There have been several artists who have changed me over the years. The Clash taught me to be cool. The Dead Milkmen taught me to be snarky. Nerf Herder taught me how to be me. But Girl Talk has taught me something far different, how to be free.
Girl Talk is Gregg Gillis, a bio-medical engineer be weekday, world renowned DJ by weekend. Girl Talk is what is known as a mashup artist. He samples small parts of other artist’s works, and then mixes them together to create a wholly new work of music. But not only are they wholly unique songs, but they also openly pay homage to the works they were birthed from. And because of that, Girl Talk is considered by several corporations to be a criminal.
Mashups and remixing bring about many complicated question on proprietary rights. Unfortunately, this dilemma is typically discussed in a very one sided fashion, with corporations wantonly labeling any one who downloads, samples or remixes a proprietary work as an illegal file-sharer, copyright criminal, or if you prefer your allegations more flowery, a “pirate”. For the past decade the corporations have dominated this discussion, and for some time even convinced multiple artists to join their cause. Downloading was illegal. Case closed. Remixing was copyright infringement. Case closed. Mashups are piracy. Case closed. But director Brett Gaylor has come along with his documentary Rip! A Remix Manifesto in an attempt to provoke not only a dialogue, but a fundamental change in the way the United States views intellectual property. And he isn’t alone.
Rip! A Remix Manifesto is something quite special in the documentary world. It is a derivative work, openly taking video and music for all to see and hear, but it also is an entirely new work, as it routinely changes the video and the music and even the design of the film to help demonstrate that one can take an older work, use it as an initial framework to anchor an idea, and then create something truly new and innovative. It neither diminishes the framework, in fact it draws added attention to the previous works and reinforces the notion of those works own innovation, nor does it detract from the originality and creativity inherent in the new work that it has created. Gaylor isn’t attempting to shamefully hide from this fact, but scream it for all to hear so that the world might recognize that they are on the forefront of a revolution. A revolution that will put the power back into the hands of the individual, and by doing so concurrently aid the common good.
But besides waxing poetic on the virtues of “piracy”, Rip! A Remix Manifesto also is a form of legal activism unlike which I have never seen. It has its talking heads and its bullet point presentations, but it isn’t merely making a case for opening up the public domain, but it is actively taking part in what it is arguing for. This creates an ethical whirling dervish that is both compelling and admirable. Gaylor isn’t merely highlighting the efforts of the subjects in his film, but taking a stand beside them for what he believes is right. You won’t find a more eloquent and toe tapping way to argue copyright law.
But besides being a joint political statement and an artistic expression, Rip! A Remix Manifesto attempts to educate those who have no knowledge of the concept of mashups, one such person is Marybeth Peters, who just so happens to be the US Register of Copyrights. In one of the most surreal scenes in the film, Gaylor attempts to educate her by showing her a video of Gillis creating one of his songs from a riff that he sampled from an Elvis Costello song. At one point in the process Peters remarks with surprise with what Gillis is doing, and Gaylor quickly asks if it is because she sees so many copyright violations. But Peters corrects him, and that her surprise is at what he is creating. This woman, who spends her life focusing on copyrights, is so caught up in the creative display she is witnessing that for one moment, she stops looking for legal issues and simply experiences it. She is the exact type of person that RiP! A Remix Manifesto is trying to reach, and for one shining moments it does. The framework has been built. Now it is time to just keep building upon it.