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What is a mashup?

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Rhodri Marsden Rhodri Marsden | 13:00 UK time, Friday, 13 April 2012

What is a mashup?

At the SXSW festival a few weeks ago, rock legend Bruce Springsteen gave a keynote speech in which he admitted to "getting inspiration", shall we say, from the work of other artists. He demonstrated by segueing neatly from The Animals' version of 'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood' into his own song, 'Badlands'. "It's the same riff, man!" he said. "Listen up, youngsters, this is how successful theft is accomplished."

It's rare for musicians to be so brazen about it, but Springsteen was acknowledging an undeniable fact: that new creative ideas generally evolve from old ones. Borrowing, refining and rehashing have been rife for centuries, a magpie-like swiping of melodies, pictures, chords and textures. It grew more noticeably in the 1970s and 1980s; twin record decks allowed early hip hop DJs to mix tracks together and create their own sound collages, bands like the Art Of Noise started using digital audio in legally questionable ways, and when samplers became affordable the Beastie Boys cut-up techniques inspired a generation.

The copyright position

Copyright owners fought back hard in the 1990s, and those early records probably couldn't be made today; licensing the samples would be too expensive. But computers and more latterly the internet have heralded a new era of creative expression, where an almost limitless supply of pictures and sound can be easily appropriated and changed.

Mashups have become endemic, practiced openly by millions, seemingly in violation of copyright law. But are we wilfully engaging in criminal activity by modifying and then sharing other people's work? Or has the law simply failed to catch up with the way we use technology?

In the USA the constitution enshrines the concept of "fair use" - the right to use someone's work for the purposes of satire or parody. The vast majority of mashup culture could be considered parody; from the Photoshop contests on websites such as B3TA, to videos by Cassetteboy or Swede Mason, to songs like 'Newport State Of Mind' that satirised the Jay-Z and Alicia Keys hit 'Empire State of Mind' a couple of years ago.

But while the law is, at least in theory, on the side of the mashup in America, that's not the case in Britain. Copyright holders can still scare the wits out of people doing the satirising; 'Newport State Of Mind', for example, was ordered to be taken down shortly after it became a viral hit. Two reviews into copyright law in the past few years have recommended that "fair use" be introduced, and politicians such as Vince Cable have backed the measure. But it's still currently illegal. As is ripping a CD to your computer - and the majority of us see nothing wrong in doing that.

The future of mashups

The impossibility of fighting mashup culture seems to be leading to a shift in attitudes. Many people are choosing to make their work available under one of several "Creative Commons" licenses, which may permit downloading and tampering. Corporate attitudes are changing, too; last month saw Getty launch a competition called Mishmash that offered free access to the film libraries of Universal and Warner and Getty's own picture library, with a $5,000 prize given to the best creation.

Those being lampooned are also realising that the publicity resulting from successful mashups may not be such a bad thing. The famous Cassetteboy video of 'The Apprentice' won the approval of Lord Sugar, while the creator of Garfield, Jim Davis, gave permission for the book 'Garfield Minus Garfield', which features Garfield cartoons that have had Garfield removed.

Mashup culture is, by and large, a bedroom hobby, a labour of love, where no-one is really seeking to make money. Millions of people are engaged in it, so copyright owners have to pick their battles – and, unsurprisingly, it's the people who find themselves with a viral hit on their hands who are most likely to hear the knock of the legal profession. It's a strange irony. One day the law may change, but for now, perhaps the best advice to mashup artists is: "Make sure you're not any good at it".

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Rhodri Marsden is a writer and musician who regularly details his fascination and exasperation with modern technology and the internet for both The Independent and BBC 6Music.


  • Comment number 1.

    I would disagree with the statement that no one is seeking money from mash-ups. Curse, Killer Guides and Machinima are prime examples that profit of mash-ups in the video game space. However, given that projects like these provide basically free advertising, publishers tend to be happy for the mashups to see the light of day.

    And what about Facebook apps? There's a massive amount of mashups going on there. Considering the development efforts and costs for a decent Facebook app nowadays, it's fair to assume that they're more than just hobby efforts. In a way, they show an easier way to make things happen: Instead of relying on expensive and complicated license deals, they are based on mutually beneficial relationships between the partners involved.


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