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Building blocks icon as symbol for remixing, proposed by Creative Commons and derived from[1]

Remix culture, also known as read-write culture, is a term describing a culture that allows and encourages the creation of derivative works by combining or editing existing materials.[2][3] Remix cultures are permissive of efforts to improve upon, change, integrate, or otherwise remix the work of other creators. While combining elements has always been a common practice of artists of all domains throughout human history,[4] the growth of exclusive copyright restrictions in the last several decades limits this practice more and more by the legal chilling effect.[5] In reaction, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, who considers remixing a desirable concept for human creativity, has worked since the early 2000s[6] on a transfer of the remixing concept into the digital age. Lessig founded the Creative Commons in 2001, which released a variety of licenses as tools to promote remix culture, as remixing is legally hindered by the default exclusive copyright regime applied on intellectual property. The remix culture for cultural works is related to and inspired by the earlier Free and open-source software for software movement, which encourages the reuse and remixing of software works.


Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy by Lawrence Lessig in 2008 describes the remix culture. The book itself is open for remix[7] due to its availability under a CC BY-NC license.[8]

Lawrence Lessig described the Remix culture in his 2008 book Remix. Lawrence characterized the default media culture of the 20th century using computer technology terminology as Read Only culture (RO), and called for a shift to Read/Write culture (RW).[5]

In the usual Read Only media culture, the culture is consumed more or less passively.[5] The information or product is provided by a 'professional' source, the content industry, that possesses an authority on that particular product/information. There is a one-way flow only of creative content and ideas due to a clear role separation between content producer and content consumer. The emergence of Analog mass production and duplication technologies (pre-Digital revolution and internet like radio broad-casting) enabled the RO culture's business model of production and distribution and limited the role of the consumer to consumption of media.

Digital technology does not have the 'natural' constraints of the analog that preceded it. RO culture had to be recoded in order to compete with the "free" distribution made possible by the Internet. This is primarily done in the form of Digital Rights Management (DRM), which imposes largely arbitrary restrictions on usage. Regardless, DRM has proven largely ineffective in enforcing the constraints of analog media onto digital media.[9][10]

Read/Write culture has a reciprocal relationship between the producer and the consumer. Taking works, such as songs, and appropriating them in private circles is exemplary of RW culture, which was considered to be the 'popular' culture before the advent of reproduction technologies.[5] The technologies and copyright laws that soon followed, however, changed the dynamics of popular culture. As it became professionalized, people were taught to defer production to the professionals.

Digital technologies provide the tools for reviving RW culture and democratizing production, sometimes referred to as Web 2.0. Blogs explain the three layers of this democratization. Blogs have redefined our relationship to the content industry as they allowed access to non-professional, user-generated content. The 'comments' feature that soon followed provided a space for readers to have a dialogue with the amateur contributors. 'Tagging' of the blogs by users based on the content provided the necessary layer for users to filter the sea of content according to their interest. The third layer added bots that analyzed the relationship between various websites by counting the clicks between them and, thus, organizing a database of preferences. The three layers working together established an ecosystem of reputation that served to guide users through the blogosphere. While there is no doubt many amateur online publications cannot compete with the validity of professional sources, the democratization of digital RW culture and the ecosystem of reputation provides a space for many talented voices to be heard that was not available in the pre-digital RO model.


Remixing was always a part of the human culture.[4] US media scholar Professor Henry Jenkins argued that "the story of American arts in the 19th century might be told in terms of the mixing, matching and merging of folk traditions taken from various indigenous and immigrant populations." Another historical example of remixing is Cento, a literary genre popular in Medieval Europe consisting mainly of verses or extracts directly borrowed from the works of other authors and arranged in a new form or order.[4]

The balance between creation and consumption shifted with the technological progress on media recording and reproduction. Notable events are the invention of book printing press and the analog Sound recording and reproduction leading to severe cultural and legal changes.

Analog era

In the beginning of the 20th century, on the dawn of the analog Sound recording and reproduction revolution, John Philip Sousa, an American composer and conductor of the late Romantic era, warned in 1906 in a congressional hearing on a negative change of the musical culture by the now available "canned music".[11][12]

"These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape."

Specialized, expensive creation devices ("read-write") and specialized cheap consumption ("read-only") devices allowed a centralized production by few and decentralized consumption by many. Analog devices for consumers for low prices, lacking the capability of writing and creating, spread out fast: Newspapers, Jukebox, radio, television. This new business model, an Industrial information economy, demanded and resulted in the strengthening of the exclusive copyright and a weakening of the remix culture and the Public domain in throughout the 19th and 20th century.

Analog creation devices were expensive and also limited in their editing and rearranging capability. An analog copy of a work (e.g. an audio tape) cannot be edited, copied and worked on infinitely often as the quality continuously worsens. Despite that, a creative remixing culture survived to some limited degree. For instance composer John Oswald coined in 1985 the Plunderphonics term in his essay Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative for sound collages based on existing audio recordings and altering them in some way to make a new composition.

Remixing as digital age phenomena

IBM Personal Computer XT in 1988, a digital remixing enabling prosumer device, affordable for the masses.

Technology changed fundamentally with the digital revolution.[13] Digital information could be reproduced and edited infinitely, often without quality loss. Still, in the 1960s the first digital general computing devices with such capabilities were meant only for specialists and professionals and were extremely expensive; the first consumer oriented devices like video game consoles inherently lacked RW capability. But in the 1980s, the arrival of the home computer and especially the IBM personal computer brought a digital prosumer device, a device usable for production and consumption at the same time, to the masses for an affordable price.[14][15] Similarly for software, in the 1990s the free and open-source software movement implemented a software ecosystem based on the idea of edit-ability by anyone.

Internet and Web 2.0

The broad diffusion of the Internet and of the Web in the late 1990s and early 2000s created a highly effective way to re-implement a "remix culture" in all domains of art, technology and society. Unlike TV and radio, with a unidirectional information transport (producer to consumer), the Internet is inherently bidirectional, enabling a peer-to-peer dynamic. This accelerated with Web 2.0 and more user-generated content due to Commons-based peer production possibilities. Remixes of songs, videos, and photos are easily distributed and created. There is a constant revision to what is being created, which is done on both a professional and amateur scale. The availability of various end-user oriented software such as GarageBand and Adobe Photoshop makes it easy to remix. The Internet allows distribution of remixes to the masses. Internet memes are Internet-specific creative content which are created, filtered and transformed by the viral spreading process made possible by the web and its users.

Foundation of the Creative Commons

Creative Commons license spectrum between public domain (top) and all rights reserved (bottom). On the left side the permitted use cases, on the right side the license components. Remixing is permitted in the two green license groups.

As a response to a more restrictive copyright system (Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension, DMCA), which started to limit the blooming sharing and remixing activities of the web, Lawrence Lessig founded the Creative Commons in 2001. In 2002 the Creative Commons released a set of licenses as tools to enable remix culture, by allowing a balanced, fair enabling release of creative works, "some rights reserved" instead of the usual "all rights reserved". Several companies and governmental organizations adapted this approach and licenses in the following years, for instance flickr, DeviantART[16] and Europeana using or offering CC license options which allow remixing. There are several webpages addressing this remix culture, for instance ccMixter founded 2004.

The 2008 open-source film by Brett Gaylor RiP!: A Remix Manifesto documents "the changing concept of copyright".[17][18]

In 2012, Canada's Copyright Modernization Act explicitly added a new exemption which allows non-commercial remixing.[19] In 2013 the US court ruling Lenz v. Universal Music Corp. acknowledged that amateur remixing might fall under fair use and copyright holders are requested to check and respect fair use before doing DMCA take down notices.[20]


Main article: Copyright reform movement

Under copyright laws of many countries, anyone with the intent to remix an existing work without permission is liable for lawsuit because the laws protect the intellectual property of the work. However, current copyright laws are proving to be ineffective at preventing sampling of content.[21][22] On the other hand, fair-use does not address a wide enough range of use-cases and its borders are not well established and defined, making usage under "fair use" legally risky. Lessig argues that there needs to be a change in the current state of copyright laws to legalize remix culture, especially for fair-use cases. He states that "outdated copyright laws have turned our children into criminals."[23] One proposition is to adopt the system of citation used with book references. The artist would cite the intellectual property she sampled which would give the original creator the credit, as is common with literature references. As tools for doing so Lawrence Lessig proposed the Creative Commons licenses which demand for instance Attribution without restricting the general use of a creative work. One step further is the Free content movement, which proposes that creative content should be released under free licenses. The Copyright reform movement tries to tackle the problem by cutting for instance the excessively long copyright terms, as it was debated by scholar Rufus Pollock.[24][25]

Other copyright scholars, such as Yochai Benkler and Erez Reuveni,[26] promulgate ideas that are closely related to remix culture. Some scholars argue that the academic and legal institutions must change with the culture towards one that is remix-based.[27]

In June 2015, a WIPO article named "Remix Culture and Amateur Creativity: A Copyright Dilemma" acknowledged the "age of remixing" and the need for a copyright reform.[20]

Domains of remixing

Folklore and vocal traditions

An illustration from a 1354 Syrian edition of the Panchatantra, an ancient Indian collection of animal fables. The original work is believed to be composed around the 3rd century BCE,[28][29] Translator's introduction, quoting Hertel: "the original work was composed in Kashmir, about 200 B.C. At this date, however, many of the individual stories were already ancient." based on older oral traditions, including "animal fables that are as old as we are able to imagine".[30]
Various "remixed" Free Beer variants in recipe and label artwork, created since the first release in 2005 under a Creative Commons license.

Graphic arts

Graffiti in Tehran by a1one
This illustration references the fair-use claim at the root of Shepard Fairey's "Hope" poster controversy. As cited here, this is an unabashedly derivative work based on Cliff from Arlington VA's photograph and, of course, Fairey's own illustration (rights of which are currently in dispute). Illustration by David Owen Morgan (faunt) Toronto ON, 2009, on the occasion of Fairey's publicly admitting to falsifying evidence in the fair-use dispute.
Illustration of Shepard Fairey by David Owen Morgan, critiquing Fairey's claims of Fair Use.

Books and other information

Wikimedia logo mosaic to commemorate the one millionth file at Wikimedia Commons. Remixed from the contributed images on the Wikimedia commons.

Software and other digital goods

Software as digital good is well suited for adaption and remixing.


Film and video

In film, remixing is often done and happens in many forms.


GIFs are another example of remix culture. They are illustrations and small clips from films used for personal expressions in online conversations.[61] GIFs are commonly taken from an online video form such as film, TV, or YouTube videos.[62] Each clip usually lasts for about 3 seconds[62] and is "looped, extended and repeated."[63] GIFs take a mass media sample and reimagines, or remixes, its meaning from the original context to use it as a form of personal expression in a different context.[64] They are used throughout various media platforms but are most popular in Tumblr where they are used to articulate a punch line.[62]

Fan fiction

Fanfiction is an example of remix culture in action, in relation to various forms of fictional and non-fictional media, including books, TV shows, movies, musicians, actors, and more. Fan fiction is a written, remixed fiction which draws on the characters of the writer's fandom, in order to tell the fan fiction writer's own story, or their version of the original story.[65] Remix Culture relies on creators taking one work and repurposing it for another use[66] just as fanfiction takes an existing work and repurposes it for a new story, or series of events. Steven Hetcher writes that fanfiction, and remix culture at a broader level, can provide social benefit to the societies who participate in writing and reading fanfiction by providing a creative outlet.[67] Fanfiction remixes sometimes change aspects of the characters or setting, often called an alternative universe, with some writers putting pre-existing characters in a new setting, and others taking an established setting and placing in new characters. In the social norms of fan fiction, it is rare for writers to publish or profit off of their works, and so copyright owners and authors rarely enforce copyright law, as these works help form communities and promote the original work.[68]


The app TikTok has become a relevant media platform that utilizes remix culture as a marketing and engagement technique, using it to market products to viewers while also entertaining them.[69] Content creators and brands can now collaborate in an environment where remixing content is accepted and encouraged to gain followers through creative videos following trending actions, audios, and memes.[70] Older songs and celebrities are making comebacks by being attached to remix trends, their music or content is now being viewed again by being attached to a trend. Garnering attention for the artist and these bits is a marketing technique that makes viewers want to investigate the artist more.[71] Musicians like Doja Cat and Lil Nas X are two current musicians that have culminated their music in the TikTok remix culture. For example, "Remember (Walking In The Sand)" the 1960s song by the Shangri-Las has recently been remixed to an EDM track that brought more attention to the song and a following into it due to a popular TikTok trend circulating largely in 2020.[72] These trending songs allow for music on TikTok to become spreadable and testable. Companies and artists can test out music bits and loops to see how successful they may become before fully releasing them.

Remixing in religion

Throughout history remix culture has been truthful not only in exchange of oral stories but also through the Bible.[73] Eugene H. Peterson reinterpreted Bible stories in his 2002 book "The Message// Remix" which makes the Bible easier for readers to interpret.[74] An idea of remixing dated back to the Quakers who would interpret the scripture and create a biblical narrative by using their own voices, which went against the "read-only" practice that was more common.[75]

Intertwining of media cultures

An Apple laptop computer decorated with Creative Commons stickers and the phrase "culture is not a crime." A small black and white CC sticker is placed on the upper left back of the computer that reads "Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved."
An Apple laptop computer decorated with Creative Commons stickers and the phrase "culture is not a crime." A small black and white CC sticker is placed on the upper left back of the computer that reads "Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved."

For remix culture to survive, it must be shared and created by others. This is where participatory culture comes into play, because consumers start participating by becoming contributors, especially the many teens growing up with these media cultures. A book was published in 2013 by Henry Jenkins called "Reading in a Participatory Culture" which focuses on his technique of remixing the original story Moby-Dick to make it a new and fresh experience for students. This form of teaching enforces the correlation between participatory and remix culture while highlighting its importance in evolving literature. Remix culture can be an integral part of education. Arguably, scholars are constantly remixing when they are analyzing and reporting on the work of others. One study examined the use of remixing among students when presenting learned information. For example, students will pull images, text, and other information from various original sources and place those elements in a presentable format, such as a slide presentation, in order to demonstrate understanding of material reviewed. Media culture consumers start to look at art and content as something that can be repurposed or recreated, therefore they can become the producer. According to an article from Popular Music and Society, the idea of remix culture has become a defining characteristic of modern day technology which has incorporated all forms of digital media where the consumers are also the producers.

Effects on artists

Artists participating in remix culture can potentially suffer consequences for violating copyright or intellectual property law. English rock band The Verve were sued over their song "Bittersweet Symphony" sampling an arrangement of The Rolling Stones' "The Last Time."[76] The Verve were court-ordered to pay 100% of the song's royalties to The Rolling Stones' publishers and to give writing credit to Jagger and Richards.[76] This was resolved in 2019 as Richard Ashcroft of The Verve announced that Jagger and Richards signed over the publishing rights to the song, admitting it was their manager's decision to claim the songs' royalties.[77]

Remix culture has created an environment that is nearly impossible for artists to create or own "original work". Media and the internet have made art so public that it leaves the work up for other interpretation and, in return, remixing. A major example of this in the 21st century is the idea of memes. Once a meme is put into cyberspace it is automatically assumed that someone else can come along and remix the picture. For example, the 1964 self-portrait created by artist René Magritte, "Le Fils De L'Homme", was remixed and recreated by street artist Ron English in his piece "Stereo Magritte". (See Memes in "Reception and Impact")

Meanwhile, despite the legal complexities of copyright protections, remixed works continue to be popular in the mainstream. Rapper Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road," released in 2018, includes a sample by the industrial metal band Nine Inch Nails, while also blending the genres of hip-hop and country music. "Old Town Road" was a smash hit, setting a record of 19 weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.[78] Four official remixes of "Old Town Road" were released, the first of which featured country singer Billy Ray Cyrus. This formula for genre-hybridization inspired countless unofficial remixes of the track, appropriated for various uses.[78]

Copyright and remixing for disability services

An exemption exists for disability service technology to change copyrighted media to make it accessible to them.[79] The American Foundation of the Blind (AFB), American Council of the Blind (ACB) and Samuelson-Glushko Technology Law & Policy Clinic (TLPC) work with U.S. Copyright Office, Library of Congress to renew the exemptions that allow the visually impaired to convert visual texts in copyrighted work into e-readers and other forms of technology that make it possible for them to access.[80] So long as the copyrighted material is obtained in the legal way, the exemption allows for it to be remixed to help to be accessible to anyone disabled.[79] This exemption extends broadly, including transcribing public broadcasts such as television or radio to be transcribed to braille or visual text if need be.[81] With the proper license, obtained by anyone with a disability that can limit perception, copyrighted material that is obtained legally can be remixed for their understanding.[81][82] It has last been renewed in 2012 and continues to stand.[79]

Reception and impact

In February 2010, Cato Institute's Julian Sanchez praised the remix activities for its social value, "for performing social realities" and remarked that copyright should be evaluated regarding the "level of control permitted to be exercised over our social realities".[83][84] Memes have also become a form of political protest and dissent as well as tools used by everyday people as a form of a subversion of the power narrative.[85] Author Apryl Williams asserts that #LivingWhileBlack memes helped the Black Lives Matter movement raise awareness of issues and shift the cultural narrative.[86]

Kirby Ferguson's description of the creative process for all original ideas — copy, transform, and combine[87] — presented in a 2012 TED talk.[88]

According to Kirby Ferguson in his popular video series and TED talk,[88] everything is a remix, and that all original material builds off of and remixes previously existing material.[89] He argues if all intellectual property is influenced by other pieces of work, copyright laws would be unnecessary. Ferguson described that, the three key elements of creativity — copy, transform, and combine — are the building blocks of all original ideas; building on Pablo Picasso's famous quote "Good artists copy, great artists steal.".[87]


Some approaches to remix culture have been described as simple plagiarism.[90][91] In his 2006 book Cult of the Amateur,[92] Web 2.0 critic Andrew Keen criticizes the culture.[93] In 2011 UC Davis professor Thomas W. Joo criticized remix culture for romanticizing free culture[94] while Terry Hart had a similar line of criticism in 2012.[95]

See also


  1. ^ downloads on "The building blocks icon used to represent "to remix" is derived from the logo."
  2. ^ Remixing Culture And Why The Art Of The Mash-Up Matters on Crunch Network by Ben Murray (Mar 22, 2015)
  3. ^ Ferguson, Kirby. "Everything Is A Remix". Retrieved 2011-05-01.
  4. ^ a b c Rostama, Guilda (June 1, 2015). "Remix Culture and Amateur Creativity: A Copyright Dilemma". WIPO. Retrieved 2016-03-14. Most cultures around the world have evolved through the mixing and merging of different cultural expressions.
  5. ^ a b c d Larry Lessig (2007-03-01). "Larry Lessig says the law is strangling creativity". TEDx. Retrieved 2016-02-26.
  6. ^ School, Harvard Law. "Lawrence Lessig | Harvard Law School". Retrieved 2018-11-25.
  7. ^ Download Lessig's Remix, Then Remix It on (May 2009)
  8. ^ Remix on
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  10. ^ The Role of Scientific and Technical Data and Information in the Public Domain: Proceedings of a Symposium. on National Academies Press (US); 15. The Challenge of Digital Rights Management Technologies by Julie Cohen (2003)
  11. ^ Bierley, Paul Edmund, "The Incredible Band of John Philip Sousa". University of Illinois Press, 2006. Page 82
  12. ^ Lawrence Lessig, 2008, Remix: making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy, London: Bloomsbury Academic. Chapter 1. "These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape."
  13. ^ Rostama, Guilda (June 1, 2015). "Remix Culture and Amateur Creativity: A Copyright Dilemma". WIPO. Retrieved 2016-03-14. In a further twist, widespread access to ever more sophisticated computers and other digital media over the past two decades has fostered the re-emergence of a "read-write" culture.
  14. ^ The Coming War on General Computation at 28C3 by Cory Doctorow (2011-12-30)
  15. ^ Prosumption,
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  17. ^ Kirsner, Scott. "CinemaTech Filmmaker Q&A: Brett Gaylor of Open Source Cinema". on CinemaTech
  18. ^ Sinnott, Shane. "The Load-Down Archived 2007-06-30 at the Wayback Machine", Montreal Mirror, 2007-03-29. Accessed 2008-06-30
  19. ^ Rostama, Guilda (June 1, 2015). "Remix Culture and Amateur Creativity: A Copyright Dilemma". WIPO. Retrieved 2016-03-14. Canada is one of a few countries, if not the only one, to have introduced into its copyright law a new exception for non-commercial user-generated content. Article 29 of Canada's Copyright Modernization Act (2012) states that there is no infringement if: (i) the use is done solely for non-commercial purpose; (ii) the original source is mentioned; (iii) the individual has reasonable ground to believe that he or she is not infringing copyright; and (iv) the remix does not have a "substantial adverse effect" on the exploitation of the existing work.
  20. ^ a b Rostama, Guilda (June 1, 2015). "Remix Culture and Amateur Creativity: A Copyright Dilemma". WIPO. Retrieved 2016-03-14. in 2013 a district court ruled that copyright owners do not have the right to simply take down content before undertaking a legal analysis to determine whether the remixed work could fall under fair use, a concept in US copyright law which permits limited use of copyrighted material without the need to obtain the right holder's permission (US District Court, Stephanie Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., Universal Music Publishing Inc., and Universal Music Publishing Group, Case No. 5:07-cv-03783-JF, January 24, 2013).[...] Given the emergence of today's "remix" culture, and the legal uncertainty surrounding remixes and mash-ups, the time would appear to be ripe for policy makers to take a new look at copyright law.
  21. ^ Johnsen, Andres. "Good Copy, Bad Copy". Archived from the original on 2011-04-17. Retrieved 2011-04-14.
  22. ^ Is Sampling Always Copyright Infringement? by Tomasz Rychlicki and Adam Zieliński (November 2009)
  23. ^ Colbert, Steven. "The Colbert Report- Lawrence Lessig". The Colbert Report. Retrieved 2011-04-25.
  24. ^ Rufus Pollock (1 October 2007). "Optimal copyright over time: Technological change and the stock of works" (PDF). University of Cambridge. Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 February 2013. Retrieved 11 January 2015. The optimal level for copyright has been a matter for extensive debate over the last decade. Using a parsimonious theoretical model this paper contributes several new results of relevance to this debate. In particular we demonstrate that (a) optimal copyright is likely to fall as the production costs of 'originals' decline (for example as a result of digitization) (b) technological change which reduces costs of production may imply a decrease or a decrease in optimal levels of protection (this contrasts with a large number of commentators, particularly in the copyright industries, who have argued that such change necessitates increases in protection) (c) the optimal level of copyright will, in general, fall over time as the stock of work increases.
  25. ^ Rufus Pollock (15 June 2009). "Forever minus a day? Calculating optimal copyright term" (PDF). University of Cambridge. Archived from the original (PDF) on 12 January 2013. Retrieved 11 January 2015. The optimal term of copyright has been a matter for extensive debate over the last decade. Based on a novel approach we derive an explicit formula which characterises the optimal term as a function of a few key and, most importantly, empirically-estimable parameters. Using existing data on recordings and books we obtain a point estimate of around 15 years for optimal copyright term with a 99% confidence interval extending up to 38 years. This is substantially shorter than any current copyright term and implies that existing terms are too long.
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