Arts & Culture

Copy Right, Copy Left, Copy Central

It’s getting harder and harder to discuss any aspect of contemporary culture without explicitly considering its means of distribution. Whether your topic is film, literature or music, the massive changes brought about by over a century’s worth of technological innovations … Read More

By / August 7, 2009

It’s getting harder and harder to discuss any aspect of contemporary culture without explicitly considering its means of distribution. Whether your topic is film, literature or music, the massive changes brought about by over a century’s worth of technological innovations have progressively undermined our sense of the boundary between the being of a work, its existence in space and time, and the work that multiplies that being.

Does a record produced from bits and pieces of many studio sessions and other sound effects, like such groundbreaking albums as The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds or The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper, possess a different reality than one recorded live in one take? Does a news segment that makes use of stock footage always demonstrate a higher order of deceit than one that arranges material shot that very day? Should the day arrive, perhaps even in the next five years, when a deceased film actor like Marilyn Monroe is reanimated with computer technology to star in a brand-new movie, like a more sophisticated version of the process that turned Andy Serkis into Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, could the resulting performance still be classified as hers?

Questions like these, urgent even when they remain hypothetical, shadow our experience of contemporary media to such a degree that debates about the use of intellectual property can never be reduced to a merely legal matter. Even if the person who rips a Blockbuster DVD or downloads the entire oeuvre of Paul Abdul using BitTorrent has pangs of conscience, she or he still recognizes that the easy availability of such cultural content has radically transformed our sense of what constitutes a belonging.

A torn-paper collage by Charlie Bertsch

The saying that “possession is nine tenths of the law” may not hold up in a courtroom, but it certainly holds true for how those guilty of so-called piracy feel about the material they have managed to collect without paying for it. Property isn’t what it used to be. And neither is ownership.

That’s the message ably delivered by two recent films that consider the state of contemporary music and, by implication, other forms of cultural expression. Rip It: A Remix Manifesto, directed by Brett Gaylor, and Copyright Criminals: This Is a Sampling Sport, put together by Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod, both use the legal battles over the sampling of pre-existing content as the starting point for insightful examinations of the stakes involved, showing us how to perceive these battles as significant moments in a world war that involves us all whether we like it or not.

As its subtitle suggests, Gaylor’s Rip It is the more polemical of the two films, shamelessly promoting the virtues of what it terms the “CopyLeft” against the corporate interests bent on preserving the financial value of the copyrights they own. Because the film is constructed in the style of a personal essay, with the director confessing that he wants it to validate his favorite muscial act, the brilliant mash-up artist Girl Talk, it wears its tendentiousness lightly, like summerweight linen. Gaylor’s enthusiasm for remix culture is infectious and presented with enough flare to sway viewers who know that matters are not as cut-and-dried as the film implies.

 

Copyright Criminals takes a more balanced approach. Although the form of the documentary, which repeatedly overlays multiple video and audio clips into rich collages, attest to the filmmakers’ affection for remix culture, Franzen and McLeod go out of their way to show that the defense of copyright is not always as indefensible as Rip It would have us believe. To be sure, corporate interests were behind most of the major legal actions concerning sampling. But that doesn’t mean that the actual artists being sampled should be deprived of compensation for their work.

The most powerful sequences in Copyright Criminals concern the fate of drummer Clyde Stubblefield, who was a crucial component of James Brown’s rhythm section in the late 1960s. As the film demonstrates without a shadow of a doubt, Stubblefield’s beats found their way into an astonishing number of hip-hop classics during the genre’s late 1980s’ heyday, when major artists were not afraid to sample indiscriminately. From Public Enemy to The Beastie Boys, the legacy of his brilliantly tight drumming is clear. But it as also gone uncompensated and, to a large extent, unacknowledged.

 

 

Considering how little Stubblefield got paid for his work, both by James Brown and the artists who repurposed him later, he seems like a remarkably amiable fellow, proud of his musical achievements and free of the bitterness that could easily afflict someone in his position. And that makes the case for a defense of his copyright all the more compelling. Freedom to remix, the filmmakers show us, may be aesthetically necessary, but that doesn’t mean that it should come at the expense of other artists.

The contrast with Girl Talk, née biomedical engineer Greg Gillis, is telling. Although Rip It underscores the musical brilliance of his mash-ups, which have the power to move audiences into sweaty euphoria, it also presents us with the picture of an artist who, in contrast to Stubblefield, came to his cultural achievements from a background of relative privilege.

 

 

That’s not to criticize Gillis, who serves as a sagely amiable tour guide into the labyrinthine passageways of remix culture.

 

 

Nor is it to suggest that he is some scion of the super rich. As the interviews Gaylor conducts with his parents make clear, Girl Talk was the product of a middle-class home, though one with a bit more happiness, perhaps, not to mention Hall and Oates, than is the norm. Still, it would be wise to take the arguments that Rip It makes with a few grains of Clyde Stubblefield’s salty presence.

 

 

In the end, Rip It and Copyright Criminals complement each other so well that it’s tempting to advise that the films always be seen in tandem. Despite the struggles they delineate and the often dire consequences that legal action has had on the output of remix artists, both are rather hopeful productions. Reminding us that what we now call “sampling” or “repurposing” was going on long before the notion of copyright was established and that human beings have as much natural inclination to mix as they do to separate, these documentaries make us long for a future in which people would spend more energy trying to spread knowledge – and wealth – than they now waste trying to limit access to them.

The “Remixer’s Manifesto” that Gaylor presents near the beginning of his film efficiently distills the mindset necessary bring about that salutory change:

  1. CULTURE ALWAYS BUILDS ON THE PAST
  2. THE PAST ALWAYS TRIES TO CONTROL THE FUTURE
  3. OUR FUTURE IS BECOMING LESS FREE
  4. TO BUILD FREE SOCIETIES YOU MUST LIMIT CONTROL OF THE PAST

Even for someone eager to ensure that her or his work in the past does not become wholly expropriated by others in the present, these are words that can be lived by. The danger with guidelines composed in such abstract and absolute terms, however, is that they seem to call for an existential, all-or-nothing decision along the lines of former President George W. Bush’s notoroious claim that those nations unwilling to endorse American military operations in the Middle East were by definition “against us.”

One way out of this bind might be to supplement Rip It’s manifesto with some counterveiling precepts:

  1. THE FUTURE ALWAYS TRIES TO CONTROL THE PAST
  2. OUR PAST IS ALSO BECOMING LESS FREE
  3. TO BUILD FREE SOCIETIES YOU MUST LIMIT CONTROL OF THE FUTURE, TOO

Walter Benjamin, whose landmark essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”  presciently anticipated many of our current-day debates about the distribution of content, would most certainly approve of this expanded list. In the end,  the best remix aesthetic is one that seeks to redeem the past, in the manner of Copyright Criminals’ treatment of Clyde Stubblefield, even as it refuses to let it become a burden on the future. For redemptive critique of that sort, which discerns the people concealed by abstractions like “the past” and “the future,” provides a powerful corrective to the pursuit of freedom at all costs.