Copyright Criminals (2009)

Dirs. Benjamin Franzen & Kembrew McLeod, 65 min.

I don’t claim to be a gentleman who knows much about music. In college, I kept my ear to the ground so to speak, did my share of downloading, listened to the local shows on my college radio station, etc. I even made a point of going to shows with bands I had never heard of, purchasing tickets to showcases and actually showing up for the five or six opening acts. I worked long hours affixing barcodes to disintegrating library books at $5.65/hr, but my time was not complete torture as I had my many CD’s that I lugged around all day (bad bad days at work were when I forgot headphones).

Grad school has turned me into an old man recluse who barely has time to watch the odd hockey game on TV whilst simultaneously responding to student emails. As such, I haven’t been to a show in well over two years, and about the closest I get to a showcase is my account. I wouldn’t even really know who to buy tickets to go see, unless I heard them on Sound Opinions. Likewise, grad school has left me heavily impoverished, and concert tickets no longer cost $14 with $3 beers once you get there. Going to see a band that I marginally like is financially infeasible, and seeing a band that I really want to see is usually out of my price range.

Hence, my relationship with music sadly now involves me sitting at my desk on a Saturday night, writing a blog entry on a film that discusses the legal issues of sampling. F….M….L…..

On a brighter note, Copyright Criminals is an exceptional documentary that actually provides a great deal of information about the origins and legal issues surrounding sampling. However, I highly recommend watching the film, then listening to the interview with Kembrew McLeod on Sound Opinions to get a fuller picture of the issues surrounding sampling and the music industry.

One nagging question that I have always wondered about is how artists can, in good conscience, produce something like “Come With Me” (Puff Daddy, when he was still called that) or “Wild Wild West” (Will Smith). I always assumed that large amounts of cash money payouts combined with Hollywood style hitmaking formulae were the culprit. Turns out that the complicated procedure and large financial obligations associated with clearing samples and avoiding copyright lawsuits have turned musicians into lazy, unimaginative cashgrabbers who latch onto a hook from a popular music hit, then loop it behind their tired ass rhymes. While that doesn’t excuse those songs (nothing can), it does explain a lot about why we don’t see anything inventive done by major label recording artists in the area of samples (e.g. past efforts from Beastie Boys, De la Soul, Greg Gillis, Danger Mouse).

The film itself tries to represent the opposite perspective that artists who sample are stealing from more talented artists, and I’ll give the filmmakers props for trying to show both sides. Sampling is an area where the devil’s advocate seems really out of step with the way art works. While the anti-sampling side ends up looking bad, they are allowed to voice their perspective in a way where they don’t look insane, which is refreshing for a documentary produced in the last decade. You only have to look at Michael Moore to see how documentary filmmakers tend to slam their agenda over the viewers head and use their privileged position as the final editor to make the opposition look like a bunch of fools.


As a side note, I also watched the film Chain Reaction (1996). Even though that film is kind of dated and cheesy, the underlying message of the hyper-commercial nature of capitalism was a decent compliment to Copyright Criminals.