He’s seen the future and it’s a remix

A documentary daredevil tests the limits of copyright law with a mash-up NFB movie

He’s seen the future and it’s a remixIt may be the ultimate scavenger art form, but the mash-up is this century’s most original form of creativity. And it’s everywhere. YouTube is awash with sound and video collage—George W. Bush’s words are reshuffled into the lyrics of Imagine; Christian Bale’s tantrum is remixed into a dance track; Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie are recast as gangsta rappers. And entire genres of pop music are forged from sampled fragments of previously recorded music. But looming over this riot of creative plunder is the threatening cloud of copyright law.

That’s the dilemma examined by a zippy and audacious new documentary by Montreal filmmaker Brett Gaylor called Rip: A Remix Manifesto. Gaylor argues that artists should have the right to remix copyrighted material without being treated like criminals. And he leads by example: the film itself is a mash-up documentary, a provocation that flirts with the electrified fence of intellectual property. It features music by such artists as the Rolling Stones, Elvis Costello, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Sheryl Crow, Aerosmith, Journey, and Radiohead—plus cameo appearances by Walt Disney characters, from Mickey Mouse to the Seven Dwarfs. Yet Gaylor sampled all of them without permission, and without paying a dime in licensing fees.

But Rip is no under-the-radar act of subversion. It’s an $800,000 product backed by the National Film Board, along with a bevy of public funding agencies. And after racking up awards at festivals, it’s now being released in theatres across the country—and being made available online for interactive remixing. Gaylor is relying on a fair-dealing defence as a documentary maker. “But it’s just that, a defence,” he says. Under Ottawa’s proposed copyright law, “I could be fined $100,000 and go to jail for five years.”

Championing the forces of “copyleft” versus “copyright,” Rip makes a hero of an American pop star named Girl Talk (a.k.a. Greg Gillis), who has built a vast fan base with his punk mixes of illegally sampled music. Gaylor dissects a three-minute Girl Talk number composed of 21 song samples, each owned by an average of four corporations. He calculates it would have cost over $4 million to clear the rights. So far Girl Talk has escaped litigation. Gaylor says over 24,000 Americans have been sued for illegal downloads. And he interviews a single mother from Minnesota who went to trial and received a $220,000 fine for downloading just 24 songs

Since then, the recording industry has stopped pursuing individuals. But the film contends that corporate brands are locking up the public space of pop culture more than ever—and stifling freedom of expression. “Remixing is a new literacy, and it’s very democratic,” Gaylor told Maclean’s. “It’s allowing young people the grammar they need to participate in a media-saturated world.” Recently, he helped an 11-year-old boy create a mash-up for YouTube using Star Wars, SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer and the White Stripes. YouTube took it down within two days. “I’m not saying get rid of all copyright,” says Gaylor. “But that kind of amateur creation, with no money changing hands, is innocuous. Copyright shouldn’t apply.”

Rip also shows how strictly copyrighted music can originate with theft. The film traces the DNA of The Last Time by the Stones back to a folk song recorded by the Staple Singers in 1959, and ahead to a remix by the Verve that become the target of a successful lawsuit by the Stones’ record company. Walt Disney, who built an empire on branding public-domain fairy tales, is portrayed as a pioneer mash-up artist. Yet the house that Walt built is now a notorious litigator—Disney once took legal action against a daycare centre that had its characters painted on a wall.

Huge corporations, meanwhile, still get away with their own sly brand of remix piracy, and Gaylor himself has become a target. The director was approached by an ad agency representing Microsoft to use a YouTube clip of Rip for a TV commercial—a scene of Girl Talk composing on a laptop with a girl reclined on a bed in the background. Gaylor turned down the offer. “Me working with Microsoft,” he says, “would be like Morgan Spurlock [the director of the fast-food-bashing doc Super Size Me] doing an ad for McDonald’s.” That didn’t stop the ad agency. “The very next day they flew in Girl Talk and recreated the scene in a hotel room. And that became a national ad campaign.” Gaylor laughs at the irony of it. “I was dumbstruck. But I guess I can’t have too much of a problem with that, can I?”