Community Cinema Screening of COPYRIGHT CRIMINALS in Washington, DC

Posted on October 6, 2009

Over the weekend, Community Cinema screened the Independent Lens film COPYRIGHT CRIMINALS in Washington, DC. The film examines the creative and commercial value of musical sampling, including the related debates over artistic expression, copyright law, and (of course) money. Find out what happened at the screening from Regional Outreach Coordinator Michon Boston.

There was a time when talking about music sampling and lifting pre-recorded music in front of an audience of musicians would seem more like a rowdy town hall meeting. Times have changed. At Sunday’s screening of COPYRIGHT CRIMINALS, the audience was enthusiastic to ask questions about copyright and sampling for professional purposes. The screening was part of the Future of Music Policy Summit at Georgetown University. For Kembrew McLeod, co-producer of COPYRIGHT CRIMINALS, copyright is not just a hobby, but a profession based on his own youthful “sound collages” of existing material. I won’t reveal the source of his work on this forum (YouTube removed the evidence!). Tony Berman, of Berman Entertainment and Technology Law (who appears in the documentary) was also available during the Q&A. Together, McLeod and co-producer Benjamin Franzen cleared over 500 clips for the documentary. The process took more than one quarter of the production budget, according to McLeod, adding, the estimated cost for “playing by the rules” clearance for the clips in the film would have added up to $4 million. Some clips were classified as “fair use” thanks to the expertise of attorneys like Peter Jaszi of American University (who is affiliated with DC’s new Community Cinema series partner The Center for Social Media).


Fair use is not defined by the Center, but described, for documentary makers, as follows:

Fair Use is the right, in some circumstances, to quote copyrighted material without asking permission or paying for it. It is a crucial feature of copyright law. In fact, it is what keeps copyright from being censorship. You can invoke fair use when the value to the public of what you are saying outweighs the cost to the private owner of the copyright. 

- Source: “Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use” 

When it came to fair use, McLeod appeared cautious about their selection process for COPYRIGHT CRIMINALS. “We didn’t want to ruin it for people following us through the door,” McLeod said. Though COPYRIGHT CRIMINALS highlights music sampling, there is a lot of overlap between audio and visual content––especially in an age where music videos are as essential to music distribution as the recordings. Musicians, producers and entertainment and intellectual property lawyers came to the Policy Summit to talk about the business of making and distributing music

McLeod is aware of the importance of compensation for one’s work especially for African American musicians who pioneered hip-hop music and are often the source of its key elements such as the beat by former James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield. McLeod said he and Franzen paid Stubblefield to play a session to include in the film. DJ’s may not go this route (which costs less than clearing tracks) as a matter of the sound aesthetic a DJ is aiming for in the final mix. Stubblefield’s story mirrors Rogue Wave drummer Pat Sturgeon in D TOUR. McLeod told the audience Stubblefield had kidney failure earlier this year and is now traveling with a portable dialysis machine. In the film, Stubblefield says he wants the credit more than the royalties. But McLeod and Franzen are hoping Stubblefield will get more––a chance to live for another gig; and that their film will raise attention about Stubblefield’s medical condition that may inspire benefit concerts and recognize the man behind the hip-hop beat. 

-Michon Regional Outreach Coordinator


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