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Copyright or Copywrong?: 'RiP' Challenges Intellectual Property Rights

By Marc Glassman

RiP: A Remix Manifesto, the controversial new doc by Montreal filmmaker Brett Gaylor, opens with a startling scene. A musician is prepping backstage for a club date, donning shades and putting on his hoodie. Prancing through a stream of young acolytes dressed in jeans, t-shirts and sneakers, he yells, “Make some noise!” Many scream, arms thrust in the air, as their star reaches the stage and dramatically starts to play his instrument—a computer.

As the crowd gyrates to the raucous, eminently danceable music unleashed by Girl Talk, a 20-something Pittsburgh computer geek who’s real name is Gregg Gillis, Gaylor’s film grinds to a halt several times. He wants us to know that the catchy, rhythmic work driving the club dancers wild is a complex remix of songs ranging from rock anthems by Queen to the charming bubble-gum soul of the early Jackson 5. It’s all been slowed down or speeded up and overlaid with so many other samples that the piece has been turned into a sonic gumbo cooked up by a digital master.

Girl Talk’s music may be hugely enjoyable but, according to current copyright laws, it’s illegal because copyrighted artists aren’t being paid. What’s does Girl Talk think he’s doing? Gillis grins, aw-shucks style: “Putting Elton John in a headlock and pouring beer on him.”

Though Girl Talk is featured throughout RiP, this is no bio-pic. Gaylor isn’t shy about his intentions, explaining early on that he’s making “a film about a war of ideas. The Internet is the battleground.” If more ink—or Web space—than blood is being shed, it’s not because this fight lacks issues. Count the buzz words that electrify the film: Copyright, Copyleft, intellectual property, Creative Commons, Public Domain vs. Private Interest, Fair Use and Fair Dealing.

Joining Girl Talk is a cast of characters ready to animate those concerns. There’s Lawrence Lessig, Barack Obama’s old teaching colleague at University of Chicago and, according to Gaylor, the country’s “coolest lawyer”; he believes in Copyleft, a system that would modify copyright laws, allowing for limited downloading and remixing to occur. Uhere’s Cory Doctorow, an award-winning science fiction writer, blogger and essayist, who is an articulate supporter of Creative Commons, a group that wants to extend the amount of cultural works that could be used creatively by others. And there’s Dan!O’Neill, the ’70s underground cartoonist whose parodies of Mickey Mouse landed him in the Supreme Court, where he was judged to have misused Disney’s famous rodent.

What Gaylor doesn’t supply is a group of sensible pro-copyright representatives. The film decidedly has a point-of-vidw that leans leftward. For Gaylor and his generation, the creative process has changed. Consumers are no longer passive; they’ve become creators, remixing music and film, transforming it into something that pulsates and is wildly new and expressive.

Patricia Aufderheide, director of the Center for Social Media Director at American University, isn’t persuaded. “RiP is a great beginning to a better conversation about creativity, culture and copyright,” she observes. “Gaylor and others note that owners can become censors. But we should be careful not to exaggerate the problem.

“Doc filmmakers in the US enjoy the right of Fair Use—the right to quote copyrighted materials without permission or payment and have used it to make films like Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes and This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which have shown in theaters!and on TV,” Aufderheide continues. “Canadian law also lets makers of new culture quote copyrighted material for free under some circumstances. [It’s called Fair Dealing.] It’s important that people both know their rights and use them and also document where they are stopped in creative work because of copyright restrictions.”

Gaylor structures RiP around its subtitle, A Remix Manifesto. When asked, he can recite it verbatim: “Number one: Creativity always builds on the past. Number two: The past will always try to control the future. Number three: Our future is becoming less free. Number four: To cuild something free, you must limit the control of the past.”

Gaylor offers several examples of how creativity is built on the past, none more ironic than the twisted tale of the Rolling Stones’ baby-boomer ’60s hit “The Last Time.” Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had actually appropriated an earlier gospel song by the legendary Staple Singers while “writing” their tune, and, in turn, it was recorded again in an orchestrated adaptation by their agent, Andrew Loog Oldham. Thirty years later, the Verve sampled Oldham’s version in their most popular song, “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” At that point, Jagger and Richards’ publishing company sued the Verve for copyright violation—and won hands down, garnering the rights to their song. As the younger group collapsed during what should have been a triumphal international tour, Jagger and Richards made more money selling the Verve’s song to Nike for a commercial.

RiP is filled with complex tales as bittersweet as that one, each illustrating a position in the Manifesto. The avant-garde group Negativland’s battle with U2’s record label over their parodic use of the hit “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is expertly retold. So is O’Neill’s epic legal battle with Disney, along with the artist’s claim the he “stole the mouse fair and square.” Gaylor shows O’Neill playing guitar and piano, singing and drawing. The point is clear: The man is an artist; he chose to use Mickey as a rich source for satire, not because of a lack of creativity; and his sad saga clearly demonstrates that “the past will always try to control the future.”

Eventually, the film moves from the copyright-laden Disneyland to the Promised Land: Brazil. Under Minister of Culture and world-class musician Gilberto Gil, the Brazilian government partnered with Creative Commons to give people living in impoverished areas of the country a chance to learn and be educated in current music technology. Going far beyond accessing free cutting-edge club music, Brazil now offers patented medicine free, or at a low cost, to its citizens.

Girl Talk, whose day job as Gregg Gillis was, until recently, a bio-medical researcher, would approve of Brazil’s radical solution. Neither Girl Talk nor Brazil is willing to pay license holders, citing higher artistic and ethical claims.

Aufderheide, for one, doesn’t endorse Gaylor’s subjects and their tactics. “We don’t need to blow up copyright policy in order to get a more generous and participatory culture. Copyright is unbalanced right now, but we can act to change that with tools that already exist in both policy and practice. Digital didn’t destroy the basic logic of copyright law. Copyright law will adapt and change if new creators demand it.”

When asked about the characters he sympathetically portrays in RiP, Gaylor is quick to counter Aufderheide’s critique. “The film doesn’t really advocate the abolition of intellectual property rights; it advocates for a reasonable truce in this war. Look at Lessig. He isn’t proposing an abolition of copyright, but a creative commons. He’s saying, ‘Can we look at the existing copyrights, can we look at what is intellectual property, and do we need to have this really rigid, maximalist, all-rights-reserved approach, when we know that everybody is able to distribute work around the world with or without the copyright holder’s permission?’”

Gaylor pauses, then adds, “We have to think about ways to encourage that without completely negating an artist’s rights. In our case, we’re asking, ‘What rights are we comfortable with giving away? What rights will actually move us further along, to a broader audience that we’re able to keep?’ That’s the type of conversation that really needs to happen. Even though the film is a manifesto—and it’s a very pointed argument—I don’t actually think the solution is black-and-white.”

Gaylor and his colleagues at EyeRteelFilm, Daniel Cross and Mila Aung-Thwin, have created Open Source Cinema, a digital approach that allows them to collaborate online with other filmmakers and their audience. Gaylor has been posting iterations of RiP online for over a year—and the audience has responded. Sixty-four students who were enamored with the project created a rotoscoped animated scene of hipsters dancing to Girl Talk.

“One of the cool thhngs that I’m really excited about is the concept of remixing our Times Square scene,” says Gaylor. The devastating sequence shows Gaylor not being able to shoot in the massive New York City tourist spot because all of the walls are covered with logos and advertising. “We’re rushing to do that right now, getting ready for our South by Southwest US festival launch. There’s a page on Open Source Cinema right now for the Times Square remix. I’ve had somebody cut up the shots of Times Square that appear at the end of the current cut. We’ve started a process of saying ‘OK, can we remix Times Square from this private space to a public one?’ We posted what we’d cut together and people are starting to come back with their responses. It’s really exciting: People are rotoscoping them, Photoshoqping them, all sorts of things. We’re going to put that into the end of the film.

“I feel that it’s only when we can give the film away, no excuses, online, that things will really take off,” Gaylor maintains. “The idea is that we’ll show the film in 2010 online after a year of remixing to see what's happened to RiP after it’s had its life on the festival circuit, hopefully a theatrical run and a DVD.

“There’s a call to action at the end of the film that says ‘Take the film, remix it, do what you want with it and see what happens,’ Gaylor continues. “So we’ll collect that back again and add more material about what’s been happening to some of our main characters. I’d like to revisit all that after a year to see what’s changed, what are the new battles—what did we win and what did we lose?”


Marc Glassman is the editor of POV, Canada's leading documentary magazine and Montage, the publication of the Directors Guild of Canada. He's one of the founders of the Toronto new media festival Images and a former programmer at Canada's Hot Docs festival.