Rip: A Remix Manifesto

The DVD for Brett Gaylor’s documentary/essay on copyright and culture, RiP! A Remix Manifesto, is a curious artifact. Not only is the film available for download, with user-determined pricing, but it is also free to be remixed at Open Source Cinema. All of which leads one to ask, “Why would you need the disc?”

One answer is to consider the “manifesto” that structures the film.

  1. Culture always builds on the past.
  2. The past always tries to control the future.
  3. Our future is becoming less free.
  4. To build free societies you must limit the control of the past

Running through these four statements is an ethic of accessibility, for viewing, for creating, that points to the cultural logic behind producing a DVD for sale and rental, even while economically it seems to make no sense (and that assumption, it can be noted, may not be true if other recent experiments, like Radiohead’s In Rainbows, continue to bear themselves out).

Simply put, not everyone can, or wants, to view films on a computer. And for public screenings a DVD offers advantages in portability and stability over digital downloads. As Nina Paley, writer-director of Sita Sings The Blues (2009), another ‘free culture’ film, remarked in an interview with Lance Weiler for The Workbook Project, people will pay to get content in certain kinds of “containers” for a variety of reasons, including to support the artist and their project. For example, having DVDs on shelves, and for sale, may help to promote a work in ways that a file on a computer cannot.

Regardless of how you access Gaylor’s film, you will see an entertaining, thoughtful, and politically committed articulation of what the filmmaker dubs the “copyLEFT”, that is, those who support a copyright regime that favors openness and access to cultural product – music, films, books – rather than exclusive rights for the commercial owners of such product, which is labelled the “copyRIGHT”. The copyRIGHT currently dominates intellectual property law in the US.

Musical remix artist Girl Talk, AKA Gregg Gillis, is Gaylor’s entry into this discussion. Girl Talk’s music, for which his computer and song library are the primary instrument, helps to raise a host of questions related to the existing system of copyright in the US. What constitutes ‘fair use’? What does it mean to own a piece of music? Is anything ever wholly original in the sense of having no references or debts to other creators?

What happens to the vitality of a culture when content can be locked down, essentially, for perpetuity? What kinds of options for creativity, for distribution, are opening up for artists in the emerging digital/remix culture? Are organizations like the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America defenders of creator rights or dinosaurs gasping their last breaths?

Despite Gaylor’s clear advocacy for openness and accessibility, his film does not offer entirely simple answers to these questions. Most involve striking a balance between the immediate needs and desires of a creator and/or owner of intellectual property and those of future creators, while recognizing the significance of changing media for how any of the key questions are addressed. Indeed, one of the documentary’s consistent arguments is that copyright law needs to make sense for the times, and specifically for the practical ways in which people actually ‘do’ culture.

A scene that deftly works to make the filmmaker’s argument in favor of openness, while also acknowledging the complexities of cultural ownership, is placed early in the documentary, just following the introduction of Girl Talk and the “Remix Manifesto”, and featuring Marybeth Peters, the U.S. Register of Copyrights.

Peters marks herself from the beginning as a digital outsider, stating that she doesn’t have a computer at home and that she has never downloaded a song, let alone done a mashup. Gaylor invites her to watch Girl Talk at work as he creates a piece of music from sampling. The scene moves between the writer-director and Peters watching the artist at work and the actual footage being screened in the Register’s office.

It would be easy for a figure like Peters to be treated as a defender of the old order, yelling, “Theft!”, and carrying the water for corporations like Disney, but here she appears to be fascinated by Girl Talk and the music he makes. You almost expect her to exclaim, “That is so cool!” She doesn’t, of course.

Neither does she absolve him of violating copyright simply because she can see the artistic value and skill in what he does. She doesn’t proclaim him guilty either. Instead, she indicates that whether Girl Talk’s music violates copyright law or not largely “depends”, especially on who it is that ends up feeling violated and to what degree.

This response subtly, and indirectly, makes the point that the current system is stacked in favor of ‘owners’ but without turning Peters into the big bad. Ultimately, both she and Girl Talk are working in a transition between sets of cultural norms, and Gaylor is smart enough to see them equally in that light.

The most notable weakness in RiP is that the reasons for focusing on US copyright law is not made clear until the next to last act where efforts to export the American system to the rest of the world are discussed. This is only hinted at earlier, during the introduction of law professor and Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig. On the other hand, the positioning of this section does make for a good lead-in to the final act, which focuses on Brazil, a country that Gaylor styles as the original ‘remix culture’.

I will also mention that the quality of the video does not always hold up on DVD. A number of shots, particularly those involving movement or low light, show signs of wear from transfer to disc, notably in the appearance of horizontal lines that break up the image.

The Disinformation Company DVD includes additional footage and interviews, including a Lessig talk on the meaning and politics of “Free Culture”. There is also a collection of video mashups from Open Source Cinema, some which are excerpted in the film.

Gaylor models his own ideals in the film, taking liberal advantage of fair use to make RiP. This meta-commentary works as well as anything else in the documentary to underline the essential point that culture is made, not owned. Having the movie available in a ‘hard’ format also extends this point, widening the potential audience, and maybe inspiring people to move in favor of cultures that are free to be developed over ones that are preserved in commodified amber.

RATING 8 / 10
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