Fans of sampling rappers come face-to-face with the copyright law — and its exceptions
Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod, who produced the documentary Copyright Criminals, discussed it with mashup queen Zadi Diaz, host and co-producer of the peculiarly entertaining video geek-culture showcase EpicFu.com. The film will air in January on the Independent Television Service’s PBS series Independent Lens. See the eight-minute video or read excerpts:
McLeod, who teaches at the University of Iowa: . . . One of the reasons I went to grad school to study this stuff in the early '90s was because groups like Public Enemy and De La Soul, a lot of my favorite groups, started getting sued. And I never really thought of it as a legal issue, remixing, I thought of it as a creative or an esthetic issue....
Franzen ... We have to respect the laws and work within constraints. That’s actually been a huge part of making the film ... figuring out legal ways to tell the story.
McLeod: We’re working with a couple really great lawyers--one especially Peter Jaszi, who’s one of America’s best fair-use lawyers, who understands what fair use is.... It’s an exception to copyright law that allows you to use elements of other people’s copyrighted works in your work.
We have to rely to a certain extent on fair use. But we’re also paying people for more significant uses of people’s work....
For …both of us it’s really important that we don’t mess up legally. In other words, we don’t want to make one of the first films about remix culture that ends up getting us sued, and we lose the lawsuit, and it makes it harder for other people down the line to ... make the same kind of thing that we’ve attempted to make.
Franzen: It’s something people o in their day to day lives. . . . It’s become such a part of our culture, downloading, burning a disc.... Art kind of grows on art, and ... and our story is based on showing other stories. And it’s impossible to escape.
McLeod: “We’re living in untested times, a really gray area, this past decade. And I think we will continue to do so until someone figures out a way to change the laws, change business practices, change ... all sorts of things that need to change for this kind of ... remix creativity to ... be legal and develop into something that’s more interesting....
I readily admit a lot of the remix stuff that’s out there may not really be that interesting. It’s in its infancy as an arts form. What I really want to happen is that it can mature rather than just be cut off. That’s basically what happened with hip-hop. There was an enormous amount of creativity with groups like De La Soul, Public Enemy in the late ’80s, early ’90s because no one was paying attention — the lawyers weren’t paying attention, so they just made their art. And unfortunately, what happened once hip hop started making more money, that kind of sample-heavy, collage-heavy creativity was shut down in hip-hop, … shut down in its infancy....
One of the reasons why we included Clyde Stubblefield in the film — he’s one of the key characters, one of the main drummers for James Brown’s band, and his beats have been sampled in literally thousands of songs — is we want to acknowledge his contribution. And that’s one way of paying respect. But if you start talking to lawyers and artists’ manages and record company executives, I don’t think respect is something … that can fit into a briefcase.
Diaz: Or in a bank account.
Franzen ... One of our strategies is to put multiple things on the screen at once, label it and to try to clearly identify who it is because it’s important to us to give respect to people who made the original work.
Zadi’s interview, with others she did for PBS at the Television Critics Association press tour this month in Los Angeles, is posted on YouTube. Go to tinyurl.com/pbs-remix. The program’s site: copyrightcriminals.com.
ITVS will have screenings this week in Conway, Ark., Lincoln, Neb., and Washington, D.C. It's been holding screenings in Chicago, St. Louis, Seattle, Miami and other cities.
Web page posted Nov. 23, 2009