At a seminar at the Nordic Panorama Film Festival in Reykjavik last autumn I learned that current media developments are threatening the survival of copyright. Is this good or bad news for documentary filmmakers?

Truls Lie
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review. Also head of the Norwegian monthly newspaper NY TID. Based in Oslo/Berlin.

You have probably noticed it already: the Internet’s copying and sampling culture has led to an irreversible change in mentality. Global media’s text, sound and image production has been digitisable for some time now. The result is that people increasingly regard these media as language itself, as the free exchange of speech between people. One can no longer comprehend why there should be a price attached to listening to, copying fragments of or repeating the ideas of others. And the copyright-owners themselves didn’t come up with their creations in a vacuum, so don’t come here with your patents, copyrights and proprietary rights! Don’t come here you greedy businessmen, you parasites leeching the lifeblood from this living capital. Such price-swelling fellow passengers are regarded as “dead capital”.

In addition, players within the music-scene often contribute to the marketing side of things; DJs and VJs function like an attention-grabbing vanguard, playing and sampling original tracks and promoting artists.

Producers and marketers are roaring their discontent like wounded bears, lashing out by suing east and west.

The rest of us know that the new media environment has already extended itself too far, that the Internet has become omnipresent and that code culture evades copy protection. If copyright laws and other legal restrictions are applied too zealously, fans will simply burn copies of the CD – a reality that Metallica had to face.

Filmmakers are also diving into music’s sampling culture. The recent film RiP: A Remix Manifesto is a documentary about copyright and the culture of sampling. The film’s director Brett Gaylor uploaded clips to his website to enable people to participate in the making of the film. Director/Organisor Gaylor developed the website opensourcecinema.org where you can edit existing film clips or add new ones. The continuously changing film is being shown at festivals and on TV. DOX recently met Gaylor in Reykjavik at the Nordic Panorama film festival, where the film was being shown followed by a three-day seminar.

RiP: A Remix Manifesto opens in a kindergarten where a nice picture of Mickey Mouse has been painted on the wall. However, according to Disney, Mickey is a patented gure so they decide to sue the kindergarten. Not even children can get away with patent infringement. Next, a group of “mischievous” adult artists get together and modify “Mickey’s’” appearance, playing around with his looks a little – they protest under the moniker of the “Mouse Liberation Front”, arguing that “Mickey is common property”.

One of the film’s main characters is Girl Talk, a biomedical engineer from Pittsburgh, now turned mash-up artist. He rearranges the very DNA of pop music by sampling songs to make them unrecognisable. Working-class hero or the pirates’ red baron? At any rate, a sequence from the film depicting a nightly remix party with young people dancing around the remix king has been uploaded to opensourcecinema.org. is clip was discovered by a school teacher who then allowed his media students to animate the whole sequence. Thousands of individual computer-generated images were then edited into the film by Gaylor, shifting between reality and animation. Yes, it’s been a long time since the Norwegian group A-ha made their ground-breaking music video. This will spell the end for iTunes.

The cinematic end result is not only artistically creative, but affords us the opportunity to meet lots of new people such as the founder of Creative Commons, Lawrence Lessig and cult pop-critic Cory Doctorow, as they discuss the implications of downloading creative work. We meet Brazil’s Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil who supports piracy because the poor people of the favelas cannot afford to buy cultural products at retail prices, and such a culture can get them away from drug related crime.

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A Remix Manifesto goes on to depict a series of irrational court cases in the US, which result in people being sued for “illegal” downloading, to the tune of 25 000 dollars per song or five years in prison – only for “copying” a single song worth 9 dollars! One example is illustrated by single mother Jammie Thomas, living in the depths of rural America, struggling to make ends meet for her family due to mandatory wage deductions. The RIAA, the American music industry’s trade organisation is making itself hugely unpopular. A Remix Manifesto shows many such individuals, each of them with tragic tales of the day the inquisition came a-knocking. The film’s montage of faces is especially poignant.

Today “creative works” are commonly protected by copyright for the duration of the copyright-holder’s lifetime, and for an additional 70 years after his/her death. This is completely unreasonable; what investor would ever consider such an extensive payback period for an investment? Who could realistically expect a new media product to yield reasonable levels of profit after a period of five years? As Sweden’s popular Pirate Party points out: copyright shouldn’t last this long. Another consideration is the creation of a common cultural heritage of old editions, in cases where publishing new editions is considered unprofitable by the copyright holders. Who benefits from copyright on works going all the way back to 1900? Nonetheless, a lot of this is still being “illegally” uploaded to the Internet. It’s about time the law caught up with reality – not least with respect to education and general information purposes.

Besides, who can really avoid acting illegally in such copyright-complex, controlling societies as this one? When a child as young as ten can be sued? And who is awarded damages in the end? Well, that goes straight into the pockets of the distributors, the ones who feel they have had their rights “violated”. And there’s even business to be had for lawyers in defending the players who feel entitled to high incomes.

So far Gaylor has not been sued for the film itself. He also created the website homelessnation.org, a bridge which helps people across the digital divide by getting them online. Gaylor was also one of the first video-bloggers in Canada.

During the seminar held at Nordic Panorama, Gaylor and his producer presented some new “open source” film projects; let me briefy mention four of them:

In his film project Brand Aid, Norwegian Morten Daae, who formerly worked in advertising, launches a harsh critique of branding within humanitarian organisations. Via NGOs, he gathers together the voices of local people in troubled areas and presents their views on the assistance they are receiving. Daae was also the producer of the film My daughter the terrorist (2007), during the filming of which he observed enormous refugee camps along the coast of Sri Lanka; what he calls a forest of boasting logos on hospitals, schools, tents and children’s homes. Does such branding have any implications for people in hardship? At least now their voices can be heard. Such a “collective” film as this may also stimulate some self-criticism on the part of the humanitarian organizations. 1) See also the film Enjoy Poverty (2007).

Icelanders Óli Finnsson and Magnea Helgadóttir presented their project Crunch from their financial-crisis-ravaged homeland: lots of short, personal tales of crisis compete for our attention. The aim is to provide the nation with a historical record of people’s personal perceptions of the events of 2008. The project includes a webpage where you can click on the narrators’ faces.

This will spell the end for iTunes

Henrik Molke from Denmark, the director of Good Copy, Bad Copy (2005), presented the new Good Shift Bad Shift, 2) See http://www.slideshare.net/henrikmoltke.dk/good-shift-bad-shift a collective film project on the power and in uence wielded by networks; an exploration of the impact of network societies on behaviour, identity, nationality, politics, culture – and even love. What is the effect on emotions, intimacy and attentiveness? Each member of the film’s group of directors provides a contribution, with substantial help from an external advisory board. TV-stations are also invited to this remix party.

Norwegian Vanja Ohna gets to grips with the experiences of Norwegian soldiers in training camps prior to being deployed to Afghanistan. During their 18-month period of training, these voluntary recruits are equipped with video cameras to film their own video diary. They make wills as they will soon be risking their lives. This collective film project will eventually be put together with other on-location footage shot in Norway.

But when will it become commonplace to see video diaries shot on-location in the war-torn areas of Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq and the Republic of Congo? Isn’t that where the current course of media development is headed? The news channel Al-Jazeera has already acted as role model by disseminating free video clips of the horrific Israeli assaults on the population of Gaza in January – at a time when the Western media was kept out. The clips were uploaded under Creative Commons licences, which permit the free usage of credited material – even though they are virtually never used by Western news-media.

Girl Talk
Girl Talk

The global undergrowth is spreading, and sharing in the development of knowledge and cultural production. Optimistically for the sampling and piracy culture, it should now be somewhat obvious that copyright will slowly but surely get killed o by this development. Take, for example, the music streaming service Spotify which is nanced by commercials. Users do not have to pay for this online music channel where you can choose your own music. this will spell the end for iTunes. A cheap subscription to Spotify allows you to keep your enormous playlist offline on your computer or mobile phone. The founders of Spotify have apparently managed to persuade the most important record companies BMG, Sony, EMI, Virgin, Warner and Universal to become co-owners so that they will not be left behind in development. Swedish Voodler.com is doing the same with film. You can choose to hear music or see films, interrupted from time to time by commercials, pay per unit or take out a cheap subscription to avoid the commercials.

The competitive economy reduced profit margins to almost nothing a long time ago; copying and sampling culture reinforces this and further reduces profits to zero. Unfortunately, the nancial crisis did nothing to illustrate the essential role of a global mixed economy in safeguarding the production of knowledge and culture – State, trade and industry react like the aforementioned bears by supporting the old system of copyright protection for digital products. But income from innovative and cultural activity cannot be collected per unit in the future. And this does not just apply to music and film; it also goes for pure research, independent freelance/unpaid critique and other types of book-related knowledge processing.

Furthermore, in the global market of culture and knowledge, new ideas and products are discovered and “copied” rapidly – with a great deal of help from Google and smart so ware. The previous advantage held by products – and investment – disappears when competitive actors come into play. With the current rapid rate of development, you cannot even expect to be paid for half of the distributed digital end products. In the meanwhile, I wait in anticipation for State, trade and industry to realise that the introduction of a societal wage to every active non-profit oriented citizen is integral to the survival of their talented entrepreneurs and artists.


© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).
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References   [ + ]

1. See also the film Enjoy Poverty (2007).
2.  See http://www.slideshare.net/henrikmoltke.dk/good-shift-bad-shift