RiP!: A Remix Manifesto
(dir. Brett Gaylor | Canada | 2009 | 86 mins)
A thought-provoking and vibrant new film looks at the future of art and culture in the digital age, writes Hugh Lilly
Brett Gaylor’s documentary about copyright and the place of fair use in remix culture is an exciting and thoroughly entertaining presentation of an important argument crucial to the survival of culture. The documentary investigates the current state of copyright law—a grey area when it comes to the contemporary use of digital content—and shows why it must be changed. The law as it is thwarts creativity and the free exchange of ideas and information. In an age when anything and everything can be freely accessed and remixed with the click of a mouse and a few keystrokes, such oblique litigation only halts cultural progress. In a media-literate generation that has grown up online, consumers have become creators—making, in Gaylor’s words, “the folk art of the future.” The film, made over a period of six years, is about “a war of ideas—and the battleground is the Internet.”
Under the law as it currently exists, taking bits from Back to the Future and Brokeback Mountain to insinuate that Doc Brown and Marty McFly were more than just friends makes you a criminal. Gaylor’s film argues for the relaxation of laws surrounding sampling and digital art so that borrowing elements from pre-existing material to create a wholly new work would become legal. Unfortunately, the corporations who own the rights to the ‘properties’ being ‘violated’ didn’t see things the same way. They needed to find a way—to use corporate parlance—to ‘monetize’ the information superhighway, and so they began suing the very people who bought their products.
The film’s protagonist is Gregg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk, the poster boy for the remix movement. Gaylor centres his argument on Gillis’ music—his four albums have been phenomenal critical and commercial successes—using it in throughout the film both for entertainment purposes and to prove the point that mash-ups such as Gillis’ should be legal. Stanford Law professor, Creative Commons founder and free culture activist Lawrence Lessig is the film’s other touchstone; interviews with him and segments of his lectures appear throughout, as with Girl Talk, to back up and expand upon points Gaylor makes in his voiceover. The director is so enamoured, in fact, with Girl Talk (constantly referring to him as “my favourite musician”) and with Lessig (imitating the professor’s minimalist presentation style, with single-word slides changing at speaking pace) that it brings into question the depth of his research—did he rely only on a few sources that he knew wouldn’t challenge the validity of his insights?
The film is structured around the titular manifesto, penned by Lessig, which is a set of rules that can be summarised, basically, as “Limit control of the past”—because free societies depend on culture that builds upon past efforts, and restricting access to the past results in a society that cannot evolve. Lessig argues that digital natives have adopted ‘remix’ as their lingua franca, and that the mash-up is to the twenty-first century what the novel was to the nineteenth. Remix—particularly as it was used in the 2008 US Presidential election—is the ‘conversation’ of modern culture: YouTube has become a sort of global water-cooler around which we all discuss the issues of the day, responding to each other with videos the way past generations would have written letters or held court in a town square. RiP! is itself the product of remix: the film was put online—through an initiative called OpenSource Cinema—in an embryonic state in 2008 for remixers and mash-up artists to do with it what they wished; several sequences in the final cut are the work of those artists.
Copyright law, which came into existence around the mid-fifteenth century—contemporaneous with the invention of the printing press—was intended to balance the rights of author with the public’s right to benefit from that author’s works for the greater good. With media ownership now completely skewed—90% of US media is controlled by six conglomerates: GE, BMG, TimeWarner, Newscorp, Viacom and Disney—the scales used to measure that balance have been tipped upside down and thrown out the window. Now it is neither the author nor the public who benefit from copyright law; instead, it is the corporations, litigated for by two bodies: The Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America. Gaylor examines Disney’s hypocritical stance, revealing that Steamboat Willie, which marks the first appearance of Mickey Mouse, was taken wholesale from the 1926 Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill—in fact, CEO Walt Disney gave explicit instructions to that effect. Alice In Wonderland, Snow White and countless other Disney pictures also borrowed elements from existing culture. Gaylor also interviews Dan O’Neill, an underground cartoonist and founder of the Air Pirates, a group which was famously sued by The Walt Disney Company for copyright infringement.
In the late-’90s, with the advent of Napster and other file-sharing software, the music industry, in Gaylor’s words, “refused to evolve, parted with history, and started suing.” RiP! examines the reactions on both sides, interviewing bodies such as the Register of Copyrights as well as ‘copyfighters’ such as Cory Doctorow and people who were sued by the RIAA—some of whom never even downloaded a single song. Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, already lampooned on South Park for his Napster-hating ways, gets another ribbing here as footage of him goofily repeating the word “control” on the Charlie Rose Show is shown next to fear-mongering news reports telling people not to download music. But Ulrich, on the side of a money-hungry industry stuck in old ways, was getting it wrong. As Chuck D of Public Enemy put it in the same episode of Charlie Rose: “for the longest time people were subservient to industry controlled technology; now that Napster and other peer-to-peer technologies gave people control of the means of production and distribution, the power is back in the hands of the people.” It is important to note that Gaylor’s film does not advocate the illegal downloading or sharing of copyrighted material, but rather for an overhaul of copyright and fair use laws.
The film briefly touches on Digital Rights Management, and looks at the consequences from Radiohead’s “pay-what-you-like” experiment for In Rainbows. The writer, poet and spoken word performer William S. Burroughs also gets a mention, as does the San Francisco band Negativland, who invented the term “culture jamming” on their radio series Over The Edge. It’s a pity, given the influence of the past on the present, that Gaylor didn’t further examine the art world and its involvement with the mash-up movement; it would be interesting to look at the influence on contemporary artists of Andy Warhol, pop art and the artists The Economist recently called “the original pasticheurs.”
While Gaylor’s film might be sleeker presentation-wise than its predecessors—the Danish film Good Copy Bad Copy and the 2006 Pirate Bay documentary Steal This Film, which focussed more academically on similar subjects—it nonetheless has its weak points. The penultimate segment attempts to make an analogy between Girl Talk’s music and his day job as a lab technician; this segues into a discussion of medical patents and intellectual property, which was realised by corporations as a field more profitable than oil or gold. The corporatization of ideas is a discussion too big for this film, though, so the segment seems incongruous.
Finally, there is a sequence set in Rio de Janeiro which features musician Gilberto Gil and Lawrence Lessig showing how Brazil broke US IP law and international patents on HIV medication, producing generic equivalents for a fraction of the cost. This supposedly shows how the country’s government leads the world in IP law reform, but it suffers by relying too heavily on the emotional impact of the deliberately-chosen music in the background, and a little girl in makeup spouting a poem about freedom, togetherness and equality. Overall, though, RiP! is a highly enjoyable and provocative film that pits copyright against the copyleft, and looks at the doctrine of fair use in an age of so-called misuse. It’s a definite must-see for anyone interested in the future of the Internet, copyright and culture.