CMA Blog

Creative Theft

In the years since the rise of easy-to-access digital media and the proliferation of user-generated content on sites like YouTube, there’s been a flood of remix and mashup projects that show a tremendous amount of creativity. Originally coined as the name of a musical technique, a remix is a new work comprising parts from an existing work that are rearranged or re-contextualized. These days, the term is applied not only to musical works, but also to video and other media. Mashups are similar in that they use pre-existing works to create something new, often juxtaposing source material in unexpected ways.

There’s an excellent example of a mashup on view at CMA right now in Ground Control: Beatles Uber California by Kota Ezawa. This video, which is installed in the museum’s elevator, combines the Dead Kennedys song California Uber Alles with animated video footage of the Beatles as they appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. Here’s a link to that project on YouTube, but really you need to come to CMA and see it in an elevator to get the full effect.

These techniques are well-established as forms of genuine creativity, but plenty of legal battles have been fought over unauthorized uses of published works, generally by media companies claiming that the remix or mashup artist committed theft by utilizing the pre-existing material. Well, it might be theft, but it’s a creative theft. Let’s take a look at a few examples of remix work that I find to be smart, creative, and fun. YouTube is a great place to find this stuff.

A fruitful trend that hit YouTube a few years ago is the trailer re-cut, in which a user re-edits footage from a popular movie to create a trailer that completely changes the representation of the film.

Here are two early examples, which are also a couple of the best and most popular examples:

Scary Mary


I love the way these re-cut trailers can assemble pre-packaged footage to form a message that directly opposes what the filmmakers originally intended. It’s a terrific study of how information can change meaning depending on context. Because the footage is all taken from familiar films, the process of the repackaging is out in the open, and the viewer can ‘play along’ with the YouTube video creator. As the viewer goes through the amusing process of first recognizing, then reassessing the content of the video, they are learning to see things from an unexpected angle. That change in perspective can lead to some really creative thinking, as the proliferation of re-cut trailers following Shining and Mary Poppins shows. The idea is contagious because it gives us a way to navigate, understand, and have a little bit of control over the daily flood of media we’re all living in.

It’s theft – the footage is owned by the Hollywood creators – but it’s a creative theft that leads to unexpected, funny ideas.

YouTube user Pogo creates music from remixed films. He cuts snippets from family movies and mixes them up into melodic beats that attracted the attention of Disney, who showed enough savvy not to shut down Pogo’s fair use appropriation of their property, but rather commissioned him for an officially-licensed remix of the film UP.

So there are loads of examples like these on YouTube of remixers appropriating Hollywood product to make fun new things. What happens when original YouTube content, created by amateurs, becomes the source material?


In this video, remixer Kutiman has employed several unrelated YouTube videos of solo musicians and assembled them to play a single composition. Again, it’s an example of an artist making a fun, creative, innovative piece that’s crafted out of material created by someone else.

Today’s grand champion of the YouTube remix might be artist Cory Arcangel. His current exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art includes many works that mix and match professional and amateur content from video games, films, and the internet. Here is a YouTube video of one of the works in the exhibition.

To create the video, Arcangel took one-note samples from a multitude of amateur videos of musicians demonstrating their technique, and reassembled them to perform a version of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations No.1.
Crazy, right?
And totally great! Again, it’s a terrific example of how an artist can remix others’ materials into something new and original. Arcangel’s work, and the work of all remixers and creative thieves, gives us a fresh perspective on the world, and that is powerful and inspiring.

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Posted in Musings from the Center for Creativity

2 Responses to Creative Theft

  1. Anna says:

    Great post! Kept me intrigued throughout. There are some pretty interesting documentaries about Fair Use, mashups, and Creative Commons & copyright licensing.

  2. Anna says:

    Great post! Interesting and insightful!

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