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“Copy, Transform, Combine…”

November 4, 2013


 From Popova,  2013.

In an earlier post I mentioned I’d been watching the Martin Weller YouTube playlist ‘Understanding OER in 10 Videos‘, as one-stop introduction to open educational resources. One of the most engaging items was Kirby Ferguson’s excellent ‘Everything is a Remix‘ which – in series of 4 short films – explains his view that creativity is all about copying, combining and transforming.

The film charts the origin of the term itself from the sample-heavy remixes of Hip-Hop music in the 1980’s, through to the current state of affairs in a world where the concept of ‘intellectual property’ reigns and litigation is just one hindrance in our social evolution. On the way we learn how the first remixes were already happening before the phrase was even coined, as people like William Boroughs employed a ‘cut-up technique’ to his writing of ‘The Soft Machine’ and musicians, including Led Zeppelin, plied their trade often in the realms of ‘legal remixing’ through ‘knock-offs’ and cover versions (Ferguson, 2012[a]).

In a related TedTalk Ferguson continues this theme using Bob Dylan as an example, claiming that two-thirds of Mr. Zimmerman’s melodies were copied from his folk predecessors. The creative ‘genius’ however, was in taking (copying) these melodies, transforming them, and combining them with new lyrics. Another more contemporary example is Danger Mouse’s ‘Grey Album‘ which was a remix of The Beatle’s White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album. The remix became an Internet sensation but resulted in a stream of ‘cease and desist’ orders from EMI who owned The Beatle’s copyright claiming “unfair competition of [our] valuable property” (2012[b]). EMI’s corporate stance was in contrast to Jay-Z’s, and although the capella versions of his songs were copyrighted, they were, “released for the implicit purpose of encouraging mashups and remixes” (Wikipedia, 2013).


From Hodder, 2004.

Ferguson’s film is filled with compelling evidence that most of what we perceive as new or original is probably a remix of some kind, with box office films being a case in point. If we take the Top Ten highest grossing films per year, each year from 2002-2012, seventy-four of those one hundred films are either remakes, sequels, or adaptations from a graphic novels, video games or books (Ferguson, 2012[a]). The idea of becoming a reference point by drawing from them is further illustrated by the ‘monomyth’ Star Wars example. Lucas’ space classic directly references early sci-fi films which preceded it, as well as copying Japanese Samurai films, combining them with themes from old western and war movies, and transforming them with new technology and fresh dialogue. An example of creativity coming from without, not from within. The concept of learning via copying is a theme Ferguson is keen to get across, and that we struggle to produce anything new “until we’re fluent in the language of our domain”.

So. Where does all this lead? Well, in Ferguson’s view we have to copy to “gain knowledge and understanding”. There is also a strongly held view that existing ideas can be transformed into something new, and that dramatic developments can occur when ideas combine. Referring back to an earlier post, which talked about the importance of the printing press in the 15th century (akin to The Internet in the modern age), all the components had been around for centuries, but it was their combination in about 1440, which led to the ‘breakthrough’ and the invention that we now refer to as the printing press.

So far, so positive? All this shared knowledge for ‘The Common Good’, and it’s impact culturally and effect on social evolution is a good thing, right? If only…

The rise and rise of Remixing (in particular copying) has been paralleled by the prevalence of the concept of ‘intellectual property’, and The Common Good has been hijacked by market forces and loss aversion. Copyright and patent laws intended to “promote the progress of useful acts” are doing exactly the opposite as litigation increases.  The ‘competition’ between computer companies and more recently mobile phone manufacturers highlights this, with BILLIONS of £’s being wasted on lawsuits every year. Lessig (2008) amongst other things calls for the “decriminalization of file-sharing” which could increase creativity in a remix culture while at the same pulling the rug from under the feet of opportunistic litigators.


From ReadWrite, 2013.

My own first attempt at a “remix” of ideas was to take footage from a TedTalk by David Cameron, and by (super)cutting in other footage and images reverse the message and offer the alternative viewpoint. The dialogue and narrative of the talk were removed and replaced with edited audio from other sources and the clip was given a ‘suitable’ soundtrack in keeping with the message. What was originally a piece of conservative party spiel about the ‘next age of government’ soon became a short Super-cut with an strong anti-government theme. Like most remixing this required more time than skill, and within the space of a few hours the edit was done and uploaded. A new message was created from a seemingly straightforward video and – at the click of a mouse – distributed globally.


Lawrence Lessig’s “Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy”.


Ferguson, K. 2012[a]. Everything is a Remix. Retrieved 4th November 2013, from

Ferguson, K. 2012[b]. Embracing the Remix. Retrieved 4th November 2013, from

Lessig, L. 2008. Remix: making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. Retrieved, 4th November 2013, from

Hodder, l. 2004. Yet Another Copyright / Remix Culture Struggle With a Mouse or Why I Get Whiplash Thinking About the Disney Dichotomy. Retrieved 4th November 2013, from

Popova, M. 2013. How Remix Culture Fuels Creativity & Invention: Kirby Ferguson at TED. Retrieved 4th November 2013, from

ReadWrite. 2013. The Mobile Patent Wars: Are We Ready for This to Go Thermonuclear? Retrieved 4th November 2013, from

Wikipedia. 2013. The Grey Album. Retrieved 4th November 2013 from,


From → remix culture

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