Creating Technology for Social Change

Ben Huh on Copyright and Making the Meme Ecosystem Better

Thanks to Erhardt Graeff for all his help with taking livenotes for this panel!

Ben Huh, ROFLcon organizer and I Can Haz Cheezburger founder introduces us to the topic of his talk: Copyright and Making the Meme Ecosystem Better. He asks the audience, “More people are trying to use old models in the new system. How do we defend against that?”

Ben compares the SOPA debates to a debate on abortion. With SOPA and even now with other cybersecurity bills, the Internet and traditional media are talking about two different things entirely—the former concerned with freedom of speech and creativity, the latter focused on profit. But the politicians only respond to jobs, Ben points out.

“It is clear that we were unable to educate Congress,” says Ben, “on how the Internet works and the importance of creative content.” He refers to how much of US soft power is exported as culture—not just the film Hot Tub Time Machine, but all kinds of creative exports.

Ben argues that in the whole scheme of content creation, it is actually the things you don’t consider to be highbrow that tend to make the most social impact. Our current copyright model in the US ensures that the copyright holder can reap profits for the author’s lifetime plus 90 years. However, the Internet turns that model upside down by putting into question what constitutes quality content.

Things like poorly-drawn rage comics may not seem like quality content at first, but when they’re picked up as a meme, begin to have actual value. “It’s like today’s Seinfeld,” explains Ben. “It’s about the most mundane shit. This content is not particularly funny, it’s more about the commonality of experience.”

Ben proceeds to give us a quick picture of the history of intellectual property. He explains that copyright was only meant to incentivize creation enough to make a little profit, and then content would be released into the commons. While patents have remained more or less the same, the term length of copyrights has since increased dramatically. When did we move from copyright as a creative incentive to “how do I get paid back for Hot Tub Time Machine?”

“Nobody owns a meme,” says Ben. He’s preaching to the choir, of course. “By definition, a meme is about the transfer of an idea between multiple people. If you cannot pass an idea virally today, it has no value.” Ben says that’s why you need companies like Cheezburger, whose job it is to transmit those ideas. He asserts that memes are replaceable—they are commodities, thus the need for differentiation through proliferation.

Many of the original works making up our most popular memes are virtually meaningless until they are re-packaged as cultural moments. Take for example, Keyboard Cat or Blake Boston (Scumbag Steve). Ben says we are biologically wired to visually identify the subject of the image macros with their respective meme, even if they did not participate in the creation of it.

After making these points, Ben opens the floor for questions. He is asked about the relationship between the Internet and so-called “old media.” Ben responds, “Remixing is part of the marketing chain of the Internet, that’s something that old media doesn’t understand.” He brings up the “Hitler Reacts” meme, which led to increased interest in its source film Downfall, previously a relatively obscure movie.

However, just a couple of questions in, Ben is interrupted by a heckler in the crowd, who yells, “Why are you raping the Internet?” There’s a clear subset of conference attendees upset with companies like Cheezburger, and Ben, personally, for appropriating content. Ben refers to this as community loss aversion. One by one the hecklers are asked to leave the auditorium. On his way out, the last heckler tells the audience: “He’s making money off all of your hard work.”

Undeterred, Ben continues to answer questions from the audience. When asked about why Cheezburger adds a watermark to user-submitted content, he replied, “We had a debate early on when we couldn’t pay our bandwidth bill of whether or not to allow hotlinking of our images, and this was our compromise.”

Ben proposes that we allow people to play with and remix content, even if the original content is an expensive advertising campaign like Wieden+Kennedy’s Old Spice Guy. However, he says that the current copyright paradigm restricts this freedom. If the only available content for remixing is from 150+ years ago, only certain people—academics—can appreciate that content. Ben believes the biggest gains for remixing are not derived from the classics. “We need to make available content that people are used to seeing every day.”

The Cheezburger CEO recalls talking to a member of one of the artistic guilds in Hollywood. He says that most of the guildmembers did not support SOPA and did not want to participate in the machine of copyright, but lacked the funds to oppose it. These were Hollywood’s creatives— actors, writers, videographers, and more.

Ben contrasts the copyright situation in the US to that of countries overseas, some with oppressive governments, including China. In many of those places, despite censorship of political content, there exists considerable freedom to remix commercial content. As Ben puts it, “It’s the Wild West over there, and their media and creative companies are growing very, very fast.”

Ben rounds out his point by drawing on an example from one of the more prominent audience members—writer and entrepreneur Andy Baio of One of Andy’s projects, Kind of Bloop, was an 8-bit rendition of Miles Davis’ album Kind of Blue. For the cover, Andy created a pixel art version of the original album art in the spirit of transformation. However, threatened with a lawsuit from the original photographer, he was forced to settle out of court, even though fifty years had passed. Ben cites this example to show that we can’t hide behind fair use forever, and calls upon us to reevaluate copyright and the content ecosystem that it supports.