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Are Mash-Up Documentaries Legal?

July 22, 2010

I checked out the documentary Copyright Criminals from Netflix a couple of weeks ago.  It dealt with the history and legality of sampling from early Beastie Boys and De La Soul albums on through modern mash-up artists like Eclectic Method and Girl Talk.  Another good resource on the topic is Larry Lessig’s book, Remix.

Considering I blog under the handle “IdeaRobber,” you can guess where I fall on the issue of sampling.  To me, the ethical line is all about attribution.  If I lift a paragraph from another person’s work and pass it off as my own, that’s plagiarism.  If I put quotes around it and cite the source in a footnote or a bibliography, it’s good research.  Schools train students to read others’ work and cite it as a way of learning to write.  The research paper is a standard academic exercise all the way through graduate school, and with good reason.  So why is it that when this same research methodology is applied to video or music, it raises red flags and allegations of copyright infringement?

When a musician uses a sample or a sonic quote, it’s tough to argue that any potential money is being stolen from the original creator.  Quite the contrary – it’s free marketing.  Most people would have never heard of Rick James had it not been for a remix by MC Hammer, and the latter version drove sales for the original.  Sampling is a large part of the history of jazz.  Just as teachers of writing want students to read Hemingway and Salinger, my music teachers told me that the best way to learn jazz bass was to listen to Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Mingus, and any other great jazz player I could find.  We learn to play by quoting the greats.  I’ve blogged before about The Real Book, an illegal fake book of jazz charts that musicians of my generation use for jazz gigs.

As an exercise for a course I’m taking, I compiled a mash-up documentary about the issue of file sharing – or “file stealing” depending on whom you ask – using mostly segments of existing YouTube clips.  It’s an issue I’m passionate about, and I do think there are reasonable points to be made on either side.  I empathize with musicians who have worked hard and feel their livelihood is being challenged, but I also think that it’s counterproductive to criminalize a generation of kids and drive the behavior underground.  The business model for professional music is changing, in some ways for the better and in others for the worse, but we can’t roll back the clock and pretend the changes aren’t happening.

My other motive in editing a mash-up documentary was to push the limits of fair use without actually breaking the law.  The credits at the end are extensive to provide what I feel is proper attribution.  Enjoy up until I get a cease and desist letter or Vimeo removes it.

“Life After File Sharing: A Mash-Up Documentary” (click to open in a separate window)

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