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The Varsity

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Free the music

By Chris berube
Published: 10:00 am, 26 March 2009
Modified: 6 pm, 11 January 2012
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Marketed as a film about the art of audio collage, RiP: a Remix Manifesto is a populist political documentary about the application of outmoded copyright models to new technologies. It’s a documentary that practically crackles with righteous anger, showing how the plight of the lowly copy criminal is quickly becoming a global struggle between human creativity and the conservative forces trying to stop it.

Brett Gaylor’s film is less a remix than a mashup, flirting with the many ideas and individuals wrapped up in the battle over restrictive copyright laws in the new millennium. The film takes a wide view of the “Copy Left” movement; it’s as much about remixes as filesharing, the corporatization of culture, and global poverty.

Gaylor is content to rage against many machines at once, and the results are largely eviscerating. He’s armed with a strong historical perspective on the issue—calling out The Rolling Stones, twentieth century blues musicians, and Walt Disney for their piracy of ideas (and subsequent attempts to stop others from doing the same thing).

The director’s roving camera follows Pittsburgh mashup DJ Girl Talk, Creative Commons inventor Lawrence Lessig, and even children in the slums of Sao Paulo to show how copyright law is inhibiting creative potential.

The film is at its best when it allows copy reform advocates to argue their case. One particularly affecting sequence involves Lessig giving a lecture on how copyright criminalizes nearly everyone with a computer. The consumption and production of art is changing, he argues, so why isn’t the world changing with it? It’s a difficult point to refute.

Yet while the film forwards an important idea, its director falls prey to familiar temptations faced by many recent popular documentaries. One scene in which Gaylor ambushes an older patent office employee to show her a Girl Talk video practically reeks of Michael Moore, though he fails to secure the same humiliating payoff.

Like too many left wing docs, the film presents a portrait of what’s wrong without allowing for a way forward. Sure, the business models of yesterday may not suit the current music industry, but what kind of industry will be created to replace it? Gaylor places too much faith in the Radiohead model of distribution, suggesting that free, open downloading marks a way forward for all artists, while record companies will have to accept their coming obsolesce as part of cultural evolution. This conclusion is far too idealistic, but an attempted prescription is at least welcome.

That said, RiP provides a searing depiction of how yesterday’s copyright laws are hindering today’s creativity. The point is vitally important, and it’s not given the political attention it’s due. Anyone concerned with the future of culture—let alone copyright—should at least consider the film’s thesis.