by Clive Young.
It's hard to get people excited about documentaries; say the word and folks start picturing PBS specials on larvae mating habits. The few docs that do get people talking are the ones that take a stand to make their point--just look at the controversial works of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. To a lesser extent, you can add to that list Brett Gaylor, the writer/director behind Rip: A Remix Manifesto, a new flick that examines U.S. copyright law. While the film is available on DVD, you can legally download it for free at ripremix.com; that alone should tell you where Gaylor stands on copyrights.
The film kicks off with Girl Talk, a Pittsburgh-based remix artist who knows how to turn a concert into a party. Performing onstage with just a Toshiba laptop, he whips the audience into a frenzy as he creates live “mashups”--dance remixes created by sampling sometimes dozens of songs by different artists. Girl Talk’s pop sensibilities are excellent, the mixes are playful and the guy knows how to work a crowd--but is his music remotely legal?
The movie uses this as a jumping off point to make its four-pronged argument:
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.
What follows is an odyssey of sorts, as Gaylor travels from the slums of Brazil to the rave tent at Coachella, from taxis in China to the U.S. Copyright Office, and from the crowds at Disneyland to a photo shoot for Playgirl, all in an effort to underline the often economic-based reasoning (and results) behind copyright law.
Along the way, he crosses paths with Creative Commons co-founder Lawrence Lessig; Cory Doctorow, founder of the world's most-read blog, Boing Boing; The Mouse Liberation Front; and others. Lessig makes some intriguing arguments, and an hour-long bonus feature of him lecturing on Free Culture underlines that he’s a fascinating speaker, while Doctorow take a more humorous approach, offering informed quips and soundbites. Rip itself gets fairly in-depth, but manages to keep a relatively light tone throughout, moving quickly with sprightly music, great visual flair and out-and-out window dressing--after all, how many movies do you know that feature appearances by both the U.S. Register of Copyrights and Paris Hilton?
Gaylor works hard to make his arguments and closes the movie by announcing, “So here’s the deal: The rules of this game are actually up to you. This is not a world made up of passive consumers anymore. That era is over; this world is made up of collaborators. We can create and share; we can change laws. We can act.”
The call to arms is unambiguous, but the film doesn’t offer much insight as to what the laws should be changed to. Should all copyright holders simply give away the store? Of course not (and to do so would bring about complete economic collapse). On the other hand, Lessig rightly notes in the film that turning a generation of computer users into criminals isn’t the answer either. Demanding change without offering workable solutions, however, is rabblerousing and the lack of suggestions reduces the film to mere preaching to the choir.
Still, anything that provokes discussion of how copyright laws should be updated is a good thing; if nothing else, proponents of both sides can agree that current laws need considerable revision to keep pace with our emerging digital culture. What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.