Remixing the Public Domain

Exhibition Statement

In 2004 when Lawrence Lessig first published his book Free Culture, the Internet was in full bloom. Over the course of ten years, Internet use grew from 5% in 1994 to nearly two-thirds of all Americans by the end of 2004. In the decade following, the trend continued to the point of near saturation. The full integration of the Internet into daily life has meant that we access much of our cultural content without cost. That is, fewer people pay subscription fees for news and magazine articles; fewer people rely on cable packages to watch television; and fewer people pay for music that they can stream for free. But the cultural products we’ve avoided paying for in cash have cost us in other ways.

Free social media platforms track our cultural interests, advertisements litter our screens, and copyright law prevents us from sharing much of the cultural content we consume on a daily basis. That lack of freedom to share, remix, and redistribute cultural content places legal limits on creative innovation, Lessig argues. “The law’s role is less and less to support creativity, and more and more to protect certain industries against competition,” he writes. “Just at the time digital technology could unleash an extraordinary range of commercial and noncommercial creativity, the law burdens this creativity with insanely complex and vague rules and with the threat of obscenely severe penalties.” Instead of a free culture that protects creative work, Lessig shows how in the United States we have evolved a permission culture that only allows people to create with the permission of powerful copyright holders.

One crucial exception to the rule of copyright is the public domain. After a period of legal protection, creative works pass into the public domain to become free for unrestricted use. Although corporate lobbying has extended copyright significantly, pushing the public domain further and further into our cultural past, public domain works nonetheless remain an important resource for creative work in the age of digital reproduction. Institutions like the New York Public Library and have affirmed that importance by making available extensive collections of public domain works. Meanwhile, legal projects like Creative Commons have pioneered new ways of sharing creative work without sacrificing copyright interests.

This Omeka exhibit puts into action those legal and institutional affirmations of creative sharing. Students in Digital Technology & Culture searched vast online collections to find works in the public domain or licensed for reuse and redistribution. Using those source materials—and carefully documenting them in the process—they created remixes that do something new and interesting with the original works. Remixing brings our cultural past into the present by combining old media in ways that make them meaningful for contemporary audiences. We saw just that sort of creative ingenuity explode with hip-hop and sampling a generation ago. However, as Lessig argues and as this exhibit demonstrates, remixing culture is not particular to hip-hop or even to music. Building on other people’s ideas to make something new and unique is exactly how creative production works. Here we try to make that process transparent.


Cover image by Jean-Phillipe Kmiec of the Wikimedia France.


DTC101 - Summer 2016