An Exploration of Digital Authorship and Remix Music
Stevie Chancellor
CCTP 725 - Cultural Hybridity Fall 2012

"Art is sourced. Apprentices graze in the field of culture." - Jonathan Lethem

What does authorship mean in the age of digital goods that are infinitely reproducible and transferable? How does our modern legal system and cultural understanding of the author change with these shifts in production? This paper will explore potential answers to these questions by examining examples of online remix music culture and those that produce them. This investigation first constructs a theoretical grounding in postmodern literary criticism covering three essential topics: dialogism and intertextuality, the “Text” as meaning making through reader engagement, and the cultural/sociological role of the author. These scholars ground an analysis of The Grey Album and DJ Spooky’s work, amongst others. I will explore the idea of authorship as assemblage and how remix culture has helped shaped this new social role of the author. Finally, the paper briefly turns to practical implications of this new remix creativity culture by looking at legal doctrine surrounding authorship and suggests a change in copyright culture to accommodate for these new forms of authorship.

A Postmodern Approach to Authorship

Modern digital authorship is filled with dialogic references. Mikhail Bakhtin notes that a dialogic model of interpretive text is reliant on what has preceded it and the anticipation of what follows; like dialogue, there is an expected conversation. He says, "from the very beginning, the speaker expects a response from [the reader], an active responsive understanding. The entire utterance is constructed, as it were, in anticipation of encountering this response" (Bakhtin 94). Dialogism becomes part of media texts where conversations occur not only between author and character but also from the reader to the imaginative author. From this, Julia Kristeva proposes the notion of “intertextuality,” which is where meaning in one text is shaped by other works. Texts are unavoidably composed with references to other works; this evolutionary process has created the modern bodies of literature, music, and art. “Any text is woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony. The citations that go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read; they are quotations without inverted commas” (Lethem). No work is created in a vacuum; there is always a constant dialogue with our literary past.

Technology has given rise to new forms of artistic expression by incorporating reinvented modes of dialogism and intertextuality. It could be said that this dialogism existed before the invention of the personal computer and Internet - that the idea of an original work is an anachronism. However, such a generalization ignores the shift in dialogism with the transition to a digital platform. Before modern remix culture, dialogic references to text had to be made explicit in bibliographies or on cassette jackets. If someone wanted to reproduce a work to include, it took consider effort to reproduce texts; more often than not, works would be imitated or hinted at, their spiritual “ghosts” underlying the new work. With the rise of the personal computer, digital storage and manipulation, and the Internet as a transport mechanism, intertextuality has significantly expanded while the cost of reproduction approaches zero. One of the reasons the cost of reproduction has dropped so much is through the growth of personal editing software and the drop in cost of technology. The very first release of Adobe’s premier software, Photoshop, made its debut in 1990 for $1000 and was installed from a single 3.5-inch floppy disk (Pierce; Biedny). A computer capable of running it would have cost several thousands of dollars and (at best) and internet connection that measured itself in kilobits per second. Now, Photoshop CS6 is only $699 individually, downloadable in less than an hour with Internet speeds in several megabits per second, and can run on computers available for under $500 with ease. As software has proliferated, so too has access to digital works for consumption: the digital transition has led to the infinite reproducibility of digital text with costs so low they are virtually zero. This has created a modern revolution for the integration of old and new and a massive expansion in the number of people able to express their creative talent.

Barthes, the Text, and The Death of the Author

external image bice1963.jpgRelating to dialogistic text, Roland Barthes discusses the requirement of a new relationship between reader, writer, media text, and society in “From Work to Text” and “The Death of the Author.” In the first essay, Barthes argues for a more open, undefined object of authorship that he calls the “Text.” A work that exists on its own, independent of its author, the Text weaves itself into cultural consciousness through the influences, cultural assumptions, and experiences encompassed by that work. He contrasts the Text to the romanticized notion of the "Work," which is more concrete, fixed, and affiliated and owned by an author. Works exist in libraries and bookstores whereas Texts exist as an active collaboration between author, reader, and society to make its meaning. "…While the Work is held in the hand, the text is held in language: it exists only as discourse….the Text is experiences only in an activity, a production" (Barthes). Works are essentially static and unable to escape their predetermined meanings from author, genre, or style; Texts, on the other hand, are inherently dialogic and encourage active interpretation. In “Death of
Bice's watercolor resembles a work whereas the Eakins portrait is a Work.
Bice's watercolor resembles a work whereas the Eakins portrait is a Work.
the Author”, Barthes controversially argues that the romanticized notion of the author popular with the Work is dying. This tyranny of authorship confined interpretive meaning to only the author’s intentions; there was no higher meaning of a Work than what an author said was there. A modern author, however, relies on intertextual references to allow the reader to make meaning. “[A] text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader” (Barthes). To Barthes, readers, not authors, are the prime makers of meaning. By using Barthes’ view of the Text, digital authorship relies on the composition of works together that invite the reader to participate in interpretation and engagement. Digital authorship ignores genres and labels for the process of creating and active interpretation.

Foucault and Author-Function

To expand further on the meaning of work and authorship, Michel Foucault’s essay “What is an Author?” responds to and elaborates on many points in Barthes’ works. Foucault argues that the signifier of an author's name is more than a nominative reference to the creator of a specific work. The name does not just make a one-to-one connection with an author's writings but also to groupings of discourse and how this discourse is understood within a culture. “We can conclude that, unlike a proper name, which moves from the interior of a discourse to the real person outside who produced it, the name of the author remains at the contours of texts – separating one from the other, defining their form, and characterizing their mode of existence” (Foucault). For example, Sigmund Freud's name not only signifies the person who wrote The Interpretation of Dreams but also the person who established discourse surrounding psychoanalysis (Foucault).
Roland Barthes (L) and Michel Foucault (R)
Roland Barthes (L) and Michel Foucault (R)
Foucault calls this entire signification the "author-function," the means by which an author, their work, and the discourse surrounding it shapes and frames discourse in society. He locates the author-function in a cultural and social context and notes that the author-function is tied to legal, literary, and discursive functions. To Foucault, digital authorship would not just be a connection of a remixed song to an author. Digital authorship has sociological functions that determine not only the way people interact with texts but also how people interact with culture.

Together, these scholars formulate a theoretical ground for understanding the role of authorship in digital publication. Digital authors can make connections between works that are literal, apparent, and easily documented through hyperlinking. Barthes shows the potential of this intertextuality through the dichotomy of the Text and the Work. While works have their meanings proscribed in them by explicit force of their genre, author, or content, Texts lose these boundaries and connect with others. Digital texts rely of the activity of consumption as the act of producing meaning; rather than search for meaning, digital texts invite viewers to make meaning. Finally, Foucault unites the Text with its creator and explains the "author-function" as a way to measure the sociological importance of the author. Foucault fills the gap of Barthes's bold proclamation of the "death of the author” by establishing a function to authorship that extends beyond a nominal connection between author and work. The author function is the set of cultural beliefs and values that arise by signifying text with a name. The Internet, with its dialogic potential of hyperlinks and zero-cost reproduction, spurred these understandings of authorship into existence by making transparent intertextual references. Digital authorship, in short, relies on cultural and sociological production of meaning. Postmodern authorship is as much an understanding of discourse as it is the marrying together of texts to speak.

Remix Music and Authorship

With a solid grounding of theory laid out, let us turn to several examples of digital authorship (this is the part that I am most excited about!) in remix music.

The Grey Album

One popular example of dialogism is The Grey Album by DJ Danger Mouse. Released in 2004, this album is a mash-up of rap artist Jay-Z’s vocals from The Black Album and music and instrumentals from The Beatle’s LP, commonly known as The White Album. The work has inspired many spinoffs and, in true remix fashion, a fan released a music video for one of the album’s songs, “Encore.”

The song went viral after the music community staged a twenty four hour protest over a cease-and-desist letter sent to Danger Mouse over the album; the song was downloaded more than one million times in 24 hours. Using this example, what does Danger Mouse's Grey Album tell us about remix culture and more importantly the function of authorship in a digital world?

Cover Art for the Grey Album
Cover Art for the Grey Album
Dialogism and intertextuality are essential components of modern musical production. To be a modern author requires a broad knowledge of music culture, and DJ Danger Mouse exhibits this requirement by mixing the classic Beatles with modern Jay-Z. The text of "Encore," and of The Grey Album in general, invites the reader to decipher the meaning, not only figuring out what parts are from Jay-Z and the Beatle's, but also the meaning that is created by mashing them together. Lethem notes that “technology has only multiplied the possibilities; musicians have gained the power duplicate sounds literally rather than simply approximate them through allusion…Today an endless, gloriously impure, and fundamentally social process generates countless hours of music” (Lethem). The social process of production and meaning is shared between Danger Mouse and his listeners. By composing songs from recognizable pieces, Danger Mouse invites the listener to interpret the meaning of all the pieces together rather than scrutinize each individual element. Meaning in digital culture is more than the sum of its sampled parts.

The Grey Album also illustrates how modern authorship helps shape discourse and creates new author-functions in society. The infinite reproducibility of modern media on computers enables discourse to be shaped not only by words mimicked but by pieces of culture copied. In as much text enters cultural consciousness, it becomes part of the dialogic interchange between individuals. The author-function for many remix artists, therefore, becomes one of mixing culture together. More specifically, the author-function becomes a mediator of culture. Henry Jenkins noted this behavior in fan culture. “Fans respond to this situation of an increasingly privatized culture by applying the traditional practices of a folk culture to mass culture, treating film or television as if it offered them raw materials for telling their own stories and resources for forging their own communities” (Jenkins 556). Danger Mouse's author-function, therefore, is like that of a fan, and the composition of these pieces together to help create discourse

Another example of this is The Avalanche's "Frontier Psychiatrist" which is entirely composed of sampled elements from movies, comedians, instrumental numbers, and their own DJ work (and the music video is great to boot!)

As Barthes notes, “The quotations from which a text is constructed are anonymous, irrecoverable, and yet already read: they are quotations without quotation marks.” A new author-function that could be emerging as a result of digital music is the author as assemblage. The author’s goal is to bring together pieces of culture for others to consume and process. Whereas books and paintings imitate others, digital assemblage is explicit with copied samples to create new cultural meaning. The Grey Album helps create discourse around reinterpretations of historical music - DJ Danger Mouse is the medium by which this discourse is expressed through remix.

DJ Spooky and Remix as Performance

It would be difficult to discuss the role of authorship in remix music culture without mentioning DJ Spooky. Spooky is a hip hop artist, composer, and thinker. His works blends together disparate cultural artifacts, from musical samples to visual screenings to live instrumentals. He recently performed in Savannah, Georgia, blending together footage of ice caps and climate data alongside a strings ensemble.

One of the unique characteristics of Spooky is his awareness of the history of philosophy, psychology, music, art history, and other disciplines when mixing his music. He brings many of these disciplines into his thoughts as he composes works.external image dj-spooky1.jpg “Terra Nova" is a blend of many pieces of art together to create a Text worthy of experience - Text as performance. Although Spooky has released prerecorded music, he is considered a DJ - one that thrives with live audiences. The live component of DJ music necessitates that the consumption and understanding of the text occur simultaneously. Unlike traditional Works on CDs or DVDs, these texts cannot be rewound and scrutinized; almost all of them exist without recordings. Live DJ Text is temporal and ethereal. Spooky thoughtfully notes that, “I think art in the near future will be much more about environments than just objects on the wall.” (Becker, Crawford, and Miller)

Spooky admits that his work is political but not in the sense of trying to sway politics. He hopes to erode "stereotypes in patterns of thought" (Becker, Crawford, and Miller). Spooky may have an underlying message that he wishes for the audience to receive - in the case of "Terra Nova," this is drawing attention to climate change. However, the cultural meaning of "Terra Nova" and its ability to be analyzed and understood is created by the people in the audiences. Pinpointing the meaning of specific samples or film clips he uses is less important than the act of crowds thoughtfully enjoying the work.

Here are two more examples of Spooky's music, "Anansi Abstrakt" and "Check Your Math."

Another crucial element to “authorship as assemblage” is the inability to scrutinize the Text as a literary critic. To Barthes, Works were examined to find implicit meaning, mostly through genre and author studies. In this romanticized tradition, literary critics illuminate the deep meanings behind Works; profound symbolism and commentary were obscured through the text and needed to be located. However, this privileged pattern is changing due in part to digital technology. Remix music Texts are not Works to be analyzed with a highlighter and pen; they are Texts of experience. Authorship as assemblage relies on performance of Text in addition to the intertextual references that compose it.

Legal Conundrums of New Digital Authorship

A Gift Economy of Sorts

With new forms of authorship should come expansions to the legal systems that protect new creative expression. Thomas Jefferson once said that the purpose of intellectual property was “an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility.” (Jefferson) Remix music produces utility in much the same way of Freud and Marx – they add to discourse and help society understand itself better. An essential part of digital culture is that everyone is allowed and is able to participate in the creation of culture. The value of this participatory culture can only be quantified by the discourse it provides and not by the samples it makes. As Howard Rheingold describes, the Internet becomes more like a gift economy. “…but the arrangement I'm describing feels to me more like a kind of gift economy in which people do things for one another out of a spirit of building something between them, rather than a spreadsheet-calculated quid pro quo. When that spirit exists, everybody gets a little extra something, a little sparkle” (Rheingold) In the case of digital remix culture, “gifts” are additions to discourse.

Problems With Current Copyright Legislation

However, current copyright law does not protect this new creative process or the conception of a gift economy. One reason for this is that digital goods are translated versions of texts already protected by copyright. Television shows aired online, for example, are covered under the initial copyright. A digital version of a text is covered under the copyright of the original work. Moreover, the Internet has not generated any new forms of media that copyright law protects. Whereas television and CDs were new forms of media that were eventually incorporated into copyright doctrine, the Internet incorporates all forms of media rather than inventing its own form of media.

The copyright symbol in America
The copyright symbol in America
Another reason for this lack of protection is that the elements remix incorporates into its work are tightly protected by copyright. Copyright law gives authors protection against unauthorized reproduction, distribution, and derivatives being created ("17 USC § 106”). Distribution involves how a work is disseminated whereas derivatives involve using the work in a context not found in the original. For example, if someone copied J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone into a Word document and uploaded it to their website, they would be infringing on Rowling’s right to distribute her work. If someone were to create a Harry Potter movie without Rowling’s permission, they would be infringing on her right to derivative works. In regards to music, without licensing, sampling songs infringes on all of these rights. A sampled piece of music copies the original work for placement elsewhere and creates a new work that is often considered an unauthorized derivative.
There is a paradox, however, between digital goods and the practical implications of the copyright system. The act of copying files is a nonsensical infringement of copyright law. As Lethem describes, “in the contemporary world, though, the act of ‘copying’ is in no meaningful sense equivalent to an infringement – we make a copy every time we accept an emailed text, or send or forward one – and is impossible anymore to regulate or even describe.” (Lethem) Copying and translating files around a computer is technically copyright infringement.

These copyright laws were written for the age of physical texts where producing creative works had reproduction had high opportunity costs and reproduction could discourage investment in the creative arts. Copyright laws were written to discourage publishers from selling reprinted copies of current books, which was a legitimate fiscal harm to the publisher who made the initial investment. Copying a file to put onto a CD, however, has no cost to the initial publisher and does not necessarily represent a lost sale. (The debate about lost sales and piracy is too complicated to cover here. All I will say is that research from the industries most interested in protecting copyright [namely the recording and film industry] demonstrates loss of revenue, whereas other organizations have found just the opposite.) While Jefferson championed a utilitarian perspective to copyright law, the modern approach to copyright law appears to be a natural rights approach to property. “The result is a legal regime for intellectual property that increasingly looks like an idealized construct of the law of real property; one in which courts seek out and punish virtually any use of an intellectual property right by another.” (Lemley 34)

As Lawrence Lessig forewarns, these new creative acts are now falling within the reach of the law which it had not had access to before
Lawrence Lessig has argued that copyright no longer helps protect creativity; it insteads inhibits it.
Lawrence Lessig has argued that copyright no longer helps protect creativity; it insteads inhibits it.
(Lessig 8). What are some of the results of continuing copyright legislation like this? One possible consequence is that less works will be available because artists are concerned about creating them. An oft-provided solution is that remixers should pay licenses for the work they use; however, this solution is impossibly difficult. Owners of copyright are often difficult to locate, the licensing fees are ridiculously high, and sometimes the owners do not authorize a license at all. “Even if the creators wanted to be “legal,” the cost of complying with the law is impossibly high. Therefore, for the law-abiding sorts, a wealth of creativity is never made. And for that part that is made, if it doesn’t follow the clearance rules, it doesn’t get released.” (Lessig 106) Faced with the decision between a cease-and-desist letter threatening a lawsuit or not creating at all, many remixers would rather err on the side of not producing to avoid legal fees. And for the those less interested in following the law, the threat of a lawsuit is in the background if their work becomes too popular too quickly.

Even if licenses are a way to avoid litigation, the theory behind licensing for remix works is unclear. EMI Records, the owner of the copyright for The Beatles, does not “own” the cultural significance of the massively successful British rock group. They do, however, own the intellectual property, as DJ Danger Mouse found out through a cease-and-desist letter served by their lawyers. This is where Rheingold’s notion of a gift economy resonates most clearly: the cultural value and discourse of The Beatles, Casablanca, or any copyrighted work cannot be quantified in licenses or royalties. If we value the artistic and sociological contributions of remix music and digital authorship to the cultural sphere, then we as a society ought not punish those who manipulate culture and produce something new, distinctive, and transformative from their origins.

Results of Problems of Copyright and Conclusion

"Men very different from the present race of piratical booksellers will soon infringe this intolerable monopoly. Great masses of capital will be constantly employed in the violation of the law. Every art will be employed to evade legal pursuit; and the whole nation will be in the plot."

This forewarning of piracy was echoed in the British House of Commons in 1841 by Thomas Macaulay, an adamant opponent of extended copyright terms. His words still ring true today as our social expectations of authorship shift in light of new technology. With so much available at our proverbial fingertips, the production and dissemination of culture is more widespread and accepted as a valid form of artistic culture. Remix culture, in particular, relies on these new cultural norms and has become a way we understand culture and discourse to be made.

It is clear that Foucault's notion of authorship has expanded since its writing in 1969 - the explosion of digital goods in the last ten years alone demonstrates a new era in cultural consumption and authorship. The new author-function of author as assemblage manifest itself in remix culture through intertextual reference and discourse. A rethinking of copyright is necessary to promote this new value of authorship and the creative Texts that come from it. Digital authorship has only existed for twenty years, copyright law for over 200 - let us not err into restriction before we see the potential of creativity that can be created with the aid of a computer.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Verb W. McGee. Austin, TX : University of Texas Press, 1986. Print.

Barthes, Roland. "From Work to Text." In Image, Music, Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. New York : Hill and Wang, 1998. 155-164. Print.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” In Image, Music, Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. New York : Hill and Wang, 1998. 142-148. Print.

Becker, Carol, Romi Crawford, and Paul D. Miller. "An Interview with Paul D. Miller a. k. a. Dj Spooky -- That Subliminal Kid." Art Journal. 61.1 (2002): 82-91. Web. 14 Dec. 2012.

Biedny, David. "20 Years of Image Editing: Photoshop from 1.0 to CS4." Mac|Life. N.p., 18 2010. Web. 12 Dec 2012.

Foucault, Michel. "What is an Author?"in Language, Counter Memory, Practice. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980. 113-138. Print.

Jefferson, Thomas Letter to Isaac McPherson. 13 Aug 1813. Web. 28 Sep 2012. <>

Jenkins, Henry. "Quentin Tarantino's Star Wars?: Digital Cinema, Media Convergence, and Participatory Culture." Trans. Array Media and Cultural Studies. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner. Revised Ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. 549-576. Print.

Lemley, Mark A. "Property, Intellectual Property, and Free Riding." Discovery. Fall (2005): 34-39. Print.

Lessig, Lawrence. Free Culture : How Big Media Uses Technology and The Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. New York: Penguin Publishing, 2004. Web.

Letham, Jonathan. "The Ecstasy of Influence." Harper's Magazine. Feb 2007: 59-71. Web. 10 Dec 2012.

Pearce, Matt. "Photoshop History." LowEndMac. N.p., 16 2008. Web. 12 Dec 2012. <>.

"17 USC § 106 – Exclusive rights in copyrighted works." Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School, n.d. Web. 28 Sep 2012. <>.

Media Citations - Examples of Work and Text from Roland Barthes: Understanding Text ​by Paul Ironstone, Cara Leitch, Annabel Onyango, and Courtney Unruh - The Grey Album artwork cover - image of Lawrence Lessig - image of DJ Spooky AKA Paul Miller - image of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault - "The Grey Video." Using DJ Danger Mouse's "Encore" from ​The Grey Album. Author unknown. - The Avalanche's "Fronteir Psychiatrist" - DJ Spooky's "Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctia" - DJ Spooky's "Anansi Abstrakt" from Songs of a Dead Dreamer. 1996. - DJ Spooky's "Check Your Math"