Colin Delany May 5, 2007

Oh Nine, Eff Nine: Strategic Mnemonic and Protest Song for a New Medium

Something else hit me about the digital rights protest song “Oh Nine, Eff Nine” — as a social phenomenon, it’s both inextractably embedded in the structure of a new medium AND a continuation of a tradition that’s probably as old as language.

First, it’s a piece of music intended to make a political point about a modern conflict, one inherent in the nature of networked digital communications — authors and copyright holders have long profited from creative works by charging to distribute them, but in a digital world, books, music and movies can be made in unlimited copies and shared essentially for free.

As one response, some corporate copyright owners have attempted to use digital rights management software to control how owners of copies of individual works can use them, sparking in turn what is essentially a worldwide citizen revolt. “Oh Nine, Eff Nine” is a political weapon in that war — a statement that some people are willing to act to keep a particular tactic in the copyright war from working. The song lives its ideals, too, since it’s deeply woven into what it’s trying to protect: what Wired and others have described as a Rip/Mix/Burn culture. The author has allowed it to be remixed and mashed up endlessly under a creative commons license, and mash it up people have.

Okay, so it’s all new and stuff. BUT, it’s also part of an old, old tradition of using songs as mnemonics to preserve information. Think of the hundreds of generations of shamans, bards and storytellers keeping safe the lore of the tribe by memorizing it to particular rhythms and melodies, down to relatively recent times: the Iliad was sung for centuries before the Greeks had a written alphabet. “Oh Nine, Eff Nine,” like the book-memorizers in Fahrenheit 451, preserves information in a medium that’s difficult to wipe clean, short of killing a man — it’s a catchy little tune, and if you listen to it enough times, those numbers really start to stick in your head. Genius! In one little ditty, we can see mirrored both the peculiarities of a modern social dispute and an ancient form of information storage: the oldest medium being used to protect the newest.

My favorite version, if you haven’t seen it yet:


See also: Defying the Copy-Protection Police with a Wave of Online Civil Disobedience

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