- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2006

Tom Cruise zaps Oprah Winfrey with the Dark Side of the Force. Bert and Ernie pose as poster boys for homosexual cowboy love. Sweet, white-haired Mary Worth belts out Black Eyed Peas song lyrics: “I’m a make, make, make you scream.”

Entertainment from a parallel universe?

Not exactly.

They’re alterations of familiar pictures and videos posted on the Web. Artists, often anonymous, snag the images, then mix them in a digital blender to create something new — usually something dripping with irony. Mr. Cruise’s couch-jumping clip from “The Oprah Winfrey Show” was married with “Star Wars” effects, Muppet heads were grafted onto the “Brokeback Mountain” poster and word balloons from the Mary Worth comic strip were scrubbed and funked up.

They’re often called mashups, just like the do-it-yourself songs that combine tracks from separate tunes. And like song mashups, visual remixes are spreading like viruses around Web sites and blogs, those increasingly popular personal online journals.

With software making it easy to slice, dice and subvert everything from movie clips to comic strips, the unauthorized visual remixes could become a significant movement in digital art, a copyright lawyer’s worst nightmare — or both.

“We’re at the start of an age when anyone can produce a short/joke/remix/recut and get it online and out to millions, all within the space of one day sitting at their personal computer,” says Demis Lyall-Wilson, who created a popular mashup movie trailer recasting “Sleepless in Seattle” as a stalker film.

“You just have to submit your link to the right blogs.”

However, media executives are not amused. Entertainment companies zealously fight to protect their characters’ images — be it Disney lobbying to extend copyright protections or DC Comics sending a cease-and-desist letter to a New York art dealer last year for showing paintings that cast Batman and Robin as homosexual.

The ease by which any song, image or film can be pirated in the digital era has not only raised that anxiety, but touched off an intellectual property rights debate that is still playing out in boardrooms and courthouses.

Courts, however, have yet to fully grapple with the legality of visual remixes. Although Batman and “The Shining” have copyright protections, the law carves out so-called fair use exceptions for certain reviews or parodies of copyrighted work.

Whether a mashup is fair use depends on a number of factors, including how much gets used and whether the new work is used commercially. Ian C. Ballon, a California-based intellectual property attorney who has represented media companies, said that while legality can only be determined on a case-by-case basis, mashup artists face a real risk of liability.

Like disc jockeys pairing the Beatles with Jay-Z or the Strokes with Christina Aguilera, visual mashup artists exploit odd juxtapositions. An old “Superfriends” cartoon is synced with dialogue from the cult slacker movie “Office Space.” Scenes from “The Shining” are cleverly cut and overdubbed with feel-good narration to make it look like a trailer for a sappy family movie. And is there anything less likely than Mary Worth reciting the lyrics to the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps” over coffee?

“It was just sort of the absurdity of marrying this very serious serial strip with that song, which is so ridiculous,” says creator Sue Trowbridge.

Tools of the craft are software such as Adobe Systems Inc.’s Photoshop and Apple Computer Inc.’s Final Cut Pro instead of paint or clay, but fans say it’s still art.

Joey deVilla, a Toronto-based blogger, calls mashups a form of folk art that follows the age-old creative tradition of borrowing from existing works to create something new. Think of Shakespeare adapting old stories with his immortal prose or Roy Lichtenstein taking a page from comic book illustrators for pop art paintings.

“It is the digital-media equivalent of collage, except instead of pasting together pieces of other people’s existing work, you’re pasting together other people’s films and music,” Mr. Lyall-Wilson said in an e-mail.

Jason Schultz of the Electronic Frontier Foundation contends that there should be legal protection for mashups such as “The Shining.” After all, it’s a noncommercial parody that poses no threat to the movie since no one is going to watch the trailer instead of renting the movie. (Ironically, the clip can be viewed on IFilm.com, a recent addition to the sprawling Viacom media stable.)

“This is a battle over creativity,” Mr. Schultz says. “Do we want a world where the law criminalizes that?”

Legal issues aside, putting the brakes on mashup artists might be a job that not even Superman could handle. They’re just so easy to create and circulate, with scores of sites such as YouTube.com devoted to sharing online video.

Mr. Lyall-Wilson says he spent less than a day mixing his “Sleepless” trailer on a computer loaded with Final Cut Pro. Editing a scanned comic strip or picture can take even less time, making digital remixing one of the most democratic art forms.

Frank Romano, professor emeritus at Rochester Institute of Technology’s College of Imaging Arts and Sciences, noted that visual manipulation has become so easy and pervasive that “Photoshop” has become a verb.

“I think were going to see a tidal wave of this kind of reuse of material,” he said.

Turnaround time is so fast that as soon as a movie such as “Brokeback Mountain” attracts cultural buzz, spoofs blanket the Web. Movie-poster faces of stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are quickly replaced with Bert and Ernie or Gumby and Pokey. Another artist recuts scenes from the “Back to the Future” movies to make a trailer implying homosexual attraction between Marty and Doc Brown. Its title: “Brokeback to the Future.”

Post it on the Internet, and the whole world can see it. “Brokeback to the Future,” for example, has notched more than 2 million views. And like a missile, once it’s out there, it’s hard to recall.

Consider the “Family Circus,” a daily comic so sweet and lighthearted that mashup artists have lined up to stick knives in it. A “Dysfunctional Family Circus” site — original pictures of the little scamps with scandalous captions — shut down in 1999, reportedly after a cease-and-desist letter from King Features Syndicate and a heart-to-heart talk between the site operator and cartoonist Bill Keane.

No matter.

The “Dysfunctional Family Circus” lives on through other sites. In the end, efforts to lock down unauthorized Web parodies was like trying to hammer Jell-O. Stuff just migrated elsewhere.

“Will the law ever catch up with this kind of momentum?” asks Kevin Parks, a Chicago-based copyright and trademark lawyer. “I don’t think that’s possible. These situations, they do not lend themselves to rules.”

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