Remixing or Robbing?

Lawrence Lessig’s Remix (2008) incited a spark of passion in me that had been dormant for years.  His stance on artistic rights both infuriated me and critically challenged my foundational beliefs.   So it is out of necessity more than whim that I now address remixing “intellectual property”, an issue that I take very personally.

Lessig is an advocate of “free use”, that is, he believes that the public should be able to use media (music, writing, movies, etc…) for personal creative uses.   According to Lessig, societies can be divided into two camps

– Read and Write (RW) societies where the public actively consumes and produces media inspired by consumption, and

– Read Only (RO) societies where the public only consumes.

The gist is that RO societies are bleak dystopias ruled by commercialism and RW societies are the best thing since sliced bread – more democratic, more creative, more productive.  (Lessig 2008)

The point at which my temperature began to rise was when Lessig proposed that the public should not need permission to use artistic content, but HE NEVER MENTIONED GIVING CREDIT!

One thing about Lessig is that he rarely takes the perspective of the artist, and what happens when you aren’t given credit.

When I create videos or media, I always strive to follow YouTuber Casey Neistat‘s sound advice: always credit.  Whether music, quotes, or even inspiration, everything that came from someone else should be acknowledged.  I ran into an ironic situation with my own film making.   I decided to make an homage to my greatest filmmaking inspiration – Casey Neistat.  I made a vlog in his signature style, with his signature glasses, and signature content topics.  After titling my video “Vlog a la Casey” and mentioning his influence in my description, I dropped the bad boy on YT.   Weeks later, my friend posted his own vlog, using the same style, same shots, and same music as my vlog! I was outraged, not at being an influence but because neither me nor the music artist were credited.

And that’s not the only experience I’ve had with the issue of “intellectual property.”  It all started in elementary school…

A brief timeline of Matt’s experiences with “intellectual property”

-Elementary school: Matt designs his own trading cards with pictures of strange monsters.  Fellow students like them until someone calls Matt out for “copying” the Magic the Gathering trading card game.  Matt feels betrayed and burns the cards.

– Early College:  A History of Jazz course with Professor Katz exposes Matt to the dangers of cultural appropriation.  For example, the Truth Hurts song Addictive sampled “exotic Indian music.”  That sampled material turned out to be “Thoda Resham Lagta Hai“, a song recorded the the superstar Indian singer  Lata Mangeshkar for a 1981 Bollywoodfilm.  Commence $500 MILLION lawsuit for copyright infringment.   After the course, Matt associates appropriation with the evils of colonialism/imperialism.

– Mid-College: Matt discovers a cool Israeli fusion band called Balkan Beatbox, and Matt’s favorite song by BBB is called “Hermetico“.  Jump two years later – Matt hears “Hermetico” on a U.S. top 40 station!  Wait a minute…that’s not Hermetico.  That’s Jason Derulo, sampling BBB in his new hit WITHOUT GIVING CREDIT!  Matt is both amused and infuriated.

– Mid-College: Matt tries his hand at music remixes.  One remix Young & Beautiful + Sweater Weather Baker Mash-up becomes his channel’s most popular video.  Another remix is shot down by YouTube for copyright infringement and is banned from the site  (Me Myself and The Hills).  Matt stops remixing songs.

-Late-College:  A professor asks Matt to help make some movie montages from major motion pictures.  The montages are seen by  seen by hundreds of people live in seven large Chinese performance halls.   Matt is proud!

– Post-College: Matt’s vlog is copied.  He’s not happy, but it all works out.

As you can see, I’ve come full circle in the RW space – from copier to copied.  I understand Lessig’s yearning for a society with free remixing – the ability to draw from media leads to educational and community development.  But I also understand that there’s a difference between needing to ask permission and quoting without citation.   The bottom line is you NEED to reference influences and samples.  Otherwise, it’s plagiarism, and that’s definitely not cool.

To make my point, I will turn to two examples that Lessig uses. When highlighting the multiplying effect of remixing media into new contexts, Lessig highlights John McIntosh’s remix video “The Matrix Has You” and Soderberg’s “Read My Lips” videos (Lessig 2008).  I thought, wow these guys seem cool, let me look them up. After searching for the videos by title on Google, I found them and had a good laugh at the clever way that these two portray political perspectives.   However, there was one thing missing.  It wasn’t in the title, it wasn’t in the description, and it wasn’t anywhere on the page.  The name of the original creators.   That means that the thousands of visitors who wandered onto these videos watched them without anyway of attributing credit to McIntosh or Soderberg.  These two artists have been forgotten; not only is this depressing, but also it’s plagiarism.

Lessig writes Remix with only the best intentions – to allow creativity and learning to flourish like Sousa’s reference to “young people together singing the songs of the day or the old songs” (Lessig 2008).  But there is a major difference between singing a song with friends and posting a song remix to the internet – a remix is a digital, distributable product.  A product that wields the power to uplift or negate another’s creativity and work.

The format of credit doesn’t have to be fancy or time-consuming. A small, clear note at the end or in the description is all you need.  So regardless of whether or not you remix rap songs or reggae, or if you mash montages and musicals, you’ve gotta give credit where credit is deserved.


Lessig, L. (2008). Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. Penguin.


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