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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)


YouTube beats Viacom Lawsuit

June 23, 2010

Congrats to Google.  The official statement from YouTube’s blog:

“The court granted our motion for summary judgment in Viacom’s lawsuit with YouTube. This means that the court has decided that YouTube is protected by the safe harbor of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) against claims of copyright infringement…This is an important victory not just for us, but also for the billions of people around the world who use the web to communicate and share experiences with each other.”

It’s been a weird lawsuit that featured haggling over what data Google had to release and accusations that Viacom was uploading copyrighted content onto YouTube from public wifi spots.

An appeal is likely.  In an emailed statement quoted in the Wall St. Journal, Viacom replied: “We believe that this ruling by the lower court is fundamentally flawed…After years of delay, this decision gives us the opportunity to have the Appellate Court address these critical issues on an accelerated basis.

Weekend Timekiller – Stop-Motion Videos

June 19, 2010

1. Post-It Mario Brothers (1:25) – created by a group of Japanese students for bunkasai, the annual school festivals.

2. “Noitulove” (0:51) – Guinness ad created by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.  Title is “evolution” spelled backwards.  This won the 2006 Grand Prize at the Cannes Lions Advertising Festival.

3. The Original Human Tetris Performance (2:38) – Created by Guillaume Reymond

4. Clay Chess Match (1:55) – Created by Riccardo Crocetta

5. White Stripes: The Hardest Button to Button (3:38) – Directed by Michelle Gondry, 2003. Fell in Love with a Girl is another good choice for Gondry/Stripes/stop-motion, but I’m going with Hardest Button since it’s been parodied on the Simpsons. Gondry also did the Stripes videos for The Denial Twist (with Conan O’Brien) and Dead Leaves & the Dirty Ground.

6. A Combo Work by Blu and David Ellis (8:11) – Graffiti stop-motion that watches like a combination of Banksy, Monty Python Animations, and Bill Plympton.

Here’s a Wikipedia list of other short films and music videos that use pixilation animation.

Constructive Outrage and the BP Situation

June 15, 2010

Dark humor goes a long way during a cycle of depressing news coverage.  The Onion’s spin on the 9/11 attacks still sticks in my mind.  I liked The Onion’s piece on BP in early June, but the BPGlobalPR Twitter feed is by far the best satire on this crisis:

Investing a lot of time & money into cleaning up our image, but the beaches are next on the to-do list for sure. #bpcares

Utterly confused as to the difference between the dome and the top hat, but barreling forward with it anyhow. #bpcares

We respect your outrage, we just don’t believe it’s sustainable. #exxonvaldez #bpcares

Unfortunately, fakeBP is probably right on that last one.  As of this writing, the Boycott BP page on Facebook has over 600,000 fans, and Daniel Gross at Slate has a nice list going of creative ways to punish BP for this mess, including tarring and feathering the executives – we now have plenty of both!  The problem is that Americans have the outrage thing down, but we tend to fall short when it comes to changing our behavior.

If there’s one thing we hate more than negligent corporate behavior, it’s that same behavior plus a healthy serving of hypocrisy.  BP spent years rebranding itself as the cleaner energy company.  While competitors like Exxon openly questioned the legitimacy of global warming, BP rolled out a new green and yellow  logo, a progressive tagline (“Beyond Petroleum”), an “Environment and Society” section on their website, and a series of commercials flouting their commitment to clean energy.  It turns out that BP was just the friendly drug dealer who likes to tell us how much he wants us to quit junk and get our lives together…right after we buy some more heroin.

While the outrage is fresh and hostile, here are some more thoughts on what we should and shouldn’t do in response to the spill.  As always, feel free to steal these ideas or propose your own in the comments section.

1. Don’t boycott stations unless you’re prepared to boycott gasoline. If you bypass a BP station and fill up at the Exxon down the street, you’re making the problem worse by driving the extra block.  Most stations are independently owned and make their money on convenience store sales and car washes.  You aren’t punishing BP – just small, locally-owned businesses.  Big oil is an oligopoly, and you won’t have any economic impact by choosing one station over another.  As Sharon Begley at Newsweek rightly points out, the other oil companies aren’t exactly saints.

2. Change your consumption behavior.  It may not feel as good as a boycott in the short term, but you can trade in your gas guzzler for a fuel efficient car, a moped, or a bike.  Take public transit.  Carpool.  Keep your home thermostat lower in the winter.  This hurts BP’s bottom line far more than buying your gas at a Chevron station.

3. Don’t Invest in Big Oil.  If you invest, put your money into companies that are responsible corporate citizens, especially clean energy technologies that can wean us off oil.

4. Donate money.  The Greater New Orleans Foundation, Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, and the Gulf Restoration Network are three charities where you can contribute.  You can also buy one of these awesome “BP Cares” t-shirts from StreetGiant – proceeds go to

[update: Threadless is offering a Pelican design T-Shirt with proceeds to]

5. Donate hair.  When stuffed into nylon stockings and woven into mats, hair works well as natural boom for oil cleanups.  Ask your barber/salon about donating clippings.  More information at

6. Write Congress.  Make sure that public pressure doesn’t wane until BP pays up and we fix the oversight problems.  If we’re going to drill off-shore, standards have to be higher on safety and compliance, and BP likely had no business operating the Deep Horizon rig in the first place.  ProPublica ran an extensive piece on BP’s problems leading up to the disaster.  Their track record was horrendous even by oil company standards.

7. Vacation in the gulf.  Tourism is a major source of revenue for gulf states, and that’s where they’re getting hit hardest right now.  Visit New Orleans, Mobile, or Gulf Port.  Most of the beaches are fine.

8. Don’t Blame England.  BP is a global corporation with shareholders everywhere.  This isn’t a foreign policy issue.  Save the heckling for their greasy-fingered goalie.

David Byrne on architecture and the evolution of music

June 12, 2010

David Byrne’s presentation at TED on how the nature of a room influences the music from cathedrals to concert halls to CBGB’s:

Is the Internet making us smarter or dumber?

June 7, 2010

Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows: Is the Internet Making us Stupid?, has been a catalyst for a dialogue on whether online media consumption is making us smarter or dumber.  Carr’s central argument, which he made recently on NPR, in the Atlantic, and in the Wall Street Journal, is that the internet is turning us into scattered, shallow thinkers.  Carr feels that we’ve sacrificed deep focus in exchange for quick answers.  We’re not reading as much as we’re scanning, looking at websites in an F-Shaped eye pattern for seconds at a time before making a snap judgment as to whether to read the content more carefully or (more likely) just move on to scanning other media.

The flip side of this, which Clay Shirky presents in WSJ and Sam Anderson presents in New York Magazine, is that our brains are just evolving to consume information in ways that are more appropriate to new technology.  Shirky compares the Internet  to other technological innovations like the printing press, which was also the subject of skepticism from intellectuals.  Edgar Allen Poe once complained, “The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information.”  Just as the Internet is rife with porn and bad home movies on YouTube, the printing press gave birth to all sorts of low-quality material.  Whether you’re in a book store, a record store, or online, Sturgeon’s Law – “90% of everything is crap” – seems to hold true.

The positive aspects of the web shouldn’t be understated.  Our ability to research has unquestionably improved.  Pulling a dozen articles on a single topic is a 10-minute Google search.  Our music collections are far more diverse and personalized.  But our distraction level is rising, and we’re switching channels constantly.  Focusing on single tasks for extended periods of time is more challenging, which is why Adderall use among students has skyrocketed.  I don’t share Carr’s pessimism that we’re losing the ability for deep focus, but it does take a more concerted effort than it used to.  I’ve lost track of how many times I checked my email while writing this short blog post.

Commercializing Christo and Jeanne-Claude

May 30, 2010

In a recent television spot, AT&T did some borrowing from French environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

AT&T is transparent in their idea theft, noting in a disclaimer that the images were not created by C&JC, and no compensation was given.  C&JC are adamant about keeping their art non-commercial.  From their website:

Christo and Jeanne-Claude firmly believe that to accept (licensing) deals of this kind would alter and compromise their art. Refusing this money assures them they are working in total freedom and in total work respect for their aesthetic. It helps keep their art pure.

(They) pay the entire cost of the artworks themselves. They earn all of the money through the sale of the preparatory studies, early works from the 50s and 60s and original lithographs on other subjects.

C&JC’s works are community events.  The projects generate jobs and the materials are recycled, both major selling points for clearing bureaucratic hurdles.  The pieces, like Valley Curtain in Colorado and The Gates in Central Park (both pictured below), stir conversations about art among both the hired labor as well as the people who see the work.

Valley Curtain

"The Gates" in Central Park

It was only a matter of time before a company borrowed C&JC’s signature visual image for commercial purposes.  Good art tends to be commercialized, either by paying the artist directly or by copying the style.  AT&T paid royalties to use the Nick Drake song, “From the Morning,” in the ad.

Standing in contrast to C&JC’s purist philosophy about art are the Black Eyed Peas, aptly described by the Wall Street Journal as The Most Corporate Band in America.  According to band leader, who spends a great deal of his time working on corporate partnerships, “I consider us a brand…Here’s our demographic.  Here’s the reach.  Here’s the potential.  Here’s how the consumer will benefit from the collaboration.”  It’s hard to blame the Peas for taking what they can get, especially in an age where being branded a “sellout” doesn’t hurt your image the way it once did. notes that he moved his mom out of the projects with money from a 30-second song for Dr. Pepper, but that finding the right balance of corporate muscle to put behind the work without overshadowing it is “a hammer and a nail.”

For more background on Christo & Jeanne Claude’s work, check out their website or the Maysles Brothers documentaries.