Cutting across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage, and Copyright Law/Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright

By Hanson, Ralph E. | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Cutting across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage, and Copyright Law/Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright


Hanson, Ralph E., Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


Kimbrew McLeod and Rudolph Kuenzli, eds. · Cutting across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage, and Copyright Law. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 201 I. 361 pp.

Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 190 pp.

Trying to explain what Gregg Gillis, who performs under the stage name Girl Talk, does to someone who grew up in the eras of The Doors or The Ramones can be a bit challenging. Technically, Gillis is a mash-up artist - someone who combines two or more samples of music to create new musical experience.

As an example, one of the most famous mash-ups is DJ Danger Mouse's "Grey Album," a combination of the vocals from rapper Jay-Z's "The Black Album" and samples from the Beatles 1968 album, "The Beatles" (better known as "The White Album"). But despite the artistic success of straightforward mash-ups by artists such as Danger Mouse, nothing compares to the sonic collages created by Girl Talk. Gillis, who has a degree in biomédical engineering, quit his day job several years ago to create his remixes. His most recent album, "All Day," reportedly contains at least four hundred samples - typically snippets of rap combined with samples of pop, rock, or soul music from the past forty or fifty years, including The Doors and the Ramones.

Both Danger Mouse and Girl Talk have given away their albums online, and none of the samples have been licensed or paid for use. Capitol/EMI, the Beatles publisher, sent out a cease-and-desist letter telling Danger Mouse and the websites hosting his work to take down the album because it infringed on the Beatles' copyright. But when the album remained online, nothing happened to those distributing the content. And so far, no one has sued Girl Talk's Gillis for his massive sampling.

It is the world of such collagists working in the legal netherworld between fair use and flat-out infringement that occupies the attention of Cutting across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage, and Copyright Law. The book is an eclectic anthology of essays, oral histories, interviews, and collages. The introduction by editors McLeod and Kuenzli sets the stage with the Igor Stravinsky quote, "A good composer does not imitate, he steals" (p. 1 ). Instead of focusing on the need for and procedures for fair use or the need for the public domain, McLeod and Kuezli look instead at the collage/remix culture that creates new works out of old: "The chapters included here implicitly or explicitly treat collage as a cultural practice that can intervene within mass media, consumer culture, copyright regimes, and everyday life" (p. 2).

A key point in both the opening essay and in the collection itself is that collage/ remix/assemblage is not unique to the digital era. Among the examples is a brief essay by Lloyd Dunn from the sound assemblage group The Tape-beatles about his work on PhotoStatic magazine and the concept of casual publishing. Photocopiers made it easy for artists to not only combine source materials in new ways but also to distribute the new work on a small-scale and inexpensive way. Following his essay is a series of pages from a 1988 edition of PhotoStatic on the Tape-beatles and an interview with Dunn and his colleague John Heck about the legal and creative issues that emerged from their work on sound and visual collages. Another is a photo essay by culture jammer Craig Baldwin portraying billboard alterations and "improvements" from the 1980s and 1990s in the San Francisco area that include turning cigarette billboards into antiwar, antimilitary statements.

The digital age gets its own attention with essays from Davis Schneiderman (on DJ Danger Mouse and others) and from Illegal Arts founder "Philo T. Farnsworth" (the publisher for Girl Talk). Farnsworth argues that while what Girl Talk does is legal under fair use, he would be interested in opening up a wider discussion with the music industry:

Our interests have never been to completely dismantle copyright law, but we operate on the fringes due to the extreme reactions by the entertainment industry to sampling.

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