Do not put Judge Daryl Loomis in a headlock. Do not pour a beer over his head.
"If creativity is a field, copyright is the fence."—John Oswald
Happy birthday to you
Did you sing along while reading those words? I sang while writing them. Now, having admitted to that, I suppose I can expect a Cease and Desist letter from Warner Chapel, the world's largest publishing company and the owners of the song. Because I don't "own" the rights to sing the song, I'd have to shell out big bucks to keep from infringing on their rights. Copyright law, in its origins and ideally today, is designed to protect artists and allow them to control the use of their individual work. Too often, however, artist protection is simply a mask that allows corporations to control art and divert that revenue stream into their coffers.
RiP! A Remix Manifesto tackles this subject on a broad scale, using the specific example of the music industry to address the larger issue of intellectual property, copyright law, and who these concepts are really designed to protect. As the title would suggest, director Brett Gaylor presents us with his manifesto on copyright law in four principles:
1. Culture always builds on the past
These principles work quite nicely for the music industry, and Gaylor is slick in his expansion of them into other realms. He begins by discussing mashups and the legal complications that arise, especially in today's internet culture. Mashups, a technique of taking extremely small audio samples and resourcing them into an entirely original composition, aren't new by any means. William Burroughs and Brion Gysin experimented with cut-ups in writing, music, and film as early as the 1960s. By the early 90s, a group called Negativland had been sued by Pepsi, U2, and just about anybody else these artists skewered. John Oswald's "plunderphonics" (a term coined initially in his 1985 essay, "Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative") is so divisive that his album, named for the technique, was made illegal (I own a copy of this album; it is an amazing, unique experience. Come and get me CRIA). Today, we have the primary subject of Rip!, an artist calling himself Girl Talk, who performs his mashups in front of a live crowd.
The problem with copyright law in the case of mashups is not in the performance but in the publication and release of the refashioned piece. By the letter of the law, Girl Talk would have to pay a royalty fee to each individual artist that he samples. This seems to make sense until you begin to look at the raw facts, which Gaylor often does to significantly bolster his argument. An average length Girl Talk track could potentially contain hundreds of samples, varying in length from a few seconds to a few tenths of a second. If he wanted to release an album, he would have thousands upon thousands of samples. To pay a fee for each would cost millions in rights fees alone, making his art, from a legal standpoint, impossible to produce. How can we justify making somebody's art financially prohibitive when we have plenty of precedent in other realms of art—Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup can paintings, for one?
Gaylor uses other examples in the music industry, including the Napster case and the Bono Act, which dramatically expanded the length of post-mortem copyright, especially in regards to corporations. What he establishes through his examples and the above manifesto is that copyright law has destroyed the public domain (as the law now stands, corporations hold the copyright for ninety-five years after the death of the original owner, currently meaning that the public domain contains work no newer than around 1924) and has successfully stifled the progress of art.
Gaylor's point really comes clear, though, when he takes his principles into other realms. As luck would have it, Girl Talk isn't just an experimental musician. At night he rocks dancers in the club but, during the day, he rocks a cubicle as a bio-medical engineer. Intellectual property has expanded into all realms, including genetics and medical science. Corporations can patent plants, chromosomes, and medical discoveries, preventing other corporations from beating them to the punch with a hot new pill. We could be on the cusp of a cure for cancer. However, because medical advances are considered property and multiple companies have their own exclusive findings and methods, there is no collaboration and, therefore, advancement in science becomes stunted.
Entertainment, for some, can be a shallow and frivolous industry. It may be hard for these people to sympathize with the plight of those who make art for a living. However, when you take the same principles and apply them to an industry as vital as medicine, the regressive implications of copyright law and intellectual property become disgustingly clear.
Disinformation Co. has done a very good job on their release of RiP! A Remix Manifesto. The image looks very good, fitting for a new, digitally recorded documentary. The sound is equally fine, though it could have used a little boost during the many musical scenes. For extras, we first have six deleted scenes, totaling nearly seventy minutes of additional footage. Outside of one scene, these are very brief, but the long one is by far the most valuable. The complete lecture from copyright lawyer Larry Lessig, the original author of the manifesto, that is heavily referenced in the film spans nearly an hour and is a well-informed, enlightening and, most importantly, entertaining. The other extras are "Mashup favorites," six clips from Open Source Cinema (referenced in the Accomplices section and a highly recommended website) and other various sources, the most famous of which is the State of the Union address from George W. Bush that is adeptly recut to make the president say some very scary things.
RiP! A Remix Manifesto is an excellent document of one of the more pressing issues in the rapidly changing technology of the internet age. When you put a video up on YouTube or a collage you make on Facebook, do you think you own it? In the increasingly democratized world of art, this is a question that many must face, and Rip! does an outstanding job of detailing many of the issues surrounding the law.
Not guilty. Rip this movie. Remix it. Make it your own.
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