Remix culture has been around for some time, with the origins user content and creative integrity dating back to Ancient Roman times. Yet it was not until the 20th Century where remix culture finally took hold in mainstream popular culture.
However, with the mass-distribution capabilities of the digital realm known as the internet, older media institutions and practices are taken aback at what could be a danger to their profit driven motifs. In numerous court and legal cases and examples of overzealous legal actions, these institutions have too often adopted a blanket approach to tackling the threat of the era of digital distribution. Caught in the cross fire of these traditional media institutions and the copyright breaching internet pirates are the so called re-mixers.
Whist these re-mixers have existed since at least the first half of the 20th Century (in the form of art movements such as the Pop Art movement of the 1950’s and 60’s), it is only now where the practices of these re-mixers are endangered courtesy of overeager enforcement of Copyright Protection.
There are numerous well documented case studies which illuminates the tensions between remix culture and older media institutions (such as the music, film and TV industries), yet there are also industries which have tolerated and even embraced the remix culture. However, the focus here will be on the foundation and the actions of Walt Disney Studios, in which numerous Disney Classics are in fact examples of the influence of remix culture.
Before we go into detail about the alleged creative and legal hypocrisy of Walt Disney Studios, we should take a step back and explain the cultural remix phenomenon.
Remix culture can be defined as the recreation or reimagining of existing user-created content in order to artificially manufacture new and unique content. Whilst re-mixers may use other user-created materials, this does not mean these re-mixers are simply rehashing or knocking off the original creator’s work. Re-mixers are not only DJs or Vjs, but are included are artists, musicians and film makers. To ensure the intellectual creative rights of the original user are preserved, at the heart of remix culture, is an Ancient Roman concept known as the ‘enigma of rights’.
The past age of movie and animated production in which consumers and producers assume the roles of aggregators and distributors respectively is long past. Thanks to methods of digital distribution, the boundaries between consumers and producers are blurred into a phenomenon dubbed as ‘Read/Write’ culture.
According to Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute, there are two differing takes on remix. “One remix is about individuals using our shared culture as a kind of language to communicate something to the audience. Stage two, social remix, is really about using it to mediate people’s relationships to each other.” Disney’s take on remix culture is a materialisation of Sanchez’s former explanation of remix. On this foundation, Disney has now become the massive international media industry as we know it today.
Disney’s remix origins
Mainstream society mostly attributes the successful proliferation of remix culture to the rise of the internet, and they would hardly be incorrect. However, remix culture can be traced back through the decades, proliferating through 20th Century art movements (such as Andy Warhol’s prints during the Pop art movement) and the term ‘appropriation’. Evidence of remix can also be found on the silver screen. In Hollywood, evidence of remix culture can be found in numerous movie adaptations and genre parodies. One of the giant media production industries of this day, Walt Disney Pictures, is a founding member of this Hollywood trend.
Many of Walt Disney’s early motion pictures were essentially rehashes and remixes of older stories and fairy tales that were available through the commons. Take for example Cinderella (1950), Snow White (1937) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). They are all fairy tale compiled by the Brothers Grimm in the 19th Century. Nowadays these movies are largely synonymous with the classic Disney adaptations of these traditional fairy tales, with many adults and children alike sharing memories of the Disney animated adaptations of these classics, and not the Brothers Grimm written versions. Even as recent as the 2010 Disney reimagining of Louis Carroll’s creation of Alice in Wonderland showcases the impact that remix culture still permeates its way through Disney’s creations.
Going even further back in time, back to the vary origins of Disney itself; there is more evidence of remix culture. In Mickey Mouse’s third foray on the moving screen in the 1928 short animated feature Steam Boat Willie was based on the 1928 silent film Steam Boat Bill Jr. Ironically, Steam Boat Willie has become the centre of attention in a US Congress debate over Copyright Laws and the Public Domain, which will be discussed later. It is justifiable to state that Disney’s very existence can be attributed to the successful adoption of remix culture. However as Disney had only remixed content from the public domain and the commons, Copyright protection laws have been used to
The copyright laws of today were created with the intention of protecting the legitimacy of the creator’s content and the creator’s rights. These laws also are instrumental in protecting company monopolies and profits over user created content. It would hardly be surprising if the latter statement has been a driving force behind Disney’s motifs; after all, most other traditional media industries are following this very same path.
Strangely enough, despite its very own foundation being a feature of remix culture, Disney is one of the legal heavyweights behind the copyright backed legal actions against remixes. The reverse however cannot be applied to Disney, courtesy of US copyright laws which state that sole rights to a patent expire 70 years after the creator’s death. When content ownership and distribution rights are owned by a corporation, this expiration date can be extended. Moreover, US Congress acts which extend copyright have prevented Steam Boat Willie from being released to the public domain, which will be discussed shortly.
A prime example of Disney’s overzealous legal action to defend its profit-driven copyrighted content is through Disney’s lawsuit against a group of cartoonists known as the Air Pirates is one such incident. Using the defence of ‘fair use’ in copyrighted material, the defendants argued for their right to use Disney images for the purpose of ridicule and parody in the Air Pirates numerous comic strips which usually depict Disney characters performing adult-related activities that fall well outside of the characters’ established personas. It was only after a lengthy court battle in which the case was finally adjourned.
Furthermore, Steam Boat Willie and the image of Mickey Mouse have also been at the centre of Copyright Extension Laws in the United States. These Extension Laws have prevented the animated mouse from becoming a part of the public domain on at least four occasions. However, in all these occasions, US Congress have in favour of Disney retaining the rights of the animated short film, to the criticism of supporters for the commons and the public domain. There was even a problem with the original copyright of the film itself, which may have automatically made it apart of the commons.
Disney’s high level of reluctance and its refusal to release Steam Boat Willie and the image of Mickey Mouse into the public domain represents the convoluted remix nature of Disney Studios. Whilst it appears the mechanical film reproduction and adaptation of fairy tale classics is acceptable, the re-interpretations and parodies of Disney characters are not. In the words of Lawrence Lessig, founder of the Creative Commons License, Disney’s intentions and actions were undertaken “so that no one could do to Disney what Disney did to the Brothers Grimm.”
In relation to the monetization of copyrighted material, Sanchez argues that Disney’s take on remix culture may be justified. “Copyright policy isn’t just about how to incentivize the production of a certain kind of artistic commodity; it’s about what level of control we’re going to permit to be exercised over our social realities, social realities that are now inevitable, permeated by pop culture.” It is this level of control, in other words, which Disney has however refused to release, which remains a core issue in remix culture in general.
So does this all mean that Disney a hypocrite of its own legal actions and very foundations? Is this traditional media industry fundamentally at odds with Remix culture?
Whilst there are different perspectives from Walt Disney Studios from active re-mixers of Disney icons, there is much common ground to be found. Disney’s very own foundation was based upon remix culture, and example of an active embracement which has shaped Disney into the media production powerhouse industry it is today. Yet despite all this, Disney’s remix practices are justifiable under law as the content Disney has remixed belongs to the public domain, free for anyone to access and use how they see appropriate.
However, with all that said, remix culture should be entitled to find a legal, unobstructed access of remixing Disney’s works as Disney had been entitled to use existing content as the basis for many classic Disney titles. This presents an interesting dilemma, which does not necessarily isolate Disney away and at odds with remix culture, but rather a two-fold relationship. Disney only adopts remix culture when it benefits them, and not when the reverse is applied. In order to preserve the notion of the commons and the public domain, amendments to Copyright fair use must be made in order to justify Disney’s vary own practices, and to help preserve the continuing phenomenon known as the remix culture.
- Lessig, L. Larry Lessig on laws that choke creativity, TED, November 2009, viewed on June 7 2010 <http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/larry_lessig_says_the_law_is_strangling_creativity.html>
- Lessig, L. ‘Re-examining the remix’, TED, May 2010, viewed on 7 June 2010, <http://www.ted.com/talks/lessig_nyed.html>
- Sanchez, J. Evolution of the Remix, Julian Sanchez.com, February 6 2010, viewed on 6 June 2010. <http://www.juliansanchez.com/2010/02/06/the-evolution-of-remix-culture/>
- ‘Chapter 3: Duration of Copyright,’ Copyright Law of the United States of America, 1998, viewed on 5 June 2010, <http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap3.html#303>
- ‘Public Law 105-298’, United States Congress, 1998, viewed on 8 June 2010 <http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-105publ298/content-detail.html>
Books/ Web Articles
- Disney Pictures, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, Disney Pictures, viewed on 8 June 2010, <http://adisney.go.com/disneypictures/aliceinwonderland/>
- Grimm Brothers, ‘The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales’. New York: Pantheon Books, 1944. ISBN 0-394-49414-6. (in English, based on Margarate Hunt’s translation)
- Lessig, L. ‘Chapter One: Creators’, Free Culture, Authorama, 2004, viewed on 8 June 2010, <http://www.authorama.com/free-culture-27.html>
- Levin, B. ‘The Pirates and the Mouse: Disney’s War Against the Counterculture’, Fantagraphics Books, 2003
- Livingstone, M., Pop Art: A Continuing History, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990
- Mancini, A. Ancient Roman solution to modern legal issues: the example of patent law, Buenos Books America, 2004,
- Menn, J. ‘Whose mouse is it anyway?’ The Los Angeles Times, August 22 2008, viewed on 8 June 2010, <http://articles.latimes.com/2008/aug/22/business/fi-mickey22>
 Mancini, A. Ancient Roman solution to modern legal issues: the example of patent law, Buenos Books America, 2004, p. 2
 Livingstone, M., Pop Art: A Continuing History, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990
 Mancini 2004, p. 2
 Lessig, L. Larry Lessig on laws that choke creativity, TED, November 2009, viewed on June 7 2010
 Sanchez, J. Evolution of the Remix, Julian Sanchez.com, February 6 2010, viewed on 6 June 2010. <http://www.juliansanchez.com/2010/02/06/the-evolution-of-remix-culture/>
 Lessig, 2009
 Disney Pictures, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, Disney Pictures, viewed on 8 June 2010, <http://adisney.go.com/disneypictures/aliceinwonderland/>
 Lessig, ‘Re-examining the remix’, 2010
 Mancini 2005, p.1
 ‘Public Law 105-298’, United States Congress, 1998, viewed on 8 June 2010
 Menn, J. ‘Whose mouse is it anyway?’ The Los Angeles Times, August 22 2008, viewed on 8 June 2010, <http://articles.latimes.com/2008/aug/22/business/fi-mickey22>
 Lessig, ‘Re-examining the remix’, 2010
 Sanchez, 2010