The Remix Generation

The Delhi high court’s decision allowing photocopying of textbooks for educational purposes has been praised for its modern interpretation of copyright law. The ruling emphasizes the need to adapt copyright law to contemporary realities, including the rise of digital content and remix culture, where traditional copyright may hinder creativity.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

The Delhi high court decision allowing a Delhi University shop to sell photocopies of textbooks and court material has been praised as one of the most beautiful expositions on the law of copyright as it applies to fair use in educational works. Much has been written about the impact that this judgement will have on the publishing industry—and in particular on scholarly writing. Students and universities have loudly acclaimed the verdict while publishers claim to have lost all incentive to publish academic works now that the education exception allows students to photocopy textbooks indiscriminately.

In his ruling, Justice Rajiv Sahai Endlaw referred to his time as a student when photocopying facilities were limited, recalling how he had to laboriously copy, usually by hand, pages upon pages of suggested reading. He marvelled at the fact that technology now allows text to be copied at a low cost so that students don’t have to spend days on end in the library scribing notes. He concluded that such an advancement of technology could hardly be “wrong".

This, to me, is the most powerful idea contained in the pages of the judgement—the explicit recognition that when statutes are interpreted at a future point in time and in the context of new technologies, they must be given an appropriate modern interpretation that still gives effect to the original intention. This is the sort of contemporary thinking necessary to bring our copyright law in line with modern reality. After all, the creative industry has changed significantly from when copyright was first introduced in 1710.

Copyright was originally adapted from traditional notions of property to give authors recourse against those who sought to gain from copying their original works. However, creativity is, by its nature, additive—drawing inspiration from earlier works and feeding off the creativity of others. Accordingly, exemptions had to be written in to the statute to allow for creative latitude. This is why the term of copyright is limited and there are various exemptions to copying for fair use.

All of this is easier to implement when art requires a physical medium to give it substance. Over the years, creativity has became more insubstantial (and increasingly digital) and we have come to realize that the strict application of the same standards of copyright protection can have inconsistent results.

Take the medium of motion pictures as an example. YouTube videos are currently viewed more than 4 billion times a day with the most-viewed videos having been watched over several billion times. More than 300 hours of video clips are uploaded on YouTube every minute. In terms of sheer volume, it is these videos—and not the slick blockbusters produced by the traditional film industries of Hollywood and Bollywood—that represent the epicentre of modern video culture.

The vast majority of these YouTube movies are created by remixing content. Fans routinely remix movie trailers by adding soundtracks and voice-overs to create new and different works. They rebuild music videos by using the original song and then mashing it up with film clips and annotated text. Some of the funniest (and often most viral videos) come from news clips of famous personalities, set to music in an exaggerated and often cartoonish way.

This is the creative content of our times, atomically non-original but unique in the sum of its parts. According to media theorist Lev Manovich, we have entered the era of “database cinema"—where the organic production of original work has become optional. Filmmakers today rely less on capturing reality through the expensive filmmaking process and more on the vast databases of content that they can edit and remix to tell their stories. In doing so, today’s filmmakers use this video content in the same way that authors use a thesaurus—to string together video clips like words on a page—as they produce their creative works.

And this is where traditional copyright law comes in the way.

We are far more unforgiving of “copying" video content than we are of text. The various fair use exemptions that Justice Endlaw relied on in his judgement are largely unavailable to video artists.

Take, for example, the simple device of putting text within quotation marks to avoid prosecution for plagiarism—no equivalent exists for video content. At a time when digital fingerprinting has armed content owners with powerful tools with which they can sniff out the smallest traces of original content in remixed work, modern video artists are often just one misstep away from conviction.

There is merit in re-imagining copyright law to make it more relevant to our remix age. If we believe that platforms like YouTube are the stages on which modern artists perform, it should be evident to us all that traditional notions of copyright no longer serve the greater good of the creative industry.