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Copyright Criminals

Other // Unrated // January 26, 2010
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ian Jane | posted January 24, 2010 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

Sampling, which the dictionary defines as "a sound of short duration, as a musical tone or a drumbeat, digitally stored in a synthesizer for playback" has been a big part of the music industry, hip hop in particular, since the early eighties. Technology advanced to the point where not only did it become affordable, but it was easy to do both in a studio environment and as live performance art. All of a sudden a guy with a pair of turntables, a lap top, and a mixing board could more or less become a one man band by using bits and pieces of someone else's work and giving it his or her own spin. Groups like Public Enemy, De La Soul and The Beastie Boys used layers and layers of beats and rhythms, some obscure and some not so obscure at all, to create a sound both familiar and brand new over top of which they applied their own lyrics and sounds.

Copyright Criminals, a documentary film by Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod, starts by explaining what sampling is, how it's used, and where it's used before allowing the various parties involved discuss the issue. We hear from hip hop impresarios like Chuck D. of Public Enemy, the members of De La Soul, and DJ Spooky about how and why they've come to appreciate this practice and integrate it into their music, and we hear from people like George Clinton of Parliament/Funkadelic and Clyde Stubblefield, James Brown's former drummer, about what it's like being sampled without being compensated for it. Opinions are understandably varied across the board here, with those who sample obviously coming out in favor of it while entertainment lawyers speak out against it quite vocally. The film even throws famed producer Steve Albini, who helped forge the defining sounds of nineties rock by producing bands like Nirvana and The Pixies, into the mix. For the record, Albini considers it lazy. The film also talks about how artists like Biz Markie and De La Soul, who used a lot of samples without permission, were sued for what they did.

Most interesting is the input from Stubblefield. Still active as a drummer, he was the backbone of James Brown's band for only three years. As a hired gun, he was paid for his time in the studio and for the concerts he performed at, but he owns none of the rights to any of the songs he worked on, Funky Drummer, being the one track in particular that hip hop artists seem the most attracted to. Widely acknowledged to be the most sampled musician in history, Stubblefield seems simultaneously honored and annoyed that his work has turned up and continues to turn up time and time again.

The film also covers remixes and mash-ups and talks to their influence and popularity, explaining that what people like about them is the familiarity mixed with the new sounds that emerge from taking someone's well known work and putting a new spin on it. Depending on your interpretation of fair use and copyright laws, however, this may not necessarily be legal. A perfect example, used by the film, is Danger Mouse's Grey Album. What was done here was the artist took The Beatles' The White Album and mashed it up with Jay-Z's The Black Album to create a bizarre mix of both artists' works that sounds pretty original in its own unique way. Copies were leaked online and through trading circles but once Capital Records got wind of it, the ensuing legal clampdown ensured that it'd never be released commercially. This didn't stop it from being downloaded millions of times on the internet, however - the key issue here, as brought up by a record label owner, is that no one made any money off of it when in reality it could have been a huge seller had the involved parties come to some sort of agreement.

At just a hair over fifty-three minutes in length, Copyright Criminals really only scratches the surface of the issue, at least in terms of who is interviewed and who is not. Now, it might not have been possible to get everyone involved that the filmmakers wanted to, but some interviews with Biz Markie, and The Beastie Boys and The Dust Brothers would have gone a long way towards fleshing this feature out nicely. When you consider the importance and the impact that their material, Paul's Boutique in particular, had on sampling culture in hip hop the fact that none of these guys appear on camera is a substantial strike against the movie. Regardless, you can't expect an indy production like this to be able to interview everyone under the sun, and when you take that into account you wind up with a pretty interesting look at a part of the music industry that, as controversial as it may be, isn't going to be going away any time soon.

The DVD

Video:

Copyright Criminals arrives on DVD in a 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Generally, the image quality is pretty strong here, even if it's not been flagged for progressive scan playback. Skin tones look good, detail is fine and there are no problems with mpeg compression artifacts or noticeable edge enhancement. Some shimmering is apparent here and there and a few scenes shot outside look a bit soft, likely because of the lighting, but aside from that there's nothing to really complain about here. Will the visuals floor you? No, but movie looks pretty good on DVD. Some of the archival clips are a bit worse for wear - the old James Brown clips and Buddy Holly clips for example - but you can't really fault anyone for that.

Sound:

Audio options are provided in English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo with no alternate language tracks or subtitles provided. The 2.0 track spreads the score around and plays a bit with some of the ambient noise in the background of the movie but it's hardly bombastic. Regardless, it's clean, clear and plenty easy to follow. There are no problems with hiss or distortion to report and the levels are all well balanced.

Extras:

Indiepix has assembled a decent array of extras starting with some extended interview clips. In this section you'll find bits with Chuck D. (36:17), the three members of De La Soul (27:04) and Clyde Stubblefield (24:37), each of whom elaborates on some of the points they made in the feature and provides more input on their thoughts on sampling and the controversy that still surrounds the practice. There's a fair bit of crossover between this material and that which was used in the feature but there's enough unseen content here (in fact these three clips add up to considerably longer than the feature itself) to make these clips worth going through. You can watch each one individually or through a play all button.

There's also a section on the DVD called Fair Use Explained which contains four shorts that were made by the Center For Social Media. The four shorts are: Remix Culture Is Your Friend (7:33), Fair Use In Media Literacy Education (6:27),Remix Culture (3:53), and Fair Use And Free Speech (7:20). These four shorts elaborate on the legal issues explored in the feature and do a good job of explaining what falls under fair use and what doesn't by approaching the subject with a sense of humor and a fair eye for both sides of the issue.

Rounding out the extras are the film's theatrical trailer, seventeen tracks from the film's soundtrack (available as audio only), trailers for other Indiepix features, menus and chapter selection.

Overall:

An interesting documentary that makes a pretty effective case for sampling by elaborating on its history, its use, how its changed modern music and its impact. It's a well structured and thoughtful documentary that presents both sides of the argument without much discrimination, and which provides some interesting interviews with proponents and opponents alike. Some interesting extras are provided and the documentary looks and sounds quite good... but really, are you going to watch this more than once? If it sounds like you will, consider it recommended, otherwise, it makes for a great rental. Either way, it's well worth seeing.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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