Questioning copyright laws


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Can one person own a sound?

Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod ask that question in their new documentary, Copyright Criminals, which will première nationally tonight on “Independent Lens,” a PBS documentary series. The film will be shown on IPTV World at 8 a.m., 2 p.m., and 7 p.m., Wednesday. Iowa Public Television will also air it at 11 p.m. on Jan. 24.

The film examines the current debate in the music industry over copyright laws that inhibit remixing and music sampling. It also observes the way in which freedom of expression and money play a part in the ongoing dispute. Franzen is a UI alumnus, and McLeod is a UI associate professor of communication studies.

They began work on the film in 2003. The project started out as a documentary about music and grew into a social commentary on the recent remix culture that developed in the past few years.

Many groups, such as Eclectic Method, which mixes different audio and visual media, helped them reveal the world of sampling music.

“The copyright law as it stands is outdated and is not sufficient for creators today in a remix culture,” Franzen said. “And a lot of this technology and innovative sampling and remixing techniques came about after the last adaptation of the copyright law.”

Besides covering a controversial topic, the pair also faced the challenge of making the documentary with little money and time. After winning a UI grant, McLeod was able to gain other sponsors, which helped with funding. Both men were extremely busy as well, so they did not work on it continually but rather sporadically — and it paid off.

The film débuted outdoors at the Toronto Film Festival. After the screening, James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield, Chuck D of Public Enemy, and Eclectic Method performed together. Each was featured in the film.

“One of the neat aspects about it was that all three of these different musical groups or people, they’re from three different music generations,” Franzen said. “You’ve got Clyde, who is at the height of his career working with James Brown in the late-60s and early ’70s. You’ve got Chuck D, whose big albums were in the late-80s. And you’ve got Eclectic Method, whose big year is 2009.”

Franzen and McLeod relied on fair-use laws, which allow the use of media for educational, parody, and commentary purposes, to create their documentary. Without it, licensing every piece of media would have cost millions.

Despite the difficulty of maneuvering around the very copyright laws that they object in their film, both were pleased with the finished product.

“We’re really proud of it,” McLeod said. “It basically is what we hoped it would be. It visually reflects the remix culture that it is trying to document.”

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