In his documentary RiP! A remix manifesto, B.C.'s Brett Gaylor argues for a world without draconian copyright laws.
If you buy into Brett Gaylor’s soaring vision of the future, culture’s last best hope is in the hands of a sweaty mass of half-clothed teenagers dancing to Queen mashed up with the Jackson 5. It’s also on a rooftop in a poor Brazilian neighbourhood as youths break-dance to homemade mix tapes, and in Montreal as an 11-year-old boy interweaves songs from Dora the Explorer with the White Stripes.
Watch the trailer for RiP! A remix manifesto.
In today’s copyright system, where corporations own everything from cartoon characters to the song “Happy Birthday to You”, this vision is also illegal. Artists and corporations are fighting a fierce battle to protect their exclusive ownership rights. Simultaneously, with the advent of Internet-based technologies like Napster, YouTube, and other file-sharing systems, the amount and types of artistic content that can be shared directly from person to person have skyrocketed. In RiP! A remix manifesto, which opens at the Ridge Theatre on Friday (March 20), documentary filmmaker and Galiano Island native Gaylor has mashed up some of the most litigious bands and brands in history to make his case for this new composite culture.
“This film has been viewed by more lawyers than probably any film in the history of documentary cinema,” Gaylor says with a laugh. “We used the Rolling Stones [without permission]; we used the Beatles. But at the core, the issues are really freedom of expression and the ability of people to participate in their own culture.”
In this spastic, throbbing cinematic look at technology, creativity, consumerism, and how they all interact, Gaylor says, his team challenged itself to make an entertaining, watchable case for rewriting copyright laws in Canada and the world. “We needed to make a film that gave people a reason to care about the issue of intellectual property.”
The film’s compelling protagonist is Gregg Gillis, a Pittsburgh biomedical engineer better known by his legions of fans as Girl Talk. From the outset, he’s framed as the Everyman Internet-age musical hero. His computer-based songs are a mashup of oldies rock, rap lyrics and beats, pop-music hooks, and everything else he can get his hands on. Gillis doesn’t pay any royalties or licensing fees for using tidbits of other people’s music, and he has been called a “lawsuit waiting to happen” by the New York Times. But standing on a speaker during a particularly raucous show, surrounded by enraptured, dancing fans, Gillis shouts: “We’re the same motherfucking person.” According to Gaylor, that’s the whole point.
“Our memory and our culture is what we will give to the next generation, and it’s what gives meaning to our lives in so many ways,” Gaylor says. “Culture doesn’t, and shouldn’t, belong to anyone,” he adds, especially in an age of technological opportunities and cultural globalization.
Canadian intellectual-property lawyer David Fewer jokes that he spent 24 hours “wallowing in despair” after he first saw the movie. He wondered how the film could ever be shown legally in movie theatres. “It’s a great piece of work,” he says. “But I couldn’t even count the number of copyrighted clips in just the first sequence.”
After dozens of hours vetting the film, Fewer, who is also the acting director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, came to the conclusion that the documentary’s saving grace is that it uses images and music, mostly without permission, to discuss copyright itself. In Canadian law, this is supported by a proviso called fair dealing.
“I think the law supports Brett’s approach,” Fewer says. “For example, the film uses the music of the Rolling Stones in order to talk about that band’s approach to copyright and their attempts to assert copyright in a way that goes against the way a lot of us view the world.” After showing the film to other lawyers, he was surprised at how many of them, even copyright stalwarts, supported this conclusion.
The film itself, which is visually slick and deftly edited, is built around a “manifesto” of four rules: culture always builds on the past, the past always tries to control the future, our future is becoming less free, and to build free societies we need to limit the control of the past.
Whether the film is roaming around China on the trail of renowned lawyer Lawrence Lessig, who pioneered the so-called Creative Commons system (which allows creators to mark their works so they can be legally reused, remixed, or shared), or taking us to a dance party on a Brazilian beach, the theme is cultural communality and participation, Gaylor says. “For an older generation, this couch-potato generation, culture is just something you consume,” he says. “So why should we have to ask permission to take some of it, reinterpret and make something new, add our voice to the chorus?”
In this move toward a more open future, someone needs to make the case for copyright, Vancouver lawyer Karen MacDonald says. “People say it’s just the corporation that is profiting from music sales,” she says. “But there’s also money flowing to the artist, and there’s also the record store down the street whose employees are going to lose their jobs if it becomes a free-for-all.”
After spending a lot of time representing artists who got their work “ripped off”, MacDonald, who specializes in intellectual property, says she has no sympathy for people who treat corporations like they’re the bad guys. “What it comes right down to is that people don’t want to pay for something if they can get it for free,” she says. “I think it’s easy sometimes for the public to look to the big, bad corporation to make themselves feel better about what they’re doing. They tell themselves, ”˜I’m not really taking money from the artist.’ But who do you think is paying the artists?”
The ironic part is that without copyright protection of software, the Internet as we know it wouldn’t exist, MacDonald says. “Do you think those programmers would have done it out of the goodness of their hearts? Some people would. But the technology wouldn’t be as good as it is today.” The public seems eager to support open copyright, she says, but seems to have a hard time envisioning the direct effect it would have on artists.
“I don’t think copyright law is ready to deal with the Internet,” she says. “But getting rid of copyright law altogether won’t increase creativity, because if artists can’t make money off of what they’re doing, then they just won’t do it.” Reasonably priced, readily available services such as iTunes hold real promise for both artists and music lovers and could be a good model for finding middle ground, according to MacDonald. However, she does concede that using a tiny little clip of music—which is what Girl Talk is doing—then being asked to pay $20,000 to do that is “absurd”.
According to Lessig, who appears extensively in the film, copyright law needs to be massively overhauled if it’s going to serve its initial purpose, which was to encourage creativity and innovation. Using rules that were built before the advent of the Internet to manage creative rights and intellectual property doesn’t make sense, he says. “[Traditional lawyers] assume that the only model of creativity is the one Britney Spears uses,” he adds. “In fact, there are other models that lots of people produce and create with that we need to encourage as well.”
For an older generation, most of whom aren’t nearly as technology-savvy, the cumbersome rules that govern what can and can’t be shared might not seem as egregiously wrong, Lessig says. “A whole generation of kids are engaging in a behaviour that to them seems obvious and natural but that the law says is a felony,” he says. “The real question that we need to ask is not whether or not copyright is important or should be preserved but how do we craft a copyright law that actually achieves its objectives in the digital age without rendering a whole generation criminal?”