Filmmakers Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod explore the debate over sampling in the music industry with their 54 minute documentary, Copyright Criminals. Various individuals are interviewed presenting a spectrum of viewpoints: sound engineers, DJs, record industry lawyers, media professors, samplers, as well as those getting sampled. The wide range of opinions makes for a stimulating analysis of the topic. The lawyers say that sampling is using other people’s work without their permission and without paying royalties (“Thou shall not steal”); the samplers say they are paying homage to the original artists. Igor Stravinsky is quoted as saying, “A good composer does not imitate, he steals.” The most fascinating perspective of all those interviewed is that of Clyde Stubblefield (James Brown’s drummer from 1965 – 1970, the most sampled drummer in hip-hop), who says that he doesn’t care about the money (royalties), he just wants to get credited on the albums.
Copyright Criminals discusses the history of music sampling, starting with the Beatles’ use of found tapes and sound loops in “Revolution 9”, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, and “I am the Walrus”, to Public Enemy, and Prince. The Beatles certainly weren’t the first to sample; the documentary could have named specific artists sampling further back in recording history (for example Jazz, Hollywood musicals, Blues, etc).
The collage-like use of split-screen to compare the original music on one side to that of the sampled piece on the other is a metaphor for how sampling is itself a form of collage. It helps to illustrate how samples are used and how they have been altered. It is a valuable aid for the viewer to come to their own conclusion as to where they stand on the issue. The editing is straight-forward without any choppy or distracting cuts.
Many compelling points are made, not the least of which is that if a musician was to go through the legal channels and use a sample in their work, the producer would make a cut of the royalties, but the actual musician who played the original may not.
The advent of a new art-form always brings up the debate “is this art, or is it just the work of lazy people who can’t be bothered to create something new?” Shock G of Digital Underground makes a valid point when he says, “It’s easier to snap a picture with a camera than it is to paint a picture. What the photographer is to the painter, is what the modern producer, DJ, or computer musician is to the instrumentalist.” We are asked to consider “what is art?” Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans and Pop Art are brought up as examples of how art has historically re-invented the old in order to present something in a new light. Steve Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” sold more as a sample. George Clinton says Snoop Dog’s sample of “Atomic Dog” revitalizing Clinton’s record sales after people who heard the sample wanted to hear the original.
Copyright Criminals is a thought-provoking work which presents multiple facets of this heated debate. Grainy vintage footage of the Notorious B.I.G rapping as a teenager on the streets of Brooklyn evokes scenes of street rappers in “Wild Style” (Directed by Charlie Ahearn, 1983). The filmmakers present the discussion in a clear and in depth manner. The viewer is encouraged to come to their own conclusions on the issue.