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Who owns an artist's legacy?

Digital media open the door to mash-ups, tributes, and other reinventions.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 26, 2009

Larger than life: Janet Jackson performed beneath a giant image of Michael Jackson during a tribute to the late singer at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards in New York.

Gary Hershorn/Reuters

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Living in an age of infinite media channels, death is no longer the career ender it once was. The megawattage that Michael Jackson generated in his halcyon days, for instance, is not expected to wane. With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, his songs and performances, and even eccentricities, are expected to be the gifts that keep on giving for whatever party ends up with the keys to his estate.

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This doesn't make Jackson any different from other marquee entertainers whose deaths have done little to prevent new products bearing their likeness and body of work from saturating the marketplace each buying season. But what is different in Jackson's case is that, unlike the deaths of pop-culture icons Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, or Tupac Shakur, advances in digital media threaten to unbridle the ironclad control that gatekeepers use to guard their ownership rights, tailor a narrative, and protect a legacy.

Today, user-generated videos and music files and the distribution networks that allow them to flourish are positioned to tamper with the way Jackson – and any other public figure – is perceived far into the future. Recent technology not only allows users to easily create and distribute unauthorized tributes, which may be in good faith, it also allows the potential for biographical errors, public mockery, and the abuse of official works, all to float on Internet platforms indefinitely.

The result is an open-ended historical record ripe for purging, which, for public figures whose public life existed in images and sound, does not bode well for keeping the record straight. The Michael Jackson we know today may not be the Michael Jackson future generations may know, and there is little that estate holders can do about it.

There may be no other choice. Ico Bukvic, who studies the intersection of art and technology at Virginia Tech, says we are entering a new era where digital media is forcing us to appreciate art differently, including those who make it.

Artists, including filmmakers and songwriters, are always trying to remake the historical record by releasing, decades later, what they say is the official version of a cherished product. This includes Paul McCartney's reconfigured version of "Let It Be," the Beatles album he restored in 2003 to eliminate the choices made by original producer Phil Spector in 1970. Then there are recordings that never took place, such as a 2006 Ray Charles album featuring the Count Basie Orchestra – the orchestra parts were newly recorded, the vocals by Charles were lifted from a 1973 live performance. The result? A "concert" that never happened.

Often, the audience is not even aware of such studio concoctions, and if they are, the creations may be appreciated for their novelty value, like a recent remix album of Johnny Cash songs, which are turned into dance mixes, one a "duet" with Snoop Dogg. In fact, technology may be grooming an audience that may not be aware, or even care, if their favorite artist is gone, because they know they will always be around in some fashion.

That includes providing material for the audience to become involved in the manipulation themselves. Mash- ups, digital collages resulting in new work, are usually unauthorized creations by adventuresome knob-twisters. Officially, their works may be denounced, but there is no doubting their influence. When underground producer Danger Mouse remixed the Beatles with rapper Jay-Z in 2004, he created an unauthorized Internet hit. Two years later the surviving Beatles released their own mash-up of their catalog as a soundtrack to a Cirque du Soleil show, suggesting that the only way to fight abuse is to do a little tweaking yourself.