Brett Gaylor’s compelling, entertaining documentary Rip! sees the producer/director operating firmly in the Michael Moore school of fist-waving filmmakers who make their arguments with ironic humor and incisive editing. Subtitled A Remix Manifesto, Gaylor’s film—which will be having its local premiere Thursday night at the Trylon Screening Room in Minneapolis—makes a passionate case for the loosening of copyright laws in the U.S. and beyond.
Appropriately given the quick-footed, quick-witted bricolage that it celebrates, Rip! packs an incredible amount of information into its 86 minutes. Gaylor supports his argument with examples and case studies that range historically from Gutenberg to Napster and aesthetically from Mickey Mouse to Negativland. Along the way, he pays visits to cage-rattling pioneers including Dan O’Neill (the cartoonist whose Mickey Mouse Liberation Front has been fighting for four decades for the right to draw Mickey and Minnie in compromising positions) and Lawrence Lessig (the inventor of the Creative Commons license, Lessig is deemed by Gaylor “the coolest lawyer on the planet”). The documentary’s central character is Gregg Gillis, a DJ who records and performs his intoxicating mash-ups under the name Girl Talk. In concert footage that will astonish anyone who still thinks of a “concert” as a performance featuring actual instruments, Gillis is shown driving crowds into a frenzy by standing alone on a stage with his laptop computer. (See Jon Behm’s Daily Planet review of the Girl Talk show at First Ave last fall. “There are 800 people on ecstasy in there,” complained one underager outside the club. “How could they kick me out for being drunk?”)
Aiming to practice what he preaches, Gaylor made his raw footage publicly available as he was editing; the finished film includes contributions from several “remixers” who took his footage and intercut it with sound and video to underline and exemplify Gaylor’s argument that when original creations are decomposed and recombined, the result is something more than (or at least different than) the sum of the parts. Gaylor’s own editing is sometimes dizzyingly dextrous, images and illustrations cascading past in a torrent that threatens to—but never quite does—overwhelm.
Gaylor admits with pride that in his use of copyrighted material—in fact, by merely replaying others’ cut-and-paste creations—he stands in egregious violation of any number of laws. (The fact that Gaylor is from Canada, where copyright laws are more lax than in the U.S., puts him on slightly less shaky legal footing.) Gaylor doesn’t argue for the elimination of copyright law: he just wants to see it made significantly less restrictive. Gaylor, Gillis, and thousands of other artists are currently crossing their fingers and pointing to the “fair use” provision of U.S. copyright law, which allows copyrighted material to be briefly excerpted for illustrative purposes.
What makes Gaylor’s film essential viewing is his convincing demonstration that appropriation is so pervasive in nearly all creative endeavors that to forbid the unauthorized republishing of copyright material, period, is to pursue an exercise in absurdity. Further, he points out that acts technically amounting to copyright violation—everything from making a mix CD to painting Mickey Mouse on the wall of a daycare center—are so commonplace that enforcement has become more or less arbitrary. Gaylor sits down with Marybeth Peters, the U.S. register of copyrights, and shows her a video of Gillis creating a mash-up. When asked whether remixing someone else’s music is illegal, Peters admits that “the answer will always be, it depends—and in part it depends on whose it is and how upset they are.”
Gaylor is justifiably critical of U.S. copyright law as it exists and is enforced today, but of course Peters is right—until such time as copyright law is eliminated entirely, infraction will always be a matter of “it depends.” Even Creative Commons licenses, which essentially authorize the wholesale duplication of protected content, often disallow commercial applications (artists have multiple versions of the license from which to choose).
I was recently hanging out with some friends and we put on a Girl Talk CD I’d burned from MP3s “legally” downloaded—meaning I’d paid for them. The music was so outrageously undeniable that our quiet game night turned into an all-out dance party. But why, exactly, is Girl Talk so damn good? In many cases, Gillis clips samples so brief, or edits them so extensively, that they’re almost unrecognizable—but on his latest album Feed the Animals, his mash-ups sometimes include as much as a riff, a verse, and a chorus of a single song. That’s enough to blur the line between sampling and conventional DJing. As my friends and I listened to the disc, we sang along and talked about what we were doing when we first heard this song or during the summer they never stopped playing that other song—yet apparently not a penny of the money I’d paid for that music went to the original artists. Is that wrong? When you’re dancing in a club with 800 people on ecstasy (or in a dining room with four people on Grain Belt Premium), it doesn’t really seem to matter who’s getting paid. But does that mean it really doesn’t matter?