Music as a Muse: “Copyright Criminals”

copyright criminals

Sampling.  A common practice nowadays.  The term refers to the creation of a montage of sorts out of audio by cutting a sample of a recording and introducing and reworking it into a different, more dominant musical piece, oftentimes as a motif within the new piece.  This takes place in many genres, particularly in hip-hop, rap, R&B and even pop music.

“Copyright Criminals” is a film that examines this practice and its artistic and commercial value.  Directed and produced by Benjamin Franzen, this 2010 documentary further delves into the subject, documenting debates concerning artistic expression, copyright law, and the money that all of this entails.

The film sports an all-star cast of a-list names offering their take on the subject, including Aesop Rock, George Clinton, Chuck D, and Clyde Stubblefield the ex-drummer for James Brown.

The film shares interviews with many of the first artists who began to use sampling in their work, and documents the legal questions that are involved, namely how in its beginnings, artists would sample other artists’ work without their consent.  It documents the progression from a sporadic whim to a ubiquitous custom, demonstrating how the music created with samples began to generate an unignorably substantial income.  It was then that the original artists began to seek reparation in court.  They sued for copyright infringement and the remuneration of royalties, and the debate thickened as the artists retorted with claims of fair use.

The film highlights how in the modern paradigm, artists have to be much more cautious about what material or not they choose to include, because ultimately they are going to have to pay the original artist for the sample clearance.  This preocupation has transformed the way in which sampling artists operate because with tighter restrictions, be them from the wallet or not, mean the artists cannot practice the art in the same, unobstructed manner as was typical in the past.

One particularly notable case in the film is the interview with Clyde Stubblefield, the ex drummer for James Brown.  As the production unfolds, we find that although he is not a household name, he is actually the most sampled artist of all time.  One particular clip where he was given a break became the birth of the funk drum sound, one that can be heard in the music of L.L. Cool J., Public Enemy, Madonna, Prince and Sinead O’Connor and became the standard beat for thousands of other songs.

Interestingly enough, given the profoundness of his contribution to modern music in comparison to the obscurity of his name and the fact that he has never seen a dime worth of royalties, he is happy that other artists are using his creation.

Copyright Criminals received its funding from the Ford Foundation, the University of Iowa, and the John D. and Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation, and after premiering at the Toronto Film Festival, it was broadcast at the national level on PBS.  (