Copy, transform, combine—according to documentary director and writer Kirby Ferguson, these are the concepts underpinning all creativity. “Everything is a remix,” Ferguson declared on the TEDGlobal stage, expressing his belief that the ultimate driver of progress in the arts, technology, and society is borrowing from others. As the free flow of Internet culture persistently collides with patents, copyrights, and our understanding of intellectual ownership, Ferguson reminds us that although the mash-up might seem a relatively new phenomenon, the ethos behind it is not. He recently spoke with TED.com staff writer Ben Lillie.
BL: What were your own biggest influences in looking at remix culture?
KF: First and foremost, there was the first wave of “copy left” people, like Lawrence Lessig and Siva Vaidhyanathan. Brett Gaylor made a movie called RiP!: The Remix Manifest, and then there were a few other documentaries, like Good Copy Bad Copy and Steal This Movie.
There was this first wave back just after Napster, when there were just a lot of crazy lawsuits going on. People were starting to download things and chop them up and make new stuff—plenty of piracy, for sure—but some strong reactions were coming from the corporate realm. So those guys did a lot to publicize that issue and to turn the tide a bit. They pushed back hard, and I think they changed the conversation. But there was nobody addressing the underlying reality, which is that we’re all copying stuff. We’re all copying and transforming and combining—that’s really all that we can do. You can’t get something from nothing. You can’t just summon it out of the air. So I wanted to talk about this—that we are all plagiarists in some fashion—and to tackle it from a creative and historical angle, rather than a legal angle.
BL: When you’re using bits and pieces from all of these people who have influenced you, are you consciously putting them in as references and saying, “I’m going to use this from here and this from here,” or is it more of a gestalt that just influences what you’re producing?
KF: It’s a bit of both. Sometimes I’m knowingly sampling stuff. Other times, I’ve done a bunch of research and it’s all gone into my head. It’s become mine at that point and it’s all getting blended together and I’ve forgotten where a bunch of the stuff came from. Certainly there’s times where I know, “This is the bit from Steven Johnson’s book.” But there are other times where it’s basically my own take on the subject matter.
BL: And so when you do have that situation where it’s all coming into your brain and then coming out—how do you go about honoring the influencers?
KF: It’s a challenge, honestly. I wish there were better technological solutions for this. When you’re copying and pasting, things get confusing fast. Especially if you’re copying little clips of video, or audio, or photos or whatever, you can really lose track of where stuff came from. It’s something you have to work into your workflow; you’ve got to keep a database that gives you a little bit of metadata about where stuff came from.
BL: What’s the creative difference between doing a cover song versus creating an original based on another song?
KF: I’m not a musician, but I think they are clearly quite different. When you’re doing a cover, you’ve heard it in its finished form. You’re absorbing in a different way. It triggers your imagination to say, “Oh, it would be great if it was slower and on a piano” or whatever. Whereas, if you’re writing a song—and sometimes songs are very much based on other songs, but sometimes not so much—it’s a more advanced task. It used to be that when musicians were starting out, like the Stones or the Beatles or Dylan, they were expected to sing cover songs first. That was how you found your voice. I think that’s a good way to get going. Some people do super-radical things with them, like Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” which really doesn’t sound like Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” It’s basically an original song.