RiP: A Remix Manifesto (2008) is a film about copyright law and the challenges that artists and industry are facing thanks to the internet and the wide-spread file-sharing world that it has created.
The writer and director, Brett Gaylor, calls RiP a movie about a war over ideas. Not only did Gaylor write and direct this film, he also had a hand in the animation and editing, which were essential parts of the film’s tone and message. EyeSteelFilm, a firm out of Montreal, produced it in collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada.
The film’s central character is Greg Gillis who is also known by his stage name: Girl Talk. Gillis is a mash-up artist. He’s one of the first of his kind. A mash-up artist takes samples of songs and blends them together to make a new unique song. Although people have been mixing songs together since the creation of the cross-fader Gillis was one of the first to harness computer technology and digital music and do something creative with it.
Watch Greg Gillis Give an example of a Mash Up
Questions started to arise about the legality of Girl Talk’s music as his popularity started to grow in the early noughties. Despite a growing consensus that his songs were creative and new the fact remained that his albums were all sampled from prerecorded material. Although Gillis never intended to become a pirate or a rebel, the American campaign against copyright piracy that was kicked off by music downloading turned him into one. His reputation as a rebel actually contributed to appeal and his popularity grew as a result of this.
Due to the creative nature of mash-ups fans consider Gillis an artist. Others consider what he does as copyright infringement. For those who think Gillis is on the wrong side of the law we need only to look at his 2006 album Night Ripper for an example of what he might be liable for. That album had potential for estimated 300 copyrights infringement lawsuits and carried a maximum financial liability penalty in the neighborhood of 45 million dollars US.
Gaylor uses Gillis as a case study to explore American copyright law in his film. He stylistically sets the film up like a Girl Talk song. It watches like a video mash-up track and is clearly inspired by Girl Talk’s style of music.
To set the stage he creates two sides. One called the ‘CopyRIGHT’ that is made up of corporations and media conglomerates. These are the people who own the right to mountains of intellectual property. And the other called the ‘CopyLEFT’ that represents the public domain and the free exchange of ideas. Gaylor characterizes the conflict as a war and identifies the battleground as the Internet. He characterizes the battle as a classic David vs. Goliath scenario and it’s a theme that he returns to many times through out the film.
A review of RiP on iofilm.co.uk accurately called “this the kind of film where everyone is either a villain or a hero.” (Read the article)
In the war that Gaylor has identified he firmly places himself on the hero side, which is CopyLEFT. In the opening sequence of the film he calls the conflict “personal” and he goes on to recruit like-minded people to support his vision. Together they create the backbone of this film: A Remixer’s Manifesto.
1 – Culture Always Builds On The Past
2 – The Past Always Tries To Control The Future
3 – Our Future Is Becoming Less Free
4 – To Build Free Societies You Must Limit The Control Of The Past
This film becomes Gaylor’s battle cry. It’s his call to the masses to rise up against the established giant armies of the CopyRIGHT and fight for our right to use ideas freely. Or as Gillis says in the opening, our right to “put Elton John in a headlock, put a beat behind him and pour a beer on his head.”
Gaylor recruits a small army of activists to support his cause. The most influential for the film is Lawrence Lessig. Lessig is an extensively published author, a professor at Stanford, and a lawyer. He’s best described as either an anti-copyright renegade or a pro-public domain freedom fighter. In either description he’s a polarizing character. His position against copyright law’s control over ideas is especially applicable to this film. The following quote is from an interview with Lessig that is available online through Gaylor’s website opensourcecinema.org. Anyone can take this video and remix it freely.
“In the world of text (written work) people are free to write and recreate the culture that’s around them. Without relying on clearing permissions upfront and relying on a very robust set of freedoms entrenched in the law. But, if you use digital technology to do the same things you don’t have any of those freedoms. That’s a censorship of people’s creative activity, the ability of people to speak and spread their message using all the culture that’s around them.”
This quote echoes one of Gaylor’s central points for the film. That copyright law is out of control and being manipulated for profit. In fact Lessig repeats this message in a scene in the film when Gaylor brings up ‘fair use’ for the first time. Fair use a key legal protection for artists and its importance will be expanded on later.
Lessig however, is the character that Gaylor uses to build legitimacy for his cause. With an authority like Lessig on their side, Gaylor, Gillis and the legions of the sweaty dancing Internet generation don’t seem as much like a bunch of kids refusing to follow their parent’s copyright rules. Lessig lends a rational and reasonable element to Gaylor’s the call to war against copyright. He’s an effective character in the film.
To further mobilize his army against the forces of the CopyRIGHT Gaylor created the aforementioned website: OpenSourceCinema.org. This website actually becomes a central character in the movement against the control of ideas for the film. The website represents the viewers of the film, the consumers of cultural media, the downloaders of music, the uploaders of videos and of course the creatively repressed by copyright law. In short it represents you.
As part of Gaylor’s effort to innovate with his video mash-up documentary he set up this website and called on the Internet generation to contribute remixed material for the film. It was an effective and fresh way to engage the public and build up hype. The sprit of this website fit perfectly with the tone of this film. Nothing Gaylor creates is off limits and the message is that if you can make his work-in-progress better through your creativity then it should be in the movie.
There is a strong scene in the movie when Girl Talk is on stage at one of his shows that is essentially the mission statement for OpenSourceCinema. Gillis calls out to the audience. “I know there are a lot of cameras in the audience. This shit is not about me, it’s about all of us ‘cause were the same motherfuckin’ person. So take a picture of your goddamn self, ‘cause were all the same DUDE!”
In a 2007 interview with Scott Krisner of cinematech.blogspot.com Gaylor talked about his motivation for using the website to expand the scope of the film. He explains that in the Internet media age an artist’s worst enemy can be the desire to control everything they create.
“It’s a give and take. I, as the creator have given up my control of my footage and in turn I’m asking you to give up a bit of your control. That’s what we have to do as artist if we want to get over this hump that we’re in right now. How do we make money online? On some levels it’s about giving up a little bit of that control.”
In RiP Gaylor pushes the boundaries of control by using a legal protection called fair use. Gaylor says that fair use is part of copyright law that allows artists to use small amounts of copyrighted material as long as the artist is making a point. In a 2008 MacLean’s article about this film Brian D. Johnson called what Gaylor does in this movie as “walking a fine line (gangplank?) between fair usage and piracy… he (Gaylor) claims that everything he’s done is within the legal bounds of fair use. We’ll see if Disney and the (Rolling) Stones concur.” (Read the whole article)
Using copyrighted material is the biggest challenge that Gaylor faced making this film. But, he had no other choice but to push fair use to the legal boundary because as he said in one scene, even if he had enough money to buy the rights to every image and sound “there is no amount of money in the world that would convince the music industry to use their own music to criticize them”
Watch Brett Gaylor and Lawrence Lessig discuss ‘Fair Use’
It’s hard to imagine that this film could have been made if Gaylor didn’t have the backing of the NFB and the small army of supporters that he built thought the website. If he was a small independent filmmaker he probably would not have been able to fight the CopyRIGHT if they had of decided to put pressure on him. RiP is effective example of the power of collaborative effort. A collective voice backed by reputable people and organizations such as Lessig and the NFB has the power to fend off the CopyRIGHT and get a film made.
A takeaway from this film is that individuals are hopeless if they hope to fight the CopyRIGHT. Gaylor shows examples of average people, church ministers and basement artists who are steamrolled into submission by industry legal pressure. The only way to survive, according to Gaylor, is to call on the power of the Internet community. It’s a classic argument of people power and it fits nicely into the fourth point of the Remixers Manifesto – to build free societies you must limit the control of the past.
Gaylor builds the viewer up into frenzy through out RiP. He shows you the injustice and the absurdity of copyright law. He makes you mad that faceless corporations have the power to limit your free speech for the pursuit of profits. At the end he calls on you to pick up the flag and carry on with the battle against the CopyRIGHT. “Put me in a headlock and pour a beer on my head,” he says to the viewer. This is inspiring, but the scale of the argument assumes too much. It assumes that that there is this growing movement against copyright law bubbling up from the masses of the Internet generation. Gaylor over plays his hand on this point.
The fact is that this movement against copyright law is small and focused. The Internet generation, with some exceptions, is largely made up of passive people who aren’t prepared to get in a fight and will fold like a house of cards when pressure is applied. In fact Gaylor was only able to provide one example of a person who fought against a copyright infringement lawsuit in the United States. And that person got crushed so badly in court they actually do serve as a good example of “what happens when you don’t settle.”
Anyone with anything to lose won’t be taking to the streets to fight for their right to use a Mickey Mouse clip. Gaylor thinks we should fight and he’s right, free speech is worth fighting for. But, growing up with the Internet has also bred a generation of people who expect things easily and without much effort. Gaylor expects them to do some heavy lifting in the fight against the CopyRIGHT but this isn’t a cause that will inspire that level of rebellion.
What Gaylor largely ignores is that this war will ultimately hinge on the next generation of artists. He points to Radiohead as pioneers who are putting their material up and asking people to pay what they want to for their music. But, emerging artists don’t have the financial nest egg that bands such as Radiohead have. These people often can’t afford to be sued or give away their work for free. He offers no answers for these people.
The strength of this film is the style that it’s presented. It’s a mash-up of delightfully familiar images and songs. It keeps the viewer wanting more and more. The fact that what you are seeing and hearing is likely illegal makes the viewer feel like they are a part of the fight against the CopyRIGHT. In a way you feel like a badass by watching this film. It does a wonderful job on evoking emotion and the argument, although over played, is simple, clear and well structured. This documentary proves that mash-ups aren’t just a mess of stolen noise. They’re a carefully and meticulously constructed form of art that deserves recognition on a wider scale.
It’s no surprise that this film has won more than ten awards and has been screened at film festivals around the world. It’s a great introduction to copyright law and anyone who posts or downloads anything from the Internet would benefit from watching RiP: A Remix Manifesto.
By Douglas Gelevan – April 1, 2010