It is extremely hard to describe the new kinds of remixes that digital technologies enable. That may be their point. You could look at some examples at atmo.se. But if you’re stuck with your imagination, then you need to extrapolate from examples you’ve seen so far. Think about the very best examples of digital media that you’ve experienced (perhaps the JibJab remix of “This Land Is Your Land”), and then remember they’re not likely the product of Sony or Disney. Digital technologies have inspired an extraordinary range of creativity, in part because they lower the media market’s barriers to entry, which in turn invites a much wider range of participation.
We’re just now beginning to see the consequences of this democratization of artistic means. A couple years ago, for example, a young filmmaker named Jonathan Caouette began playing with his boyfriend’s iMac. The iMac came bundled with Apple’s iMovie program. Caouette was smitten with it. And while he had never studied film, he had shot an extraordinary amount of video growing up. He began obsessively to digitize this video. Then, using iMovie, he remixed it. The result was a film that was the hit of Sundance and Cannes in 2004: Tarnation. It cost Caouette just $218 to make this film.
The point is not that anyone can make a Cannes hit. But it is enough to recognize that many more people (indeed, millions more) could make good films. New digital technologies could enable an explosion of creative work.
Now there’s no problem, of course, with this sort of creativity if the underlying remixed culture is “free”: Jonathan Caouette didn’t have much trouble making his film since he remixed his own footage. But what if you wanted to use these technologies to remix copyrighted content with your own content?
The short answer is, you couldn’t. Under today’s rules, remixing copyrighted digital content is infringing the rights of the copyright holder.
That in turn makes concrete the second, less familiar, complaint against DRM: if the technology permits the most extreme interpretation of existing copyright law, remixing will not become merely difficult. It will be effectively impossible – without clearing the rights first. If content is locked in code that requires permission before it can be reused, or remixed, then that permission will poison the practice of remixing. A kind of creativity – familiar since the beginning of culture – will thus be lost to digital culture and, as digital culture occupies more and more of our activities, to culture as a whole.
This, finally, is the link between the free-software and free-culture movements. In both, there was a practice that was essentially free. In both, a change in the environment of the practice removed that freedom. With free software, the change was the rise of proprietary code. With free culture, the change was the radical expansion of the reach of copyright regulation. Technology made both of these changes possible. Both the free-software and free-culture movements in turn use technology and law (through copyright licenses) to restore the freedoms that proprietary code and culture removed. Each proceeds through the voluntary efforts of creators to preserve a wider range of freedoms for their successors. Each seeks a world without the controls that the extremes of proprietary assertion produce.