Sunday, October 14, 2012

Copyright Criminals - 2009

"Copyright Criminals" - 2009
Dir. by Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod - 1 hr. 5 min.

Complete Film

by Clayton Hollifield

"Copyright Criminals" takes a look at the practice of sampling, used primarily in hip-hop music.  If you're not familiar with the term, sampling is taking a snippet (or more) of an existing recording and using it as a piece of another recording.  It's the basis of rap music, and a thorny legal issue (to say the least).  For the most part, this film looks at the practice of sampling from both sides.  Defenders of the practice say that transforming an existing sound into something new is a creative act, and that it's ridiculous to have to ask for permission in order to create something.  The people who are against the practice pretty much just head straight to their lawyers whenever they've been sampled, and wait for the lawsuit money to roll in.

This subject is definitely looked at through a hip-hop lens, which is a little bit of a dated approach.  DJs and hip-hop producers may have been the pioneers, but lawsuits stomped the hell out of the practice of sampling by the early 1990s.  Rappers aren't the only people affected by resistance to sampling; after talking about The Turtles lawsuit against De La Soul and Gilbert O'Sullivan's lawsuit against Biz Markie, a more recent example could have been provided using the scrum over a sample used in The Verve's late-nineties hit "Bittersweet Symphony."  Technology and the widespread acceptance of hip-hop culture and music means that sampling is easier than ever, and isn't just the province of a few rappers any more.

"Copyright Criminals" does give voice to both sides, although not equally or eloquently.  At least on two occasions here, I felt like people who have based their careers on sampling gave arguments that were intended to support their stand, but came off more like an argument against sampling.  The first, DJ Q-Bert, gives a demonstration of how he can manipulate a turntable, and asks how someone can own a noise.  The noise in question is like a quick siren, but it misinterprets the legal issue.  It's not the noise that someone owns, it's the recording of that noise.  It's even mentioned later in the film that trip-hop artists started getting around this issue by recording the sounds they wanted to sample, pressing records of them, and then sampling that.  Being unwilling to take the step of generating your own noise (even if it's a sound-alike) and then processing it to your own preference comes off as an admission that there is something tangible gained by sampling.

The second argument made that comes off at cross-purposes is by DJ Abilities (of Eyedea & Abilities), who brags about being able to have all of these great musicians "in his band."  While that's a very practical advantage to sampling, it's also the reason that some people expect to get paid for their work.  And it also takes away these fantastic musicians' choice of whom to work with.  If something is valuable enough to steal, it's also valuable enough to pay for.

Probably the highlight of "Copyright Criminals" is the interview with Clyde Stubblefield.  Most folks wouldn't know him by name, but they're surely heard his work.  Stubblefield was the drummer in James Brown's band from about 1965 to 1970, and his drum breaks are among the most ubiquitous in the history of rap music.  There's even a couple of montages in this film that go back and forth between Stubblefield playing his famous drum beats and the litany of songs that have used his beats over the years.  Interestingly, while James Brown (and his estate, at this point) gets credit (and payment) for the use of those songs, Stubblefield's work is uncredited, and he's never made a dime beyond the session fees.  Thankfully, he doesn't seem the least bit bitter over it, and was still playing weekly shows at the time of the filming.  But Stubblefield's scenario introduces an important point: the people who get money for the use of samples often have nothing to do with the creation of the initial work (another point at which discussing The Verve's sampling lawsuit would have been useful).

This might sound like I'm against sampling, and that would be untrue.  I have more albums than I can count in my collection using this method of creating music.  But the way the law is set up, it's hard to root for either side.  Free expression and creative endeavors ought to be protected, but if you're a different type of musician, you still have to pay for your guitar and your strings.  And I do agree that the people who's work is being blatantly used should be compensated, but not only do the wrong people frequently profit from other people's work, but one artist having to beg another for permission to create is flat-out wrong.  I feel like "Copyright Criminals" doesn't really do enough to illuminate the issue - the cases for sampling boil down to people saying "we live in a remix culture," and the arguments against come from creepily grinning lawyers telling you that you're going to get sued.  I still enjoyed watching this film, but I don't feel like it took me anywhere that I hadn't already visited before.

3 / 5 - Streaming

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