Journal article

Disciplining the vernacular: fair use, Youtube, and remixer agency

Information technology Australia

Introduction: The research from which this piece derives explores political remix video (PRV), a genre in which remixers critique dominant discourses and power structures through guerrilla remixing of copyrighted footage (“What Is Political Remix Video?”). Specifically, I examined the works of political video remixer Elisa Kreisinger, whose queer remixes of shows such as Sex and the City and Mad Men received considerable attention between 2010 and the present. As a rhetoric scholar, I am attracted not only to the ways that remix functions discursively but also the ways in which remixers are constrained in their ability to argue, and what recourse they have in these situations of legal and technological constraint. Ultimately, many of these struggles play out on YouTube. This is unsurprising: many studies of YouTube and other user-generated content (UGC) platforms focus on the fact that commercial sites cannot constitute utopian, democratic, or free environments (Hilderbrand; Hess; Van Dijck). However, I find that, contrary to popular belief, YouTube’s commercial interests are not the primary factor limiting remixer agency. Rather, United States copyright law as enacted on YouTube has the most potential to inhibit remixers. This has led to many remixers becoming advocates for fair use, the provision in the Copyright Act of 1976 that allows for limited use of copyrighted content. With this in mind, I decided to delve more deeply into the framing of fair use by remixers and other advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Center for Social Media.

In studying discourses of fair use as they play out in the remix community, I find that the framing of fair use bears a striking similarity to what rhetoric scholars have termed vernacular discourse—a discourse emanating from a small segment of the larger civic community (Ono and Sloop 23). The vernacular is often framed as that which integrates the institutional or mainstream while simultaneously asserting its difference through appropriation and subversion. A video qualifies as fair use if it juxtaposes source material in a new way for the purposes of critique. In turn, a vernacular text asserts its “vernacularity” by taking up parts of pre-existing dominant institutional discourses in a way that resonates with a smaller community. My argument is that this tension between institutional and vernacular gives political remix video a multivalent argument—one that presents itself both in the text of the video itself as well as in the video’s status as a fair use of copyrighted material. Just as fair use represents the assertion of creator agency against unfair copyright law, vernacular discourse represents the assertion of a localised community within a world dominated by institutional discourses. In this way, remixers engage rights holders and other institutions in a pleasurable game of cat and mouse, a struggle to expose the boundaries of draconian copyright law.

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