Copyright Criminals tells the story of music sampling, and its inevitable collision with copyright law, by reflexively integrating the collage aesthetic into the film itself. Collaborating with a variety of artists, musicians, lawyers, and commentators, we set out to question the ethics, aesthetics, and legalities surrounding digital sampling.
There are many complexities involved in making a film about copyright infringement. When telling this story, it is quite easy for us as filmmakers to become potential copyright criminals, because we included hundreds of quotations from music and video within this documentary. To document this history, we also had to include content that is impossible to license — such as songs that have been litigated out of existence, like Biz Markie’s “Alone Again” and Roger & the Goosebumps’ “Stairway to Gilligan’s Island.” Additionally, it was financially and logistically impossible to pay for every fragment of sound and imagery contained in Copyright Criminals. And, even if every copyright holder had approved the use, which is unlikely, the total cost of clearing the rights would be an estimated $4 million — money we clearly don’t have.
This movie could not have been made and distributed without a legal doctrine known as fair use. A landmark event in fair use was the 2005 release of the Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practice in Fair Use, which was overseen in part by American University law professor Peter Jaszi (who was our fair use legal consultant). In the time since its release, many broadcasters, distributors, and media insurance companies have been more willing to allow documentary filmmakers to quote from songs, movies, and music in order to make an argument or illustrate an important point.
Nevertheless, the legal risks associated with making a documentary about sampling cannot be avoided. As in David Cronenberg’s thriller Videodrome, the film’s subject matter has jumped off the screen and become an issue (and headache) in our own lives.
With this documentary, we wanted people to better understand how copyright laws affect creativity and free expression. In the past decade computers, software and even mobile phones have dramatically shifted the way people interact with mass culture, giving consumers the tools to become producers. But as Jeff Chang says in the film, copyright law has created two classes. “You’re rich enough to afford the law,” he says, “or you’re a complete outlaw.” We find it sad that at the moment when more people can participate in creating media, the law has shut down some of those opportunities. Our film reflects on these tensions by creating an experience that invites viewers to look, listen and learn.
The controversies surrounding copyright are very complex, and the position Copyright Criminals takes is not as simple as good or bad. We have learned to respect artists on both sides of the debate, and hope to inspire viewers to be active participants in conversation about how to update the laws that regulate remix culture.
—Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod
Benjamin Franzen, Producer/Director
Ben Franzen is an Atlanta-based photographer and video producer. He owns and operates an independent production company, Changing Images, which provides a variety of media expertise ranging from large format photography to HD video production. Franzen earned a BFA in photography and a BA in the communication studies production program at the University of Iowa. His specialty is providing solutions for media needs — from the production of interactive web videos for the National Library of Medicine’s Diabetes Project to editing the show Squidbillies for Cartoon Network. Clients such as BlackBerry, Home Depot, Oracle, and Symantec have hired Franzen’s production company, and his reputation has drawn video commissions from artists such as jazz musician Bobby Previte. Most recently, he produced a big-budget, three-screen, hi-def industrial video for 24 Hour Fitness. Franzen’s personal work has been shown in film festivals, and he has received awards and grants from the Iowa Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Kembrew McLeod, Executive Producer
Kembrew McLeod is an independent documentary filmmaker and an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa. His books and films focus on both popular music and the cultural impact of intellectual property law, such as Freedom of Expression®: Resistance and Repression in the Age of Intellectual Property, which received a book award from the American Library Association in 2006. He co-authored a book with Peter DiCola, Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling, and co-edited a book with Rudolf Kuenzli, Cutting Across Media: Interventionist Collage, Appropriation Art, and Copyright Law; both will be published by Duke University Press mid-2010. McLeod’s documentary, Money For Nothing: Behind the Business of Pop Music, was programmed at the 2002 South by Southwest Film Festival and the 2002 New England Film and Video Festival, where it received the Rosa Luxemburg Award for Social Consciousness. His second documentary, titled Freedom of Expression®: Resistance and Repression in the Age of Intellectual Property, is a companion to the book of the same name. McLeod is an occasional music journalist whose pieces have appeared in Rolling Stone, Mojo, Spin, the Village Voice, and the New Rolling Stone Album Guide.