Copyright Criminals

Long before people began posting their homemade video mashups on the Web, hip-hop musicians were perfecting the art of audio montage through sampling. Sampling — or riffing — is as old as music itself, but new technologies developed in the 1980s and 1990s made it easier to reuse existing sound recordings. Acts like Public Enemy, De La Soul and the Beastie Boys created complex rhythms, references and nuanced layers of original and appropriated sound. But by the early 1990s, sampling had collided with the law. When recording industry lawyers got involved, what was once called “borrowed melody” became “copyright infringement.”

COPYRIGHT CRIMINALS examines the creative and commercial value of musical sampling, including the related debates over artistic expression, copyright law and money. The film showcases many of hip-hop music’s founding figures like Public Enemy, De La Soul and Digital Underground, as well as emerging artists such as audiovisual remixers Eclectic Method. It also provides first-person interviews with artists who have been sampled, such as Clyde Stubblefield — James Brown’s drummer and the world’s most sampled musician — and commentary by another highly sampled musician, funk legend George Clinton.

Computers, mobile phones and other interactive technologies are changing our relationships with media, blurring the line between producer and consumer and radically changing what it means to be creative. As artists find more inventive ways to insert old influences into new material, COPYRIGHT CRIMINALS poses the question: Can you own a sound?

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