How do you think Donald Duck would sound doing the Gettysburg Address? The genie from Aladdin reciting the Bill of Rights? Perhaps your tastes run in a different direction. George Bush channeling Bono? Tony Blair contemplating his future courtesy of the Clash? Perhaps Elmer Fudd singing opera (oh wait, that’s already been done and classically so)?
This is all doable. What we really need is a grand database of video snippets—a database of what a telecommunications lawyer would call unbundled video elements (“UVEs”). The Wall Street Journal reported today that George Lucas is taking a step in this direction by releasing 250 clips tomorrow in honor of the 30th anniversary of the original film. (Commentary here and here.)
How would we use such a database? Eric Faden, a media professor at Bucknell, has given us a glimpse of this in his recent video “A Fair(y) Use Tale.” What do we learn?
Start with our database. This would contain relevant cultural artifacts—Disney? All Jack Nicholson films?—indexed word by word. Type in a text and the database would offer choices of UVEs. Press a few buttons and your mashup would be ready for viewing and distribution.
Look at the Faden film. Faden wrote a script that provides a description of United States copyright law. My guess is that it is no more than a 1000-word blog post. Rather than post it as a text, or even reciting it is a podcast, Faden has Disneyfied it. For each word in the script, Faden found a corresponding voice and video clip from a Disney work. Absent my suggested UVE database, this was undoubtedly an enormous amount of work; with it, it would be a trivial exercise.
We need to assess the value added from the marriage of content and video. I found both the George Bush and Tony Blair mashups funny and interesting. The Blair mashup captured his indecisiveness over when to walk away from 10 Downing St, and the Clash song “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” matched that perfectly. The Bush/U2 mashup is obviously commentary on the Iraq war.
Note that if we are going to do copyright for a moment, neither of these is a work that would obviously meet the parody standard that we see in cases like Campbell v. Acuff-Rose (the Roy Orbison/2 Live Crew case). The heart of parody is to invoke the copyrighted work to criticize it. In each of these mashups, I think we are seeing general social commentary rather than criticism of the underlying copyrighted works (which would include the musical compositions, the sound recordings, and the transmissions of the Blair and Bush speeches).
For a Fair(y) Tale, using the Disney videos is a clever way of gaining attention for the work, though the courts have been critical of merely using works to get attention. No individual Disney work is criticized. The criticism directed at Disney turns much more on contested issues about the appropriate scope of copyright, where Disney has been a leader in pushing for extensions of copyright.
Those videos are not essential for the work to exist, indeed, the work itself is limited by what is available in the UVE database. Faden seemingly was unable to find the use of the word “copyright” itself in a Disney work, and so has to construct the word from two separate video clips for the word “copy” and the word “right.” That creates a certain awkwardness in Faden’s work, plus if I have to listen to Buzz Lightyear say the word copy one more time, I’ll go sign up with Zurg.
This is ultimately about how stories are told and what limits copyright will place on that story-telling. Under fair use, we will proceed case by case and that may not be a bad thing as we start to move beyond parodic use to broader story-telling use.