Jan. 13, 2010
'Copyright Criminals' film on hip-hop sampling airs in Iowa Jan. 20, 21, 24
The practice of remixing existing bits and pieces of sound to create new music is a central component of hip-hop and other contemporary forms of music making. The problem is, recycling even two seconds of someone else's song without permission is a copyright infringement.
"Copyright Criminals," a documentary by University of Iowa professor Kembrew McLeod (left) and UI alumnus Benjamin Franzen (right), examines the creative and commercial value of musical sampling, including the ongoing debates about artistic expression, copyright law and, of course, money.
The film will premiere nationally this month as part of the Emmy Award-winning PBS documentary series Independent Lens, hosted by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Iowa Public Television will air "Copyright Criminals" at 11 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 24. IPTV World plans to show it at 8 a.m., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20, 12 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 21, and 11 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 24.
The film traces hip-hop's 30-plus-year evolution from an under-the-radar sub culture to a multibillion-dollar industry. Among the artists interviewed are Chuck D of Public Enemy (left, top); George Clinton, who helped invent funk with his groups Parliament and Funkadelic; hip-hop group De La Soul (left, middle); Clyde Stubblefield (left, bottom), James Brown's drummer and the world's most sampled musician; and Eclectic Method, a group that pioneered the emerging art of audio-visual mixing in the early-2000s.
Some musicians take issue with having their work taken out of context while others, like Clinton, are fans of sampling. Remixers contend that it doesn't matter what you take, as long as you flip it, or transform it in a way that doesn't sound like the original. Those who sample defend their art, saying creativity and skill are required to develop the new sound combinations.
"There are examples of plopping in a hook from an '80s song and having a hit, but there are plenty of artists who spend a great deal of time piecing together a jigsaw puzzle of different elements that sounds nothing like its constituent parts," said McLeod, associate professor of communication studies in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "It's like playing a guitar: you can play it in a mundane way, or you can play it in a really original way."
The film points out that borrowing is by no means new, nor is it unique to music. Consider the Dadaists, who used elements of earlier works like the Mona Lisa to create fresh art, writers who put a new twist on phrases from existing literature, or scholars who have built upon the work of their predecessors.
In the hip-hop world, borrowing wasn't a problem early on. No one complained when African-American deejays first started mixing existing sounds on turntables in Bronx clubs in the 1970s. But that brief era of artistic freedom halted in the late '80s, when digital samplers made it easier and hip-hop started to sell.
"That window quickly shut when lawyers and record companies intervened in the 1990s," McLeod said. "The motivation for the lawsuits was first and foremost money -- record companies and established artists saw sampling as theft. But it also began to strike people as unethical. They saw something morally wrong with 'messing with' or recycling a musical expression that someone had labored over."
Record companies began requiring artists to submit copyright clearance sheets, proving they had gotten permission to use the samples in their songs. The financial and bureaucratic barriers associated with this system, according to McLeod, made it impossible for artists to be as creative as they once were.
"Groups like Public Enemy would create songs from 20 different elements, but the new rules would require going to 20 people for permission and paying every one of them," McLeod said. "Even if you could track down all of the appropriate parties and get sign off, you'd lose money on the song. Now only creators who are rich enough -- like P. Diddy or Kanye West -- can sample, and it's typically one element, like an old chorus. There's a whole class of creators lacking the money or connections to participate in mainstream hip-hop."
USA Today calls "Copyright Criminals" "a compelling and insightful documentary illuminating both sides of a hotly debated issue." A DVD will be released on Jan. 26, 2010, through IndiePix, Amazon and video retailers.
Franzen, director, producer, editor and cinematographer of the film, is an Atlanta-based photographer and video producer. He owns and operates the independent production company Changing Images. A native of Dubuque, Iowa, he earned a B.F.A. in photography and a B.A. in communication studies from the UI.
McLeod, executive producer, researcher and writer of the film, is a scholar and independent documentary filmmaker. His books and films focus on popular music and the cultural impact of intellectual property law.
Support for "Copyright Criminals" is provided in part by the Independent Television Service, Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and the University of Iowa. For more information on the film, visit http://www.copyrightcriminals.com/ or http://pressroom.pbs.org/programs/independent_lens/copyright_criminals.
NOTE TO MEDIA: High-resolution images are available on the PBS pressroom site, and review copies of the film are available upon request.
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500
MEDIA CONTACT: Nicole Riehl, 319-384-0070, email@example.com