A plea for a right to parody
Video remixer and musician Swede Mason tells us why he believes we need a new right to parody.
Image: Screen grab from Swede Mason's YouTube channel
I've waited for a long time to have my say on this subject. My thoughts have built up and stagnated for so long, some of them are mouldy, and I'm finding it hard to know where to begin.
Hello, my name is Swede Mason. Well, it isn't actually. It's a name I go by in case someone tries to sue me.
I am a video remixer and musician. I create music and video from cutting and pasting clips and dialogue from unusual TV and film sources. I take footage, which would normally be forgotten after its intended use, and through various methods refine it and use it to create entertaining, thought provoking and above all, amusing videos.
The footage I use is always created for a completely different reason and in a totally different context to the original. I take the footage and change its context and meaning for my purposes, more often than not by twisting it into a tune. The way I see it, the footage is used once and discarded after which it has served its purpose in whichever TV or film it was used in. I find a further use for it through parody.
I'm basically like a video editing womble.
If you would like to know my history read on. If you want to get to the point, scan down to the two line gap.
I've been doing this for more than 10 years. There are two distinct halves to my 'career'. Pre YouTube, and post YouTube. Pre-YT was about making music to amuse friends, with no hope, or concern as to whether or not the music would reach a wider audience. At the time it had no chance anyway, because of copyright and financing physical releases. It was also so 'out there' that most people - mainly, as it always seems to be, the ones with influence - didn't 'get it'.
The most exposure it got was some good reviews in magazine demo sections, probably written by open minded work experience dogsbodies. These spurred me on to thinking it actually had a bit of potential beyond making my friends piss themselves with laughter.
A few years later, I started making videos for the tunes I was making and posting them on YouTube. Almost immediately my work began to gather an audience. I began to notice other people were creating similar parodies (see Cassetteboy, Cyriak).
The audience grew alongside my confidence and enthusiasm. Any thoughts of a proper job, or career were now even further out the window, and beyond retrieval. Online, a genre was emerging. Videos similar to my own were getting millions of hits.
One day I fell off my bike and broke a few bones. I was laid up for a month or so. No work for a month! I used the time to make 'Jeremy Clarkson Beatbox'. It got 250,000 hits in a week and has since broken 2 million. Great.
But I was totally skint. Back to work at the pub full-time for 180 quid a week. In the two years that followed nothing changed financially. I worked in the pub and then, up until last month, on a building site. But still making the videos.
Apart from the nuisance of having videos removed by copyright owners, and the constant overhanging threat from the 'three strikes and you are guillotined' YouTube rule - I've got one life left; one more strike and I lose the channel of 25,000+ subscribers and 11,000,000 total hits - the main reason the amendment for a new right to parody must happen is, I think, financial. I want it to be possible to try to make a living from my work, like any other artist has the right to attempt.
Last July I posted a video called 'Masterchef Synesthesia'. It is a remix from clips of the TV cookery show 'Masterchef'. It twists John Torode and Gregg Wallace's descriptions of food and flavours into descriptions of their mutual appreciation of music, mainly heavy bass sounds.
Like a synaesthesiac tastes or hears colours, John and Gregg are tasting sounds. That was the initial idea I wanted to get across. But its main objective was usurped by the simple alliteration and repetition of the phrase 'I like the buttery biscuit base', as Gregg described the upside of a contestant's failed cheesecake.
Anyway, who cares, it blew up massively. I posted it online one morning, went to work, shovelled shit all day, and when I came back had 100,000 views. It got 1 million hits in a week and was everywhere, not only on the Internet, but on radio and in the papers. As far as video remixing goes it was a commercial hit. It was amazing.
Now, as I found out, this is the point where the companies who usually take down your videos turn tail and come sniffing around for the cash.
Enter Shine TV, the company who creates Masterchef. They became aware of the existence of the remix on the first day. Initially I received threatening emails crying breach, which I ignored. Then as the view count grew exponentially, the penny dropped and they made a different proposal: officially releasing the tune as a single.
We struck a deal. After hiring a lawyer, funded from the sale of unlicensed t-shirts bearing Gregg Wallace's mug, we settled for 50% of the takings, after 10% to charity. Pre-lawyer the cut was 70/30 their way. They 'had a lot of mouths to feed' according to the fellah we were dealing with.
With absolutely no funding or money spent, no help from Shine TV (they were actually a hinderance), no help from John or Gregg other than not stopping us and above all no nepotism, we managed, with a Facebook campaign run by one of my mates, to get it to 37 in the top forty. I just recently received 2000 quid from the sales. Not bad, but not great, considering it is the culmination of 10 years hard unpaid work honing my skills.
The video took me, on and off, a year to complete. I took a day off work every Monday so I could spend all day editing (the rest of the week nights I was too knackered from labouring on the site - violins please). Shine TV sat around doing nothing and got the same money for their old rope.
We must have also raised a few grand for charity somewhere along the line too, which sorts my conscience out for the next decade or so. I don't know how much was made in total for sure. The money was handled, of course, by Shine.
I believe morally they should have taken a much smaller cut, if any at all, and that the law should've backed me up when they decided to make some easy cash.
This video, I think, fits the criteria perfectly for a parody exception. It takes clips of unconnected footage, which individually make no sense or are of any real use on their own, and would otherwise be overlooked. It refines them and through editing processes them into a theme that makes coherent sense as a completely new work.
It has lasting appeal and in this case also happened to touch the lives of millions of people, sparking their imagination or just making them smile for a second or two. It's worth it for that alone, but I would like the time to finance my work, through my work, and create a lot more. Is that too much to ask?
Shine TV did nothing except accidentally film the component parts of my video, and get in the way of its promotion. They had already made their money from the show as a complete product. The clips they had filmed have served their intended purpose. It was broadcast and now in my opinion, should be in the public domain for fair uses such as this.
Put it this way. Say you want to build a house. You go to a guy who makes the bricks, you buy them from him, and you build the house. You own it. You sell it, and then he turns up and claims 50% of the profit because he made the bricks. Ridiculous. You'd tell him where to go. Of course in this case you have to buy the bricks fair and square, because bricks are specifically made for building houses; fair enough.
In the case of clips however, these were definitely not made with the secondary intention of making mash ups, they were made to make a cookery program and that is all. They had already been used when I got my hands on them. They were second hand. In the case of a house, these clips would have once been a derelict building, which has been demolished and no longer resembles a house.
The bricks are scattered around, broken into pieces lying in the dust from cement and plaster, waiting to be gathered up by someone at work on the site - just like me - then put into a skip and most probably dumped somewhere after the skippers have been through it for the copper. Now if you made a house out of that, no brick manufacturer in their right mind would have the gall to turn up and claim 50% of your house.
So I suppose I'm a bit more like a skipper than a wobble. Although as it currently stands, a 'skipper' operates around the edge of the law. I have both feet firmly on the wrong side of it.
You can argue that the video's success is derived in large part from the fact that it surfs the wake of Masterchefs' current popularity, gained through the hard work of of the production team. This is true. The footage I used was loaded with potential and had an edge because of this. It would not be a parody if it didn't.
There are a few other Masterchef parodies on YouTube with similar hit counts. They tap into and concentrate an underlying current of humour, that I believe was not intentional when making the show. It is cultivated online and in real life banter. People like to laugh and take the piss out of things that aren't meant to be funny.
The success and popularity have mutual benefits. Shine TV have a free advertising campaign thrown into the deal because of the success of the video. An intentional campaign couldn't have been as successful a viral as a video made from a labour of love, purely to entertain, with no hidden agenda. You can't buy that. It has raised the profiles of both John and Gregg.
It may be the case that parodies take the piss out of their subjects, and are quite often negative in the portrayal of the target. John and Gregg were wise enough to embrace it, to their benefit, which I respect a lot. Libel, slander and defamation of character are different parts of the law and should be considered separately.
I hope my analogy demonstrates the situation, and how the law must be amended. This is a law which above all just stifles creativity. Something which should be nourished like from a big mammary gland. We shouldn't be left to scrape a meagre existence off crumbs dropped by fat cats having their cake and…I'm on one with the metaphors. I'll shut up now.
Change the law, please
You can see Swede Mason's videos over at his YouTube channel here.
The possible change to the law that this article mentions is a new exception to copyright for parody that would help support this kind of creativity. The exception is proposed in a consultation that the Intellectual Property Office is running right now. If you think this is a good idea, it's important the government hears from you - it will help them decide whether to make this change.
You can submit your comments or evidence to the consultation team at firstname.lastname@example.org. Full details of the consultation are here. You need to hurry - the consultation closes on March 21st! For more on the right to parody, visit righttoparody.org.uk.
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