RIP: A Remix Manifesto
Credits: Directed by Brett Gaylor
Details: (M), 85 mins, Canada, English
Synopsis: In RIP: A Remix Manifesto, Web activist and filmmaker Brett Gaylor explores issues of copyright in the information age, mashing up the media landscape of the 20th century and shattering the wall between users and producers. The film's central protagonist is Girl Talk, a mash-up musician topping the charts with his sample-based songs. But is Girl Talk a paragon of people power or the Pied Piper of piracy? Creative Commons founder, Lawrence Lessig, Brazil's Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil and pop culture critic Cory Doctorow are also along for the ride. A participatory media experiment, from day one, Brett shares his raw footage at opensourcecinema.org, for anyone to remix. This movie-as-mash-up method allows these remixes to become an integral part of the film.
A biased but convincing case for copyright reform.
If you think intellectual copyright is a dry subject for a documentary, think again. We’re living in an era where technology – from sampling to peer-to-peer file sharing to news aggregator websites to mash-up and illegal film downloads - is challenging everyday issues of copyright and intellectual property. In return corporations are feeling hugely threatened and resorting to heavy legal actions in a desperate attempt to stick a finger in the dam.
Canadian digital activist and documentary director Brett Gaylor is clear about which side of the battle he’s on. With a film part-titled a manifesto, how could he be anything else? But that doesn’t really excuse his failure to see shades of grey and complications in an issue that’s far more complex than he admits.
There’s little question Gaylor has made an entertaining and energetic doco in the Morgan (Supersize Me) Spurlock mould, with loads of graphics and visual gimmicks to position the entertainment industry and publishers as big bad wolves instead of the fast food industry. But docos don’t just have a duty to entertain, they’re also duty-bound to present a coherent and well-reasoned argument, something Gaylor does not always manage.
The work of Girl Talk, a male mash-up artist whose work is technically illegal, provides a useful jumping off point for a breathless tour around issues of originality and plagiarism (viz. The Rolling Stones’ successful legal suit against The Verve) and musical borrowing in pre-sampling days - Led Zeppelin taking from Muddy Waters who took from Son House who borrowed from Robert Johnson, etc.
From the way Gaylor illustrates his case you might think mash-ups were the first-ever use of sampling in popular music – a musical practice whose history in fact dates back at least 20 years to the hip-hop artists of the 1980s and beyond. But then the film isn’t pretending to be a history of sampling. It has bigger fish to fry, going on to examine the history of copyright in the US and the litigious practices of corporations like Disney and Warner-Chappell. Against these examples is pitted the idealistic notion of creative commons and the push by activists including Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow for a greatly expanded public domain.
Gaylor makes a convincing case that copyright law needs major reform and that big corporations are exploiting their position in ways that inhibits musical artists from creating new works out of old material. I suspect many of us didn’t need much persuading of that in the first place.
But when he starts getting carried away with the social utopian rhetoric, implying that we should abolish copyright to make everyone “free”, he sounds irritatingly naïve. And on the subject of the record industry suit against Napster’s file-sharing he’s downright misleading, literally describing the software‘s peer-to-peer sharing as being the same as sharing music with “a friend”. The opposite of course was the case – you no longer needed to know anyone to copy their music.
The film’s focus on the music scene also means he almost entirely overlooks the issue of piracy and copyright in the movie industry, where notions of piracy start to look more troublesome. There will I hope be better films on the subject than this. But if you approach Remix as a totally biased primer on basic issues and copyright history and take into account its biases and omissions, it’s at least a lively start to the argument.
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