The Documentaries

There are some great documentaries about derivative culture, copyright, sampling and freedom of expression. Below is a guide to what I’ve been able to track down.

Copyright Criminals: This is the one samplists have been waiting for. From Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod. (You may remember McLeod as the professor who trademarked the term, “Freedom of Expression®”.) It focuses only on sampling. Features interviews with Hank Shocklee, Clyde Stubblefield, DJ Qbert, Chuck D, George Clinton, El-P, De La Soul, Mix Master Mike, RJD2, Mr. Len, Matmos and many more. (You had me at Hank Shocklee.) More info at their website. [Be sure to steer clear of the merch section unless you want a Copyright Criminals thong. Ahem.]

Good Copy Bad Copy: This hour-long doc begins with U.S. Congressman Mike Doyle defending Girl Talk in a Congressional hearing. Need I say more? Includes interviews with Girl Talk, Danger Mouse, Jane Peterer, Lawrence Lessig, and many more interesting people. You can view it for free at Directed by Andreas Johnsen, Ralf Christensen and Henrik Moltke. With music by RJD2, Santogold, Girl Talk, Danger Mouse, Gnarls Barkley, De La Soul, NWA and many more.

RiP!: A Remix Manifesto: is Canadian Brett Gaylor’s 86-minute doc about “the changing concept of copyright”. Created over a period of six years, the documentary film features the collaborative remix work of hundreds of people who have contributed to the Open Source Cinema website, helping to create the “world’s first open source documentary” as Gaylor put it. Available for download (pay what you want) at and perhaps screening at a theater near you. View trailer here.

Steal This Film: A Swedish film series documenting the movement against intellectual property produced by The League of Noble Peers and released via the BitTorrent peer-to-peer protocol. Available for download in many formats at

Alternative Freedom: This 69-minute documentary by Twila Raftu and Shaun Croninis is about “the invisible war on culture,” focusing on copyright and DRM. Features interviews Lawrence Lessig, Danger Mouse and many more. Available to view on Google Video. An excerpt from the NY Times review of the film: “Credited to the single-named filmmakers Twila and Shaun, ‘Alternative Freedom’ raises critical issues about the control of digital media then drops them in a shapeless mess of archival clips and meandering interviews.”

Freedom of Expression®: From the people who brought you the critically-acclaimed book of the same name. This provocative and amusing documentary explores the battles being waged in courts, classrooms, museums, film studios, and the Internet over control of our cultural commons. Based on McLeod’s award-winning book of the same title, Freedom of Expression® charts the many successful attempts to “push back this assault by overzealous copyright holders.” You’ll have to pay to view it however. More info View trailer here.

Willful Infringement: Mickey and Me: Greg Hittelman’s 58-minute doc about Jed Horovitz and his legal dispute with the Disney Corporation regarding copyright infringement. From Boing Boing: “The movie features clowns talking about the legal threats they got for twisting balloon-animal Barneys, Negativland conspiracists discussing life after being crushed for making music out of samples, as well as lots of legal geniuses and iconoclasts talking about how we got here and where we’re going.” Sells for the hefty asking price of $50 at

Sonic Outlaws: This doc was made in 1995 by Craig Baldwin. The film focuses on the controversy surrounding Negativland’s battles. Called “gleefully anarchic” by Janet Maslin of the New York Times. Download available at and surprisingly available via Netflix. DVD (with extras) available at Amazon. View trailer here.

Other films of interest:
Robert Rauschenberg: Man At Work (2008) by Chris Granlund; Scratch (2002) by Doug Pray; How to Draw a Bunny (2002) by John Walter; Jeff Koons: A Man of Trust (2008) by Judith Kele.


The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism

All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. . . .

—John Donne

This epic article about derivative culture by Jonathan Lethem appeared in Harper’s in February 2007.

Thanks to Will for hipping me to this piece.

Digital Barbarism

Interesting review from the WSJ about “Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto,” a new book about copyright by Mark Helprin in which he “laments what he calls the ‘Legos’ approach to creativity — taking existing works, mixing them together and editing the result to form a ‘new’ work.”

“There may be a few extremists out there who resent the whole idea of copyright for its attempt to fence off intellectual property. Mr. Helprin deftly shoots down the arguments they might make, which are often, he says, ‘sufficiently careless and spurious to be a Disneyland of self-impeachment.'”

Was Pierre Renoir Sampling in 1897

I was recently at the Norton Simon Gallery near Los Angeles and noticed something interesting. This is a good example of “sampling” in the art world. This 1897 painting, Pierre Renoir’s “Yvonne and Christine Lerolle at the Piano”, features two paintings by other artists in the background.  The one on the right is a painting of ballerinas by Degas.  Henri Lerolle owned the Degas painting and apparently Renoir incorporated it into the background when painting the portrait of Lerolle’s daughters.

Video: Lessig on Colbert

 This interview isn’t particularly hilarious but it should be of great interest to those on both sides of the derivative culture and sampling debate.  Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig on The Colbert Report, August 1, 2009.

McDonald’s Co-Opts Sampling: Hamburglar Immediately Sued by Bridgeport Music

I feel the need to document any reference to sampling in pop culture.

A guy walks into some kind of loft space holding a McDonald’s bag in one hand and a record in the other. He greets a DJ standing behind 4 turntables, spinning red and green-colored vinyl (bearing the McDonald’s imprint, of course.) The DJ scratches snippets of dialog about burgers like “lettuce” and “bun”, you get the idea.

Meanwhile, Dwayne Wade happens to be there… and he sits down and begins to eat someone else’s Big Mac. “Hey, that’s my Big Mac”, the rightful owner says.

“I’m just sampling“, Dwayne Wade responds.

Then the DJ retorts, “Sample this!” … and the DJ immediately returns to scratching “pickle” or whatever.

Then there’s a chyron to visit Now, not only has McDonald’s made sampling the subject and punchline of this commercial, but it has built a huge  campaign around it. Big Mac Chant is a contest to create a mix using musical and audio elements supplied (in part) by McDonald’s. It is unclear what, if anything, the winner receives. (At the time of this writing, when you click on the “Official Rules” on Myspace, you receive a “File not found” error. Great job!)

The official instructions (as contained in the audio kit) state:

1. Use the sound files provided in the download kit to create your chant, or customize your mix by adding your own originally produced music or royalty-free loops available at sites like and

2. Start mashing up your chant using one of these music-mixing programs: Apple Garageband, Digidesign, Protools, Sony ACID or Ableton Live.

3. All of the files in the download kit are at a tempo of 96 BPM. For the best results make sure to set your mixing software accordingly.

4. We’re looking for the best track for our :30 commercial, so naturally, the most successful submissions will be :30 long.

All of the loops included in the download kit have been made available for individual use, strictly for the purpose of the Big Mac Chant-Off and may not be used in association with anything else or for any other purpose.

Which program will you use? Digidesign or Pro Tools? Who wrote that, my Mom?

Yoko vs. Ben Stein?

Stephen Bergstein is a gifted civil rights attorney based in NY and also a bona fide music devotee. He has written a very interesting analysis and commentary about Lennon v. Premise Media, a recent 2nd Circuit decision in which fair use was successfully argued in a music copyright infringement action. Conservative commentator Ben Stein (Bueller, anyone?), used a portion of John Lennon’s “Imagine” in a documentary about intelligent design. Yoko sued for copyright infringement and lost. The court found Stein’s use transformative.