Lankshear and Knobel Remix Lessig

[W]riting … is just one part of a much more general practice of cultural engagement that, following Lessig … we may call remix … . Remix is the idea of someone mixing cultural resources together, and then someone else coming along and remixing the thing the previous person had created, by selecting from it and adding new cultural resources to it, and inserting their own purposes and inflections into it. In this sense, we could say-broadly speaking—that culture is remix. We could say that knowledge is remix, that politics is remix, and so on. Always and everywhere this is how cultures have been made—by remixing; taking what others have created, remixing it, and sharing with other people again. This is what cultures are. …

We have earlier mentioned some familiar tools of writings—the pencil and the typewriter. These tools have now changed. … Remixing practices have changed as well. Right now the key tools of remix and of writing as remix are digital. The internet, particularly, is awash with examples of ways in which these digital tools get used in the practice of creativity.

One of the best-known everyday examples of digital remix is found in the burgeoning popular cultural practice of AMV (anime music video) production. AMV culture is a mix of anime, music and video culture. Anime are the various Japanese cartoon series on television. Aficionados of AMV culture record a full series of these anime cartoons and then re-edit them and synchronize them to music … . So we now have a kind of music video but using anime. Many of these cultural producers are kids sitting in their bedrooms with computers taking images that they capture and re-expressing them by synching them to music or to sound tracks of film trailers. Lest we think that this is the extraordinary creativity of Japanese youth it is important to recognize that these AMV creators are not necessarily Japanese kids. They’re a community made up largely, if not still primarily, of American kids—collectively from a multiplicity of ethnic backgrounds—numbering in the hundreds of thousands, connected through the internet and engaging in this particular practice of remix. In their productions, the form of their music videos is constrained by the particular anime series or soundtrack they are using to create their images or trailer with, and the challenge is to achieve originality within the parameters of synchronizing music and animation … .

As Lessig explains, the kinds of creations represented by [Anime] … were possible in 1970, but only if you were a television station or a film or music studio producer. But now anyone with a $1500 computer can capture images and sounds from the culture around them and make sophisticated statements using these resources. It is a kind of writing, and one that is changing much in our world. It is changing the feel of society; changing the freedom of speech by changing the powers of speech. It is not merely re-creating a kind of broadcast democracy, but, rather, is increasingly building a bottom-up democracy. As Lessig … puts it, these new initiatives are not reproducing a New York Times kind of democracy but are engendering a network(ed) democracy. This is not a matter of the few speaking to the many, but of people increasingly speaking peer to peer. This is also changing the way we speak about writing. This is what constitutes writing in the early 21st century. It is writing with a different set of tools. It is the same activity but with different “words.” But it is now not just words. Rather, it is words with sounds and images and video—with everything our culture consumes. All this material, digitized, is the source for this writing.

As we increasingly understand how youth use these technologies we recognize that it is through this freedom of use that they come to know the world. They know it through their capacity to tinker with the expressions that the world gives them, in just the same way we came to know the world when we tinkered with its words. But now the world is different. Today’s young people engage in active creative remixing of the culture that is around them. For them, writing is exactly what they do every time they remix the kinds of resources that they (and we) consume.

There is a very important educational dimension to this. Just as there is a grammar for the written word, so, too, is there a grammar for media. Just as young people learn how to write by writing lots of what is often at first terrible prose, so they (and we) learn how to write media by constructing lots of (what at least, at first may be) terrible media.

A growing field of academics and activists sees this form of literacy as crucial to the next generation of culture. For although anyone who has written conventional text understands how difficult writing is—how difficult it is to sequence the story, to keep a reader’s attention, to craft language to be understandable—few of us have any real sense of how difficult digital media production is. More fundamentally, perhaps, few of us may have a clear sense of how media works; of how it holds an audience or leads its audience through a story, or of how it triggers emotion or builds suspense … .

Lessig identifies “read-only” as the twentieth century world of media and welcomes the way in which the twenty-first century could be different, by being both reading and writing. At the very least it might be “reading and better understanding the craft of writing” … . But at best it would be “reading and understanding the tools that enable the writing to lead or mislead.” From this perspective, the aim of any literacy, and the aim of … media literacy … is to “empower people to choose the appropriate language for what they need to create or express” … . It is to enable students “to communicate in the language of the twenty-first century”.

In an interesting paradox, educators often find that extending to young people opportunities to learn to write with the new tools of writing can become “a powerful and productive conduit for learning to write (or write better) with ‘the old words’“ … . Interestingly, the language of digital media comes more easily to some young people than it does to others—just as is the case with any kind of language. And, not surprisingly, perhaps, it does not necessarily come more easily to those people who excel in formal written language. From this standpoint it is worth noting the potential that providing formal learning opportunities in writing as remix might have for redressing traditional inequities within formal education. Leaving such considerations aside for the present, however, [researcher] … Barish reported to Lessig an especially poignant case of a project they ran in a low-income area, inner-city Los Angeles school. By all conventional measures of success, this school was a failure. Daley and Barish’s program gave learners an opportunity to use film to express meaning about something they knew about: namely, gun violence.

The account of the class relayed by Barish affirms an increasingly familiar experience of educators who address challenges of literacy education at least in part by shifting activity onto ground that includes some of the new tools and practices of writing: notably, digital remix. Familiar problems were turned on their heads. The Friday afternoon class presented the school with a new kind of challenge. In place of the usual challenge—to get the kids to come to class— the new class presented the challenge of keeping them out of class. Barish described learners “showing up at 6 a.m. and leaving at 5 at night” … . The students were working harder than in any other class to do what education should be about: namely, promoting learning on the part of young people about how to express themselves.

Barish described the class using whatever “free web stuff they could find” in conjunction with relatively simple tools that enabled the students to mix “image, sound, and text.” Participants produced a series of multimedia projects that communicated information and meanings about gun violence that few people who live outside such experiences on a regular basis would otherwise understand. Gun violence was an issue that was close to the students’ lives and, as Barish explained, the project “gave them a tool and empowered them to be able to both understand it and talk about it” … .

[Turning] to the question about whether the new kind of writing is free we find that the simple answer, based on the perspective of American and European Union conceptions of the rules of copyright, is “No.”

Lessig explains this is because against the background of copyright law the new uses of culture in the kinds of remix practices described above are technically illegal. The reason for this illegality stems from the fundamental digital inversion of copyright that has been produced by the digital network. The default position with respect to freedom to use and share culture has been flipped—inverted—by the architecture of digital technology … . The default in the analogue world was that our freedom to act on and to use culture was free, in the sense of “unregulated.” …

As it happens, most of the potential uses of books are not regulated by copyright law because these uses do not involve making a copy. Using likely and less likely examples of uses of a book, Lessig observes that,

[if] you read a book, that act is not regulated by copyright law. If you give someone the book, that act is not regulated by copyright law. If you resell a book, that act is not regulated (copyright law expressly states that after the first sale of a book, the copyright owner can impose no further conditions on the disposition of the book). If you sleep on the book or use it to hold up a lamp or let your puppy chew it up, those acts are not regulated by copyright law, because these acts do not make a copy.

Of course there are uses of a copyrighted book that are regulated by copyright law. These include republishing the book, because this makes a copy. Accordingly, republishing a book is regulated by copyright law. …. Finally, in addition to unregulated and copyright regulated uses of a book “there is a tiny sliver of otherwise regulated copying uses that remain unregulated because the law considers these ‘fair uses’“ … .

[y]ou are free to quote from this chapter, even in a review that is quite negative, without my permission, even though that quoting makes a copy. That copy would ordinarily give the copyright owner the exclusive right to say whether the copy is allowed or not, but the law denies the owner any exclusive right over such “fair uses” for public policy (and possibly First Amendment) reasons. …

… This example of the book from the physical, analogue world is overturned when the internet enters the equation. This is because the internet is “a distributed, digital network where every use of a copyrighted work produces a copy” … . This “single, arbitrary feature of the design of a digital network” results in a dramatic change in the scope of unregulated uses … , whether we are talking about online books or any other kind of artifact that becomes a potential resource for writing (as remix). As the above figure illustrates, uses of kinds that hitherto were presumptively unregulated now presumptively become regulated. …

The digital world, then, is fundamentally different from the analogue world from the perspective of the breach of copyright right law. …

What does this mean? Lessig notes in the first instance that what it does not mean is that kids will not use technology to crack the [digital rights management] technology that has been layered into content in the attempt to control free cultural activity. This is precisely what many of them will do. They will do it in order to be able to continue engaging in the type of cultural creativity known as digital remix. They will always engage in this type of creativity.

What it does mean, by contrast, is that we cannot formally teach them how to speak and write in this way. We won’t be able to set up classes that engage in 21st century creative writing and learning … because to do so would be to establish institutions and institutional practices that effectively support what the law currently calls “piracy.” …

Creative Commons aims to create technologies that produce a simple way for authors and artists to mark their content with the freedoms they intend their content to carry. This informs would-be users/remixers of this work of the conditions under which they are permitted by the original creator to use this work. When creators go to the Creative Commons website they are given a choice of licenses to apply to their work. They can select among licenses that allow creators to permit or constrain commercial uses of their work, to permit or constrain modifications of their work and the conditions under which those who modify a creator’s work are entitled to release any work that builds on that creator’s work. So, for example, if a creator allows modifications of their work they may—if they wish—select a license requiring that other creators release any work that builds upon their own work in similarly free terms. …

Creative Commons licenses come in three separate layers. The first layer is a humanly readable common deed. This is the expression of a freedom associated with that content in terms that anyone should be able to understand. The second layer is a lawyer-readable license. This is intended to make enforceable the freedoms associated with that content. The third layer—and the layer Lessig regards as most important—is a machine-readable legal expression of the freedoms associated with that kind of content. This layer means that search engines could begin to gather content on the basis of the freedoms involved.

So, for example, potential users of cultural resources can direct a search engine to “Show me all the pictures of the Empire State Building that are available for noncommercial use” and the search engine will gather the relevant works on the basis of freedoms. …

[A] new generation of learning theorists and other educationists is doing their best to convince anyone open to the idea that education is best understood in terms of pursuing capacity for expert performance in social practices and discourses that enable us to live as well as possible in the world as social, economic/professional, civic, aesthetic, ethical, spiritual/emotional, etc. beings. This entails interacting with cultural tools and artifacts, with norms and rule systems, and with other people (experts, peers, novices) within situations and contexts that approximate as closely and appropriately as possible to those in which learners will find themselves throughout their subsequent life trajectories. This is not about content transfer. It is about acting in and on the world using cultural artifacts. It is, in other words, very much like Lessig’s idea of learning to write by manipulating existing cultural material. This is not about plagiarism, since the point is not to create a product per se. It is only when content transfer and the demonstration of that transfer are mistaken for ends of education that plagiarism becomes a problem. Any educational task that can seemingly be met by an act of plagiarism is not an adequate educational task. On the other hand, the kind of cultural remixing that takes existing products, puts them together as a way of seeing how they work and what kinds of things result from putting them together in different ways, becomes part of a progressive practice of learning how to do what experts do, by leaning on them through the medium of their cultural creations. Slowly but surely, as understanding of areas of inquiry and social practices of diverse kinds are “unveiled” and understood in terms of systems of norms and rules, and standards (and the modifiable, evolving and “improvable” nature of these) become enhanced through purposeful situated engagements, learners lean less comprehensively an intact cultural creations and increasingly generate their “own”—albeit as re-nixes to a greater or lesser extent of extant cultural materials they encounter in their environments … .


Lankshear, Colin and Michele Knobel. 2008. “Digital Literacy and the Law: Remixing Elements of Lawrence Lessig’s Ideal of “Free Culture”.” in Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices, edited by C. Lankshear and M. Knobel. New York: Peter Lang, pp.282-303. || Amazon || WorldCat


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