Something momentous is happening today on the Internet. Remix culture just won a major victory. A comedy singing group named Paul and Storm took a bunch of New Yorker cartoons and remixed their captions with tweets from Kanye West. The remixed cartoons were hilarious -- the Kanye captions even better than the original! The Washington Post, Huffington Post and other blogs soon got into the action reporting and displaying the New Yorker cartoons remixed with Kanye Tweets. Someone even created a website, kanyenewyorkertweets.com, displaying all of the remixed cartoons.
When I first got word of this remix activity, my first reaction was: How long will it take for the legal department of the New Yorker to shut this down? The New Yorker website is quite explicit that its cartoons, even when licensed, "cannot be adapted or altered in any way." My guess is that the remixers here didn't even have a formal copyright license to use the New Yorker cartoons, much less remix them.
But, as I waited for the shoe to drop from the New Yorker, something surprising happened. The New Yorker expressed its approval on Twitter to the remixed cartoons, stating "We agree!" to Kanye's tweet of "they put my tweets with @NewYorker cartoons hilarious!!" The New Yorker even posted one of the remixed Kanye/New Yorker cartoons on its Tumblr page. At least for now, the New Yorker appears to approve -- and indeed enjoy -- the remix of their cartoons.
So what does this mean for copyright in our remix culture? Well, it confirms my theory (in "Warming Up to User-Generated Content") that informal practices are just as important in understanding copyright as formal licenses and formal law. The conventional account of copyright -- that "permission first" must always be granted before anyone uses a copyrighted work -- is deeply flawed. Sometimes, and perhaps often, people's unauthorized uses of copyrighted works are later accepted or condoned by the copyright holders. Here, Kanye appears to have given his blessing to the reuse of his tweets, so too the New Yorker with the reuse of their cartoons.
So why is this important? It is important because it shows the promise of remix culture, as Internet guru Larry Lessig has written so eloquently about. When people can engage copyrighted works and "remix" them in new and quite interesting - -and, at times, hilarious -- ways, we all benefit. The ability to remix is the ability to engage, to critique, to (re)create the world, and the material around us. To quote Kanye, "heavy is the head otherwise."