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How MIT is “Scratching” the Surface of Remix Culture

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

While SOPA may have died an ignominious death in January, (CBS News, TechTalk, 20 Jan. 2012) there is still a war brewing over copyright and remix culture that has important implications not only for the entertainment industry, but for all levels of education. What is remix culture? How can it possibly effect education? And what does MIT’s free Scratch media creation program have to do with any of this?

"What the Heck is Copy Right?"
One of the favorite areas that I teach in media production courses is copyright. I am particularly interested in pointing out the evils of the institution and the ways in which the Internet is rewriting the rules and may eventually lead to changes in the laws governing the dissemination of ideas and innovation. One of the most powerful vehicles for sparking this change is the remixing of copyrighted materials to create new and interesting works. Take for example the video A Fair(y) Use Tale by Eric Faden, done for the Media Education Foundation, which remixes Disney movie clips to attack the monolithic institution of copyright and explains fair use in the process:

Ultimately, this video is an outstanding example of both the fair use of media as defined by the Center for Social Media and an example of remix culture at work.

A Bit about Remix Culture
In the last ten years, there has been an unconscious uprising against the unreasonable constraints of copyright law sparked by the easy sharing of media via the Internet and the increasing availability of desktop video and audio editing software. It is now possible to take an existing piece of work and use it as the basis for the creation of an entirely new video, song, or other new piece of media which serves as a satire of or commentary on the original or some aspect of popular culture. This phenomenon has spread rapidly across the Internet through video game modding, fan fiction, and movie trailer remixes such as 10 Things I Hate About Commandments:

Really though, all of this remixing began in the 1970s with early hip hop music and the 1981 release of the first song that included scratching (Wikipedia, Scratching). This brief excursion back into the past leads us "Back to the Future" and MIT’s 21st century update on the concept: Scratch.

Scratching More Than Records
MIT’s free Scratch media creation/remixing/programming platform is named for the idea of disc jockeys "scratching" records to create new mixes of old songs. In this video, some of the creators of Scratch explain how it works.

Scratch allows users to import any type of media into the interface and apply easy to use drag-and-drop programming modules to remix the pieces into new media productions. These new pieces can then be shared on the Scratch website [http://scratch.mit.edu/] where they can then be downloaded, pulled back into the interface and re-remixed, ad infinitum. The site currently boasts more than 2.5 million projects that can be viewed or remixed. Essentially, this program formalizes and encourages what has previously been a fringe activity.

The implications of this effort and the model for fair use of media that it promotes are obvious for popular media – The barriers between source material and reinterpretations of that material and the legal protections afforded by copyright are breaking down. Scratch represents the first formal platform for facilitating remix culture. But the implications of this trend for education, educators, and the students they teach are just as significant.

Scratching the Surface of Education
MIT’s Scratch interface directly addresses the issue of copyright and fair use in learning. The initiative actively encourages students to flout the conventions of copyright by importing media from around the Web to incorporate into new productions. Considering that the target audience for Scratch is children and that it currently has tens of thousands of users. This project is effectively educating a cohort of students to believe that fair use of media is an acceptable behavior. To be clear, the concept of fair use is not a right or a law, it is a "legally defensible position" only (Center for Social Media).

Fair use is a set of guidelines intended to help those remixing media to not be prosecuted for copyright violation. In the strictest interpretation, these students are being given tools and encouraged to break the law! This law is unjust and may even be considered immoral, and it is certainly a hindrance to the growth of culture, but what this experience can teach students is far more valuable than the technicality of the legality behind the activity. Here’s why.

  • Students learn collaborative meaning making – Students work together and learn that their work is dependent upon the work of others and that collaboratively they are creating new information, knowledge, meaning, and culture.
  • Students gain insight into the way culture grows – The model that Scratch employs, where students download other people’s work and build on it, teaches them how the free flow of information leads to new creations and the growth of innovative thinking. This can also be used as a vehicle for explaining the process through which scientific knowledge is shared and advanced.
  • Students develop media literacy – The process of sharing, citing previous creators, and exploring the work of others and using it as the basis for new interpretation is a strong tool for helping students to develop strong media literacy skills.
  • Students improve their technological literacy – Scratch is, above all else, a vehicle for introducing students to the core concepts of computer programming and interactive media production. They gain the concepts of logical thinking, interface design, interactive design, and others by participating in this project.
  • Students learn how to participate in a virtual community – As important as any of the other outcomes is the fact that these students are participating in a lively, interactive virtual community. In the information age, where so much of our lives are mediated through virtual communities, this is an invaluable knowledge set for these students and one that teaches them the value of digital citizenship [http://www.onlineuniversities.com/blog/2012/01/help-yourself-by-helping-your-students-be-good-digital-citizens/].

All of these outcomes of participating in the project are discussed in this video titled, A Monkey and a Stick Figure: Stories of Remixing and Social Creativity, which illustrates the actual ways in which students using Scratch are developing the skills mentioned above.

While the target audience for Scratch is school age children, I see a great potential for using this interface, or a more sophisticated version, with students in higher education. Using a tool like Scratch in higher education could help bridge some of the gap that current college students have when entering the work force. Collaborative meaning making, media literacy, technology literacy, and digital citizenship are all important skills for college graduates that academically-focused participation in remix culture can support.

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