The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: the epic tale of copyright in network culture

With the rise of free culture and the reinforcement of intellectual property in the last decade, it is becoming a common practice for artists building upon or sampling existing sources, to check the legal validity of appropriating and merging external material. Using Sergio Leone’s ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I am speculating on the risks of underlying copyright laws that solely reward diligent and respectful legal artistic practices.

WARNING: DRAFT – Bib is missing, fine tuning in progress, etc.

Tasunka, Ota (alias Plenty Horse[s])

Tasunka, Ota (alias Plenty Horses) 1891. Printed caption: 'The Grabill Portrait and View Co., Deadwood, S.D. Our company is incorporated under State Laws. Views all copyrighted. Will give a handsome reward for detection of anyone copying our pictures.'

Wild Wide Web

When talking about new discoveries, and to translate the actions of pioneers pushing the frontier of knowledge into uncharted territories, it is popular to use metaphors related to the 19th century American Old West. In that regard, Internet culture is no exception and is still widely seen as an ex-wonderland of free spirits, that is now suffocating under corporate lobbies. After a few decades of educating savages with marketing best practice, web apps and black box APIs, the Net is perceived today as a bureaucratic conquest where the old world settlers are imposing their law in order to control the natives’ digitally born content. With this fantastic decor set, and as a thought experiment, we can easily push further the comparison and analyse this particular permission issue through the archetypes of Sergio Leone’s ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.’

The Good

The good content creator is respectful of the code and the law and contribute to its ongoing evolution and interpretation. Depending on how she envisions the question of access, publishing and sharing of information, she can either adopt a copyright or copyleft practice. Unlike some popular myths that present copyleft as a radical departure from copyright laws, they are in fact the two sides of the same “good” coin. In the end even though copyleft practitioners manipulate copyright laws to enable culture to be free within the settlers state, they both aim at making legitimate a conditional access to culture and artistic freedom.

The Bad

At the opposite, the bad content creator is an outlaw. She is frequently mashing and remixing material from peers or mainstream sources, following, when available, unspoken rules of attribution and credits. Such practice is nothing new: appropriation artists use material and content produced by others regardless of their right to do so; mail artists aim to develop their relationship outside of copyright laws; anarchists, situationists and many more neoists have been playing with and within the copyright/anti-copyright dialectic; finally some works of art are simply strategically illegal.

Ugliness and systematic ambiguity

Anything that is not explicitly developed within an appropriate framework is constantly threatened to fall back into copyright or be excluded. The artistic software PiDiP released with a copyleft license, has been outcast from the Pure Data community, because the author refused to remove a personal statement that conflicted with the GPL. In a such a dichotomy system, the practice that led to the creation of PiDiP becomes incompatible and impossible. It contradicts the system it is born within, yet the systems survives the paradox, becomes stronger, and bans the mutant software. Tarring, feathering and peace in the community. We are witnessing a systematic ambiguity, a Baudrillard ‘prise d’otage’ that is turning ugly, but one that gives birth to the third archetype of our tale.

The ugly is everything that cannot be expressed by a content creator stuck within this binary morale. The Ugly is the mutation that makes the social and political context of authorship and production both tangible and compatible with the system: the GPL license is mutating into the exception GPL, the peer production license rises from the CC-BY-SA, and the Free Art License turns copyleft into system art.

Where to eat after the movie?

Back to Leone’s work, and just like the symbiosis between the media industry and piracy, while being used for the profit of the Good, the Bad is eventually killed. The Ugly who tried to negotiate its existence throughout the whole tale, is left alive by the hero in a cemetery in the middle of nowhere without any means of transport. That he survives or not, does not matter. On his own, as an accident of nature, he can do no harm in the Good’s post Wild West modernity.

But unlike the movie, this part of our tale is not quite written yet. As we are getting closer to the end of the pioneering era of networked media, it is obvious that content creators are increasingly forced to be good and make legitimate a specific definition of artistic freedom that goes hand in hand with capitalist and liberal agendas. What happens next depends on the Ugly which has yet to prove it is more than a freak of law. Like a mutating opportunistic bacteria, ugly creations are waiting to multiply, strive on and bring to its knees the sterile goodness of a world that forgot how bad it actually is.

One thought on “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: the epic tale of copyright in network culture

  1. Hi Aymeric,
    There are a couple of co-incidences that I thought about when reading your piece; In relation to my own contribution, I was looking at a work also by PiDiP’s author, that is /bin/rm -rf /* :: f*** the system . I wondered if this work could be related to the archetypes of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The second co-incidence, briefly, concerns a blog post about an event I recently attended: http://www.alandix.com/blog/2011/11/09/after-the-tech-wave-is-over/ . The post author also uses the analogy of Sergio Leone’s film, but in a different way (“The job of the designer is not to stay, but to leave, but leave change: intervention more than invention.”). How do you think such a view figures in the epic tale?