Independent Lens: Copyright Criminals

Sampling has created two classes: you’re either rich enough to afford the law or you’re totally outlaw.

— Jeff Chang

“We live in a remix culture now,” says Jeff Chang, “and the laws have to change in order to be able to help that culture do what it has to do.” The SoleSides Records co-founder and author of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop appears surrounded by shelves full of vinyl, “an archive of what’s come before,” he observes. But this past, however venerable, is not just that. It is also the present and future. DJs, says Chang, “are giving us snatches of our history, they’re giving a reinterpretation of that history to us.”

Chang’s assessment is a good place to start talking about sampling, the focus of Copyright Criminals. With its premiere as part of PBS’ exceptional Independent Lens series marked by broadcast & DVD release party featuring Eclectic method, Mr. Len, and DJ Spooky, Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod‘s exceptionally smart and energetic documentary lays out the complexities of sampling — artistic and political, legal and philosophical. Comprised of split screens, overlapping and overlaid sounds, an assemblage of images and noise, the movie effectively stages its argument even as it makes it. Sampling is all about context, making and taking from it at the same time.

If, as Chang submits, sampling can be understood to honor and elucidate history, it has also been called theft, and samplers have suffered a range of consequences. Many of these, Copyright Criminals points out, have been financial. From one perspective, the aggressive pursuit of samplers by wealthy corporations is ironic — given that the practice originated as a means to make art without much money. In the early days, hip-hop artists grabbed and snatched and refashioned sounds with the help of advancing technologies, in the process rethinking the very concepts of art and access; Bobbito Garcia notes that sampling emerged from (and then, okay, exacerbated) a “culture of borrow and take, because it was founded upon a lack of resources.” As young artists found new ways to express themselves, to make sense of difficult environments and apparent limits, they reinvent music.

They also catch hell. By the 1990s, the movie recounts, when hip-hop begins to make money, corporations set their lawyers on artists not on their payroll. The end of what University of Virginia professor Siva Vaidhyanathan calls the “golden age of hip-hop” is signaled by the start of these lawsuits (the case brought against Biz Markie by Gilbert O’Sullivan and Grand Upright Music is especially troubling, stymieing his career for long months and discouraging other artists from using, refitting or even parodying previous material. Even as Chuck D here makes a case against O’Sullivan (“How country is that? How backwoods is that? That’s somebody who totally is, like oblivious to the speed of things happening”), the legal ruling established precedent in favor of corporate influence. After all the excitement generated by sampling, a new art born of new tools, the old system put on the brakes. When Biz Markie lost, the rich were poised to get richer.

The grinding of these legal wheels left De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, PE’s “Bring the Noise” or the Beasties’ Paul’s Boutique as high points that can never be risked again (as Mix Master Mike puts it, “You put out something like that these days and you get lawyers calling you and a whole bunch of bullshit that goes with that”). But the grinding led to other questions, most unanswerable, as well as still more innovations in making music out of history, not all of them dependent on the legal industry called “sampling clearances.” Chang describes recent changes in music-making and thinking about who owns what in connection with increasingly affordable tools: “Consumers have become producers,” he says, able to make and distribute work easily.

Even if this relationship between makers and users has shifted irrevocably, some other issues are perennial, if more visible now. For one thing, the question of who owns what and who deserves compensation remains unresolved, if not downright iniquitous. The film’s primary example here is Clyde Stubblefield, James Brown’s funky drummer, who describes himself as “the world’s number one samplest drummer.” Still, he hasn’t “gotten a penny for it,” and neither has he received the recognition he desires even more than money. The lesson to be learned here: corporate legal wrangling is not designed to ensure payment to musicians.

Copyright Criminals raises another question, one that reveals the legal business for what it is. It has to do with ownership, and more profoundly, originality. What is copyright, anyway? Who possesses ideas, representations, and repetitions? How is payment made, by and to whom? The dilemma is only partially exposed in what seems a straight-up observation made by Tom Silverman, CEO of Tommy Boy. He’s extolling the premise of sampling, as a means of recovering and appreciating history: “All of these layers of archeology, audio archeology, that are happening,” he says, “And you can dig down to find out where the actual thing originated.”

But what can this “actual thing” be? And when exactly does it originate? Vaidhyanathan urges, “Look at how any bit of culture is made,” from Shakespeare to Homer to Cibo Matto. All culture is comprised of ideas and influences, none is conceived in a vacuum. Or again, as Saul Williams observes, “Melodies have always been borrowed.” That doesn’t mean it’s not art, only that it assumes contexts. That’s art with attitude and something to say.

RATING 8 / 10