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What Does Stealing Sound Like?

  • Faiza Elmasry

"Copyright Criminals" is very much like hip-hop music itself, a collage of other people's work, in sound and images

"Copyright Criminals" is very much like hip-hop music itself, a collage of other people's work, in sound and images

A film documentary asks whether the practice of music sampling in Hip-Hop songs constitutes copyright infringement

Computers, mobile phones and other interactive technologies are changing our relationship with media, blurring the line between producer and consumer, and radically changing what it means to be creative. This is especially evident in the music world. As artists find increasingly inventive ways to insert old influences into new material, a new documentary, Copyright Criminals, asks the question, "Can anyone really own a sound?"

Copyright law has long interested Kembrew McLeod, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa.

"I went back to grad school in the early 1990s, with the intention of studying copyright and culture in sociology," he says. "I had a professor tell me, 'Why would you study copyright? It's a completely an obscure and esoteric topic. You'd never get a job if you studied that,'" McLeod recalls.

Copyright law goes from esoteric to mainstream

Nearly 20 years later, McLeod says copyright law has become a topic that touches everyone, especially anyone who listens to, or makes music. That's what inspired him to collaborate with friend and filmmaker Benjamin Franzen to make a documentary.

Film producers, Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod ask audiences, "Can you own a sound?"

Film producers, Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod ask audiences, "Can you own a sound?"

"We wanted to get it to a broader audience," Mcleod explains. "We wanted to make it a film that both a 13-year-old kid would be interested in and our moms would be interested in."

Franzen says, "I've always been attracted to music and to filming music. And setting out to question – can you own a sound? And how we tell the story seemed like a challenge. That was my interest in being involved."

McLeod, who served as executive producer and writer, says Copyright Criminals traces the rise of hip-hop music from the urban streets of New York to its current status as a multibillion-dollar industry.

Kembrew McLeod, executive producer and writer, expects future laws to either decriminalize copyright infringement – or get more restrictive

Kembrew McLeod, executive producer and writer, expects future laws to either decriminalize copyright infringement – or get more restrictive

"It's kind of a collage of other people's work, in sound and images," he adds. It showcases many of hip-hop's founding figures like Public Enemy, De La Soul, and Digital Underground while also featuring emerging hip-hop artists.

In that way, Franzen says, it's very much like hip-hop music itself. For more than 30 years, performers and producers have been re-using portions of previously recorded music in new, otherwise original compositions. The documentary examines the creative and commercial value of this practice, called musical sampling.

Creative musical sampling mixes the old in with the new


"Sampling is just basically taking something old and using technology to rework it and reshape it into something new," he says. "So, you take a two second snatch from an old record, you perhaps build your own bass line around that and you drop in keyboards or whatever, and vocals, so you have this new work, but it contains part of an old work," he explains.

But when lawyers and record companies got involved, McLeod says, what was once referred to as a borrowed melody, or a remix, became a copyright infringement.

"In the United States at least, courts have decided that even if you take two seconds of someone else's sound, it's an automatic copyright infringement," he explains. "The law is pretty cut and dry, unfortunately. I say unfortunately because it's very restrictive and also it doesn't really take into account the fact that people have always borrowed from pre-existing works in their art. It's just that the technologies have changed," McLeod says.

Artists pay copyright owners or ignore the law


In the film, hip-hop artists explain how they comply with, or skirt copyright laws when they create new music

In the film, hip-hop artists explain how they comply with, or skirt copyright laws when they create new music

The producers interviewed dozens of hip-hop artists about how they work out the copyright issue when they create new songs. Benjamin Franzen says the strategy often came down to money.

"There is an artist, LP, that we interviewed," he says. "He's got a very good statement – you're either rich enough to afford the law, or you're a complete outlaw. There is some truth for that. If you're Kanye West or if you're Jay-Z, or someone that has the money, they can kind of do what they want. They can afford to negotiate high numbers [to pay] to use a sample. On the other hand, there is this underground artist, the newly emerging Hip-Hop artist or sample-based artist that can't publish their work or they can't get record deals [because they're using a sample without paying for it], they have to rely on having shows or the Internet. So there is this sort of polar extremes – being rich enough to afford it or being an outlaw," Franzen says.

With new technologies creating ever more innovative ways for remixing and sampling, McLoed says he expects copyright will continue to be an issue.

"The laws haven't caught up to what people are doing with technology now. Who knows, they may never catch up," he says. "I see the future going in either [one of] two ways. One way is the law will respond to what people are doing and will adapt and will basically decriminalize the kind of behavior that millions – millions! – of people are participating in. But that's more like a fictional scenario. The non-fiction scenario, the documentary scenario – which is probably going to happen – is the laws are going to get more restrictive because that has been the history of copyright law for the past quarter-century," he adds.

The producers of Copyright Criminals say they don't expect their hour long documentary to answer the fundamental question: "Can anyone really own a sound?" But they hope it will help people better understand how copyright laws affect creativity and free expression in today's remix culture.

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