent future that doesn’t take into account the battles we’ll have to fight to get there. The vast majority of our visual culture is copyrighted; unless and until we figure out how to fix copyright law, the vibrant creative world Kelly describes will always be in danger of death-by-takedown notice.

Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” video is everything wonderful about the Internet

Before you read this post, go watch the music video for Weezer’s Pork and Beans, if you haven’t already. While you watch, you can play Count the Meme, or just check out the video’s Wikipedia entry, which catalogs every meme reference with links to the originals. Warning: You may lose several hours tracking down all the videos that Weezer used and watching them, watching them again, then watching the Weezer video again. Or at least I did. I’ve done my best to embed or link to the videos I’m talking about so you don’t have to go searching.

For those of you who don’t know what a meme is (Hi, Mom!), here’s a quick definition from Wikipedia: “A meme consists of any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that gets transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.” In Web-speak, it generally refers to a goofy video or image that becomes insanely popular and spawns a series of imitations and parodies, like cat pictures with silly captions, or home movies of babies laughing.

One common characteristic of web memes is that they frequently include pieces of copyrighted popular culture, sometimes remixed or adapted, and sometimes simply copied and added to. Fan scholar Henry Jenkins calls this “convergence culture,” by which he means “complex interactions and collaborations between corporate and grassroots media.” Corporate media companies sometimes fret over these grassroots appropriations/infringements and sometimes turn a blind eye, but there is no denying that these fan works are highly creative, and they’re already shaping and defining the culture of the early 21st century.

Which brings me to Weezer. The “Pork and Beans” video references and incorporates no fewer than 29 different memes (if Wikipedia is to be believed), and many of the memes’ originators also appear in the video. It’s a delightful reversal, in which a mainstream band copies and references the work of ordinary people, work that has no commercial backer and only ever appeared on YouTube. “Pork and Beans” is a joyful celebration of democratized creativity, and also one hell of an entertaining mash-up.

What makes it all the more interesting, from a copyright-and-creativity-and-the-Internet perspective, is how many of the memes that Weezer copies are themselves copies. There’s the Numa Numa guy, who lip synchs to a popular Romanian dance tune, Ryan vs. Dorkman, the outrageously well-executed light saber battle acted and edited by a pair of high schoolers, and the kids who recorded one of the many many many homemade Souljah Boy dance videos (the original of which has its own references both to previous generations of copyrighted pop culture and to homemade web video). It’s a tangled web of reference and counter reference, one in which controlling and protectionist attitudes toward copyright have no place.

Just for fun, here’s one thread of the Pork and Beans Creative Influence Goose Chase that I particularly enjoyed:

Daft Punk is a band. They make electronic music, and their lyrics are often simple and repetitive. They like to dress up as robots. Some of their videos, like this one, feature a distinctive style of dancing.

Some guy decided to make a video called “Daft Hands,” in which he displays all of the lyrics to Daft Punk’s song “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” written on his hands.

A pair of college students saw the “Daft Hands” video and were inspired to go one better. They made “Daft Bodies,” with all of the words to “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” written on various body parts, and then they took it a step further by including Daft Punk-style robot costumes and dance moves.

Then Weezer decided to include both the “Daft Hands” guy and the “Daft Bodies” girls in their video, with Weezer’s lyrics written on the hands and bodies. So many layers of reference! So many questionable yet awesome uses of copyrighted material! That Weezer included both Daft Hands and Daft Bodies highlights a key element of web memes: the instant a video achieves a modicum of popularity, people start posting responses, parodies, and imitations. Daft Hands spawned dozens of videos for all kinds of songs featuring lyrics written on hands, and it also spawned Daft Bodies, which spawned dozens of videos of people dancing in their underwear with lyrics written on their bodies. And it’s all happening in a space – YouTube – that makes it incredibly easy both to credit and track influences, even as copyright is studiously ignored.

It’s just so darn cool. And while the Framers could never in their wildest dreams have imagined the phenomenon that is the Dramatic Prairie Dog, I think this kind of sharing, adapting, and building was just what they had in mind when they wrote about promoting the progress of Science and useful Arts. The content holders who rail against the Internet as hostile to copyright, or a haven for pirates, are missing the boat. The Internet is not hostile to copyright. Copyright law is hostile to the Internet, and much of the creativity that happens there. The sort of freewheeling adaptive culture you find on YouTube doesn’t have to be at odds with copyright law, or even with the interests of copyright holders, but that’s how our broken system currently works.

Lucky for us that doesn’t stop kids with basic video editing software and a passion for Harry Potter from making stuff like this:

[Hat tip to Jason for showing me the video and suggesting the idea for this post.]

Update: Here’s a page that links to most of the videos that appear in “Pork and Beans”

Copyright panel @ AADL, featuring Gilberto Gil

As a part of Ann Arbor Summer Fest, the Ann Arbor District Library hosted A Panel Discussion on Digital Culture and Internet Rights. The headliner, if panels can be said have headliners, was Gilberto Gil, Brazilian Minister of Culture, superstar musician, and Creative Commons evangelist extraordinaire.

Gilberto Gil with Guitar, photo by Joi Ito

The other panelists were local luminaries in the areas of music and copyright: Mark Clague, Associate Director of the UM School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s American Music Institute; Jessica Litman, expert on copyright law, author of Digital Copyright (2001), and Professor of Law at the UM Law School; and Christopher M. Taylor, a shareholder practicing in Butzel Long’s Ann Arbor office in the areas of media law, intellectual property, technology and e-commerce. The moderator was W. Kim Heron, editor of the Metro Times and former radio dj.

I thought it was terrific that this panel was held at the public library. The location was a completely appropriate place to talk about improving public access to culture by bending copyright to suit the needs of the people. It was especially valuable for me because I am so accustomed to discussing these issues in the context of scholarship and academia. While the scholarly publishing crisis did come up, and there were two academics on the panel, overall the evening emphasized popular culture and public access.

I’ve struggled to capture all the great conversation that happened that night, both among the panelists and with the audience, but here are a few key themes.
Copyrights in the hands of big media are very different from copyrights in the hands of creators
As Jessica Litman put it, “Even though copyright vests automatically in authors, we’ve made it really easy to sign away your rights, and really hard to get them back.” When Gil was first starting out in music fifty(!) years ago, he had to sign away all his rights to his record label. 35 years later, when he tried to get those rights back, it took seven years and a lawsuit, and the record company still owns the physical copies of the original recording. When Warner controlled all the copyrights, the songs were only available for sale, and if a recording was out of print, there was nothing Gil or anyone else could do about it. Now that he controls his own rights, Gil has released everything under a Creative Commons license that allows remixing, and his songs can become part of the larger musical discourse.

Part of the problem, to quote Jessica Litman again, is that “Copyright law was designed to make sure that you need a copyright lawyer.” These days everyone is a copyright holder, but in order to leverage that power, you have to understand the law, and the law is nearly impossible for ordinary people to understand. This gives big corporations with armies of lawyers an immense advantage over artists, most of whom have never heard of Creative Commons and don’t understand how much they’re giving up when they sign away their copyrights.

Culture should belong to the people
According to Litman, copyright traditionally concentrated control in a few hands, the hands of the publishers, record companies and movie studios, in a way that disempowered the original creators. It made economic sense when you needed printing presses and recording studios, but not any more.

Mark Clague made the point that we tend to think of the production of culture as separate from societal structures like law. But law has a huge influence on culture, and in the case of copyright law, it profoundly shapes how culture is produced, shared, and adapted. The idea behind Creative Commons is that cultural products, the goods produced by culture, should be available to the people of that culture, to the society that produced it. Intellectual property and copyright laws tend to block or interfere with that availability. CC licenses give authors the authority to establish permissible uses in a way that democratizes culture.

Gil spoke about the background of Creative Commons in Brazil. Lawrence Lessig worked with law professors in Brazil to adapt the licenses to Brazil, and the professors promoted the new licenses and started a movement. Gil joined them, both as a musician and as the Minister of Culture. He said that the value of Creative Commons in Brazil was that it “empowers people, the community, street people, to produce their own culture and promote their own culture and sell their own culture.”

“The technology is anarchistic at its core”
Gil had a terrific riff about the fundamental nature of technology. With computers and the internet, copies are exact, and they are inevitable. Protecting against copies is impossible. The technologies are attacking and destroying protection; they can’t help it. Copy! It’s what they do. The technologies themselves are anarchistic. “Some years ago a copy would be recognized as a copy so it wouldn’t have the same value as the original, but in the digital world the copy is the same as the original.” Protection is almost impossible, but the compensation can happen in new ways. Content producers should be focusing on compensation, not protection. Experiments with advertising, collecting societies, and investors will lead to new models for compensating artists for their work, long after everyone realizes that DRM is futile.

A number of questions from the audience centered around protecting creators from pirates, and it was very frustrating, both for me and the panelists. Over and over, the panel pointed out that trying to control copies doesn’t work, and that if people are given convenient ways to buy movies and music legally, many will do so. Big Media has focused so much energy on protection, and hasn’t put nearly enough into developing new strategies that embrace the web, and that’s their problem. Plenty of independent artists have found ways to build a fan base and make a living using the internet, and free copies are part of their business model.

***

Gilberto Gil is on a big tour at the moment. If you’d like to hear him speak about a variety of subjects, including his life, music, politics, and Creative Commons, Amy Goodman did an hour-long interview with him last week.