Saturday 25th March 2017,
Televisual

Music Video Remakes: Fair Use (!) and History

So the following post is a truncated version of a paper I’ve written and plan to submit to conferences and publications soon. For an unrevised draft of the paper, click here. For a playful YouTube video I made on this topic, click here.

Katy Perry's I Kissed a Girl"

Katy Perry's I Kissed a Girl"

Venetian Princess' rendition of "I Kissed a Girl"

Venetian Princess' parody of "I Kissed a Girl"

For non-academics and makers of YouTube and other online video the headline for this post should read: Music Video Remakes = Fair Use! Though this isn’t the main point of my essay, it’s obviously the most relevant and practical. My basic fair use argument is this: using the most important part of Pierre Leval’s “four factors” and jettisoning the rest, music video remakes are almost always fair use because they necessarily “transform” the original work they mimic. Why? Because corporate music videos (the originals) are promotional tools for celebrities and music. Nearly all remakes either change, replace or remix the celebrity or the music in a video, thereby transforming fundamentally the original purpose of the music video and creating something new and interesting!

There are other ways to justify the fair use of the many other videos that appear on YouTube. The best of these remedies is Peter Jaszi and Pat Aufderheide’s “Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video,” a clear and brilliant set of guidelines to assure users they are not criminals — it also provides a useful defense for users when they receive a takedown notice from YouTube or another portal. There are only six categories, so it’s worth a look-over. I was surprised how many YouTube users obey the takedown notice without protest; there is a knowledge gap between copyright holders (mostly corporations, but some small producers) and YouTube users. Many users are simply unaware of the fair use defense, and if they are, they are not skilled enough to make a convincing one.

The bulk of the paper examines the history of the music video and shows how, from it’s inception, the video was all about challenging coherent narratives, dominant representations and authorship itself, or at least that’s how scholars interpreted it. Music videos were inherently participatory, sites of fandom; people sang and acted out the videos in their homes. I use this framework to suggest the video remake follows in the music video tradition of challenging dominant narratives, encouraging fandom and viewer participation.

A remake should not have to be a parody to be fair use; it shouldn’t even have to critique the original, which courts have seen as the clearest fair use defense. Many of the remakes are simply homages, and my framework allows for derivative works that don’t critique but instead extend or reinvent the original. Transformativeness should be interpreted as broadly as possible. Just because Weird Al Yankovic asks (and pays) for consent because he needs the industry’s approval to survive, doesn’t mean that model is appropriate for the user who simply wants to remix to demonstrate skill, or his/her love or disdain of the original!

This is a very clear extension of James Boyle (The Public Domain) and Lawrence Lessig’s (Free Culture) argument that culture belongs to everyone, that it is public, and that no one can make anything that is wholly original. As Henry Jenkins argued quite a long time ago, we all make culture from existing (often mainstream and corporate) culture.

So make remakes and prosper! If YouTube sends you a takedown notice, call me.

Britney Houston's "Lipgloss." Houston told me: “If I didn’t like a video I wouldn’t do it…I do it because I like the artist…I’m a big fan of all those people, and people know who they are.”

Britney Houston's "Lipgloss." Houston told me: “If I didn’t like a video I wouldn’t do it…I do it because I like the artist…I’m a big fan of all those people, and people know who they are.”

Lil' Mama's original "Lipgloss"

Lil' Mama's original "Lipgloss"

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THESIS (for those who care):

For a genre most recognizable by the antics of Weird Al Yankovic, who inaugurated the form over twenty-five years ago soon after MTV inaugurated the music video, the moderate popularity of music video remakes on YouTube marks a hallmark in the evolution of several historical trajectories, including that of music video itself, the increasingly public nature of fandom, the desire for fame among young people raised on the Internet (“millennials”), the power of digital technology to democratize cultural production, the growing cultural power of remixing, sampling and mash-ups, and the persistence, perhaps the evolution, of postmodern aesthetics. In all, these cultural artifacts on YouTube fundamentally question cultural ownership at a time when digital technology is forcing corporations and legal institutions to continually rethink copyright, fair use and how to ensure the progress of the sciences and the arts, a Constitutional imperative, while honoring rich cultural histories and modes of production of users. All of these currents run through the genre of music video remakes, marking them as a historically significant development in media history.

This paper proposes answers to the dilemma of cultural ownership in the digital age – copyright – through a theoretical and historical lens. First I will place the remakes in the context of music video history and then differentiate them from forms of production that have arisen since, including remixing, sampling and mash-ups. I will then discuss the cultural significance of music video remakes, i.e. what they say about this contemporary moment. Next I will discuss why individuals engage in such activities and offer a way to categorize their videos. In compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, YouTube takes down videos accused of violating copyright, so I will proceed by discussing some of the consequences of this policy on the remakes. Finally I will attempt a fair use argument using the examples of Britney Houston’s “Lipgloss” and a few others as a way incorporate the history and meanings of this form into actionable policy and practice; I argue that nearly all music video remakes inherently transform their source material by remaking and reimagining the corporate image, providing a legal justification for this form of media production predicated on pastiche, sharing and multiple interpretations.

Once again, full paper here.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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