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jason on 01/19/2010 at 11:30PM

Copyright Criminals airs tonight on PBS!

Copyright Criminals, a fantastic documentary on sampling in music, airs tonight on PBS [more info on PBS] [Copyright Criminals homepage]

I had the opportunity to preview Copyright Criminals this past October at the Future of Music Coalition Policy Summit. During the Q&A and the ensuing Remix panel, filmmakers Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod talked about the difficulties in producing a documentary about illegal sampling. The film would not have been possible if they actually cleared every sample, so they tried to determine which music samples they'd need to clear, and which could be defensible under fair use. Fortunately, documentary filmmakers have a Fair Use Best Practices. We need something like this in music!

The filmmakers also found cool ways to compensate some of the key people in sample-based music who haven't gotten their fair share. One of the major plots of the film follows Clyde Stubblefield, James Brown's drummer who played the infamous "funky drummer" sample, but didn't own the rights to that recording. Rather than license the sample from James Brown's estate, the filmmakers throw down for some studio time, and Subblefield makes a new recording that he owns.

The film focuses on sampling's rise to prominence and in the "golden age" of hip-hop -- on artists like Biz Markie, De La Soul, and Public Enemy. I don't remember if it was in the film or just during the Q&A, but at some point the directors stated that if a sample-heavy album like Paul's Boutique had cleared all samples, they would have lost $20 million on the album to date.

On the other end of the debate, Steve Albini plays the role of the producer, studio-owner, and musician who uses strictly analog equipment and doesn't care much for sampling and "remix culture". His point is basically that it's easier to copy and build upon what somebody else has done, than to go and do it from scratch like he does with his own music. I agree, but I think that's kind of the whole point, right? Some people are able to build on pre-existing musical ideas to create something that stands on its own.

We need to find a way to decriminalize sample-based music, beacuse the sample-clearing process alone -- let alone the cost -- is enough to force the majority of sample-based musicians to operate on the other side of the law. Maybe it's by bringing all sides of the debate together and defining Fair Use Best Practices, just as documentary filmmakers have done. Or maybe it's a statutory license -- imagine if you could pay in advance to remix/sample based on how many copies you're making, just like the law grants anyone the right to cover a song. And/or maybe it's a profit-sharing agreement (just like sampled composers often get co-songwriting credits) under which non-profit sampling is deemed fair use. That's the dream...

If you don't own a TV, Copyright Criminals is also available for free online if you know where to look (along with everything else our culture has ever produced).

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User Comments

01
icastico on 01/20/10 at 07:51AM
I love Steve Albini, but...

"His point is basically that it's easier to copy and build upon what somebody else has done, than to go and do it from scratch like he does with his own music."

I would say it is impossible to create music without building upon a vast cultural heritage. Like, nanos gigantium humeris insidentes and all...sampling is just a new technology the dwarves use to climb up onto the shoulders of those giants.
02
humanworkshop on 01/20/10 at 08:35AM
I agree with icastico. Albini seems oblivious to the fact he himself builds on a cultural heritage.

For some artists a computer is a object not an instrument. To bad they don't see the potential, just because they can't grasp it.

Albini of all people should appreciate taking a sample of musical history, and make it in to something new. It's what sampling artists do with audio files and Albini himself did with a guitar.

Its like when a composer says Albini makes lame music because he only uses power chords and simple rhythms.
03
yockey on 01/20/10 at 04:50PM
Definitely watching this. Good looking!
04
yockey on 01/20/10 at 06:26PM
shit it was yesterday thanks anyway!
05
jason on 01/20/10 at 09:04PM
Well put icastico & hws


@yockey -- looks like it might be airing again:

http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/broadcast.html
06
marc on 01/21/10 at 06:11AM
They screened the film last year in Portland, Oregon and we posted the discussion with producer Kembrew McLeod and Portland designer and ex-Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen: http://kboo.fm/node/14184
07
MarkieMarc on 05/11/10 at 04:06PM
Hey,
Does anyone know what the song they used towards the end of the film is? It was sort of upbeat and instrumental?
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