Popping over to Hulu to check and see if there were any new episodes of my favorite TV shows to watch after finishing my homework, I came across an ad for a documentary called RiP! A Remix Manifesto. Broadly summarized, director Brett Gaylor argues that sampling copyrighted works (in his case, he focuses on music) is not illegal and should be encouraged. The resulting “manifesto” Gaylor puts forth is that the past tries to control the future, and that attempt at control must be prevented. In practical terms, he says that copyright law was originally intended to foster creativity, not squelch it, and that this discrepancy needs to be fixed.
It’s an interesting and intriguing idea. Unfortunately RiP fails utterly in all its intended goals; the only people who will be swayed by any of his comments are the people who are mashing copyrighted tunes and downloading files illegally offline to begin with. The documentary is so full of unspoken logical holes that it doesn’t hold up to a detailed inspection, instead relying on charm, wit, and dizzying editing to hide the glaring issues.
RiP is essentially a commercial for a band called Girl Talk, essentially one guy with a computer who splices and remixes copyrighted songs and then sells them as his own. Girl Talk (real name Gregg Gillis) is unapologetic about his practices; he suggests any controversy is manufactured by the media, and that sampling is an “instrument”; in the future, he says, he thinks people will laugh that we had “moral struggles” with what he’s doing. Besides, he claims, sampling the songs falls under fair use, a practice by which persons can legally incorporate copyrighted material into their own works. But does Girl Talk’s music qualify as fair use? Probably not. The music is for entertainment purposes, not providing critical commentary on the original work; there’s a possibility that the ability for the music owners to make money off their unadulterated content might be affected; and Girl Talk is making money by selling his albums (you name your price online).
Going beyond that, however, is the nature of copyright law itself. Is current US copyright law unfair? I would say yes. Is it controlled by business interests? I would also say yes. In recent years a number of acts have extended the term of copyright protection that lasts from the artist’s death or publication date. For example, the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 extended copyright to life plus 70 years after the death of the author; for corporate works the time extended to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication. It’s a simple matter of money, and I would argue that with recent additions in the 1970s and the CTEA copyright law now has a dynastic effect where the family or employers of the original artist can continue to milk money from an item long after the artist would probably care. This does have the effect of reducing the ability for people to continue to expand and develop new things based on the old, in my opinion in an unreasonable fashion. Furthermore, the amount of things that can be patented or copyrighted now has extended to ludicrous levels; for example, scientists can patent genes that can be found in every living person, as long as the function of that gene has been described. This essentially turns people into walking licensing fees for the patent holders to try and corral; something basic to humans, my opinion again, has no features that should allow it to be patented.
But music and movies aren’t lymph nodes or cells; they require creative exertions. And while copyright law needs to be simplified and refined, that doesn’t mean that anyone should be allowed to do anything with someone else’s content. In fact it is this unsolicited appropriation that stifles creativity far more than copyright itself. Take video games, for example. A well-publicized recent game that was the victim of piracy was the video game Demigod, which had none of the usual irksome digital rights management (DRM) technology that prevents players from installing their game on more than one computer or such. Such open games are a rarity these days. Player’s response? Massive pirating, to the point that only around 18,000 of more than 120,000 people who tried to access multiplayer were actually people who bought the game. The result was that online multiplayer was slow, unresponsive, and generally unplayable. Hundreds of thousands of freebooters ruined the game for the people who put their money down.
But it’s worse than ruining the experience of a customer. Now video game publishers who were considering releasing DRM free games have a perfect rebuttal. So they will saddle their games with annoying protections that also ruin the experience of legitimate customers. Everyone loses it seems, except the pirates. But in fact it’s a losing situation for everyone. Publishers of video games, music, and movies are less likely to back a product that won’t make lots of money, and if money is siphoned off by piracy and appropriation than it’s less likely niche products will get made or released. Pirates have undermined the business model, and we are deprived of potentially great media. That’s hardly the supposed blossoming of content that Gaylor suggests would happen if only we got rid of the pesky copyright.
The end result of piracy is that “the man” isn’t who pirates are hurting; they’re hurting the little guys who can’t afford to take the hits and can’t absorb the losses. Thus begins the spiral of excuses and rationales; “If I’m not planning on buying the game,” goes one, “then downloading it illegally doesn’t result in a loss of sales.” Another popular argument is to download first and *then* decide whether you want to fork over the cash. Others say that copyright’s faults give them free license to “protest” by downloading songs and movies. But those all ring hollow; the end result is you’re getting something for nothing. If Gaylor’s point is how it’s not about laws, but morals, isn’t the moral thing to pay for the entertainment you’re receiving?
And yet that’s not what you hear from the “free culture” and “copyleft” folks interviewed in RiP. They unapologetically say that since technology allows people to grab an album and post it for anyone to grab as well, the industry has to evolve. Speaking of the fall of Napster, one interviewee wistfully complains that a bunch of users had created the greatest compilation of music online. But he never stops to think about whether it was any of those consumer’s right to make it in the first place. While technology changes the landscape, what is right and wrong doesn’t. The idea of moral principles is as old as civilization; why does a bunch of microchips somehow change that? It’s not a matter of puritanical philosophizing so much as common decency and common sense. Do people make mistakes? Sure. Should we excessively punish them for those mistakes? No. Should we try and stop the mistakes from happening, and should people learn from them? Most definitely.
Then again, RiP doesn’t explicitly approve of piracy (it just waggles its finger suggestively and nods its head.) But its concept of fair use is unsustainable. The film puts up the example of Radiohead releasing its 2007 album for whatever price people wanted to pay as an example of how cutting down copyright works, but it’s a faulty assumption. Radiohead is, to channel John Lennon’s famous quote, “bigger than Jesus.” The album (In Rainbows) sold three million copies, but that’s split between physical and digital downloads. The average price paid for a digital download was £4, far below what a CD would make. If you were a struggling band trying to make a living, would selling only a few thousand copies at that rate be enough to support you once the distributors and labels take their cut? It’s a nice gesture on Radiohead’s part, but for RiP to imply that because they can do it, anyone can is disingenuous. Gaylor admits as much, but never offers up any solutions; his response is simply that the technology is here, get over it. Just because we can do something does not mean that we have to do something; implying that’s the future is simply fate and someone else’s problem is cowardice.
There are other problems with RiP. It’s not so much a documentary as a Michael Moore-style propaganda piece which falls apart on a hard look at its facts, figures and assertions. Sure, copyright should be appraised, but even going “back to basics”, anyone who creates something sufficiently different and original should be allowed to set terms on how others use it (or don’t). Girl Talk isn’t a real artist; he’s a derivative chump with a laptop who apparently couldn’t make it anywhere on his own steam. The amount of effort required to make, say, Abbey Road is infinitesimally greater than required to cut and paste clips and add computer-generated loops. The solution requires an awareness and recognition among all of us that some habits are not sustainable, and that reform, not a “manifesto”, is the way to forge equitable creative endeavors of the future.