No Culture without Copies – An Interview with Dirk von Gehlen
In his book “Mashup – Lob der Kopie” (i.e., Mashup – In Praise of the Copy), the journalist Dirk von Gehlen describes the copy as a fundamental cultural technique. An interview about good copies, the dispute about copyright and possible solutions.
Your book is subtitled “In Praise of the Copy”. What is good about copying – or what is a good copy?
Everything (laughs). The aim of the book was to help improve the image of the copy. I’ve noticed that we almost always assess the copy negatively, but that we really can’t do without it. It starts with the fact that we learn all our basic skills – language, writing – by watching others perform them. A second important aspect of the book is that only digital copies have made it possible to detach contents from their data carrier and duplicate them free of charge without loss. This turns everything we’ve previously had of art, culture and business models upside down. I wanted to merge these two strands – and from a very partisan perspective, from which I say: I think that’s all good and every commendable.
Global fee system as solution
Absolutely. But what’s now happening is that an activity is being criminalized which has become normal and everyday for many people. The decisive question for me is: Do we want to continue to crackdown on digital copies? Or should we rather find solutions that work with digital copies? We already had a similar situation with the introduction of the tape cassette. Back then it was decided to exempt copying from punishment and instead to introduce a global fee system. This is a fundamental principle that we should, in my opinion, apply to digital space. In Germany there have been some preliminary proposals such as those of the culture market of the Chaos computer club or the culture flat rate.
Another alternative to traditional copyright you mention in your book is the so-called Creative Commons licenses.
Strictly speaking, Creative Commons licenses aren’t an alternative, since this license model is based on copyright. Nor do they solve the basic problem that digital copying has put people in the position to do things which were impossible when copyright was created. For example, digitalization has made people into artists, creators and producers who aren’t that at all as such. Anyone can publish something today. Moreover, you can entertain serious doubts whether it’s the digital copy that is destroying the old business model. Before, to hear a song, I had to buy a whole album. Today I no longer buy an album for € 9.90 but rather download the song for 99 cents. The turnover has plummeted here by a factor of 10. You don’t have to have studied business administration to see that something has changed.
Competition for GEMA
GEMA is an example of a global fee system, and I ought to be its biggest fan. But it’s a very fossilized organization, which has to be criticized on many points. The fee system of GEMA should be made more transparent, and not only artists, who already earn quite a lot, must have a say. Right now there are plans for a competing organization, the C3S. This is a collecting society based on Creative Commons. Perhaps competition from the C3S can manage to modernize GEMA and make it more transparent.
We associate terms such as “mashup” and “remix culture” mainly with music. Can they be applied to other areas?
The basic idea of mashups and remixes is to combine familiar things into something new. This takes place in many areas. There are some great mashups on the internet – for instance, when information from Google Maps is linked to text content, and there are also mashups in literature and film. I go so far in the end as to advance the thesis that our whole culture is based on this fundamental idea.
Art and culture as softwareYou’re now working on a new book with the title: “Eine neue Version ist verfügbar” (i.e., A New Version Is Available). What is it about?
The discussion so far is almost always carried on in one direction: how can we stem the digital copy? I want to pose the question: how can we use digital resources to mould art and culture positively in a forwards-oriented way? My suggestion is to think of art and culture as software. As something that there are different versions of and that is constantly changing. I want to lay bare this process of change by publishing different versions of the book. The whole thing will be financed by a crowd funding platform where I ask readers to pay for the book in advance. They will then be integrated into the creative process and can comment on it. I may fail in a big way, but even so I’ll have learned a lot. In my view there’s been far too little courage to fail in the discussion up to now. If you do only what has worked so far, you’ll never take new paths.
Dirk von Gehlen, born 1975, is chief editor of Jetzt.de and social media editor at the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”. In his book “Mashup – Lob der Kopie” (i.e., Mashup – In Praise of the Copy) (Suhrkamp-Verlag 2011), he argues for improving the image of the copy and against its criminalization.