March 21, 2008
SCMS: Gail Derecho and License to Remix

The Society for cinema and Media Studies conference earlier this month gave the Consortium its first change to officially welcome a few new consulting researchers to our project. One of those scholars is Abigail Derecho, who is currently teaching at Columbia College Chicago and who will be moving to the University of California-Berkeley in the fall. Gail and I met through the Gender and Fan Studies/Culture discussion that happened throughout last summer and fall over on C3 Director Henry Jenkins' blog and on LiveJournal, after she made various comments referring to her work on soap operas in her round of the conversation.

She and I began to share thoughts and research possibilities surrounding our common interest in soaps, leading to our planned collaboration with another C3 Consulting Researcher, C. Lee Harrington, to co-edit an anthology on the current state of the U.S. soap opera industry, entitled Search for Soaps' Tomorrow. SCMS provided me my first chance to see Gail "in action," so to speak, presenting her work, and I was especially excited to hear her present something off the path of the work we've been doing together, dealing not with soap operas but rather copyright issues surrounding the development of remix culture in hip-hop music and how legal precedents set in the early 1990s impact discussions of reappropriation of media content and video mash-ups today.

Gail began her discussion by talking about how it is important to keep in mind that, historically, many of the behaviors referred to today as "remix culture" and prevalent in online video editing has its roots not in the hands of white teenagers but rather African-American men and white American women, referring in particular to the development of sampling in hip-hop culture in Queens and the Bronx, and fan fiction communities that included many adult women. While I think it's key not to stereotype that fan fiction has been solely driven by adult female fans, nor that hip-hop culture only included African-American men, I think it is important to keep this historical distinction in mind any time discussion in popular culture treats remix culture as the creation of teenage white suburbia.

Her presentation, "License to Remix," discussed how it is vital to understand how the launch of these behaviors from marginalized portions of society--particularly hip-hop culture--has shaped the legal precedents set that are now affecting all remixing, in online video, sound, and other venues. Perhaps most compelling about her argument is that, if we consider sampling and remixing a media format viable for new creation and to be sold as cultural products, the copyright laws put in place in order to encourage experimentation are instead curtailing innovation. In short, legal rulings in 1991 decided that sampling without paying the price of costly permissions is illegal if one charges for the product. Derecho argues that pulling this content out of the market has led to a retardation of sampling experimentation, showing in particular how early sampling work in popular hip-hop was much more robust in combining multiple sources than more recent work.

Derecho looks in particular at the period between 1986 and 1991, when sampling had risen to prominence but before legal precedent had been set. She points out that, between 1989 and 1992, eight articles were written by legal scholars recommending a fair pay scheme for sampling, a body of work that has disappeared from prominence after legal precedent was set to not allow profit for sampling and declaring sampling without paying often incredibly high fees uncategorically and absolutely theft, with no floor or ceiling set on what could be charged. She said that all eight of these articles share the perspective that there is a need for protecting the rights of prior works but also the right of samples, to create their new art form and be able to profit from it, in a way that is also fair to those from whom they sample.

I found the presentation among the most illuminating I heart at SCMS. While I know these brief notes don't do it justice (and I hope I didn't butcher any of your points, Gail), I look forward to seeing her continuing work in this regard. For more on Gail's work, by the way, see her blog, Minority Fandom.