'Copyright criminals' look to remix the noise--legally

Aspiring hip-hop artists have to be rich to afford decent samples. A new contest is trying to change that. Photo: One 'criminal'

When Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, says he thinks musicians should be able to remix samples of others' clips into new works, he puts his money where his mouth is.

Miller is part of a group of musicians including Public Enemy's Chuck D; Parliament Funkadelic's George Clinton; and the band De La Soul who are allowing the public to mash up audio snippets from interviews they've given into submissions for a new remixing competition.

The , which is sponsored by the nonprofit copyright licensing organization Creative Commons, is all about promoting remixing culture and encouraging artists like Miller to make their work legally and affordably available for other musicians to manipulate.

Creative Commons has built a licensing system that allows content creators to decide which usage rights to their work to grant others. In every case, the licenses require attribution to the creator. Some allow users to manipulate licensed work for any non-commercial purpose, while others don't. The ultimate point is to faciliate copyrights that are flexible on which rights users get.

"Sampling has become what kids do," Miller said. "Because of that, I find more and more electronic music is a reflection of urban culture wherever you go, and to me it was really important to have not just a statement about it, but to participate in the process."

The interviews given by Miller and the other musicians were for a documentary called "Copyright Criminals" by Atlanta artist Ben Franzen and Kembrew McLeod, an assistant professor of communications studies at the University of Iowa. For their film about the rise of sampling and remix culture, the two talked to musicians, artists, lawyers, scholars, music industry executives and others.

The film is being made in the context of a legal landscape in which professional musicians are well aware that they have to pay to use pieces of other artists' songs. The RIAA has been steadfast in its desire to keep musicians from freely appropriating elements of others' work, and liberal sampling that might have passed muster a decade or so ago is now fodder for cease-and-desist letters.

Listen up

Listen to "Whatever," a track created by Tru Ski and entered in the Copyright Criminals Contest.
Listen now...(3.7MB mp3)

In choosing the topic for "Copyright Criminals," McLeod and Franzen are challenging that dynamic. They believe creativity is better served by letting artists borrow from others. And Creative Commons, with its licenses, believes it is providing an environment that protects artists' rights while still making it possible for musicians and others to sample previous work.

McLeod and Franzen eventually made a 10-minute trailer of their film available online, and just days later, someone posted a rap song about the film on the Creative Commons community remixing project site, CCMixter.

Inspired by the unsolicited rap, the two men decided to organize a contest and began to encourage pubic submissions of new songs made from elements of the interviews shown in the film trailer.

"It's fun to play with stuff, and when you have the opportunity to play with George Clinton's voice, or Chuck D's voice or DJ Spooky's voice, it's a great thing," said McLeod. "Appropriation, the remixing of digital sounds, or what Shakespeare did...the instinct to appropriate cuts across all forms of creativity. And the point of the contest and the film is to encourage (people) to do it more, and to legitimize the impulse."

Miller agrees, and argues that the record industry would do well to recognize that it has a gigantic repository of archival material that if put in the hands of remixers could be used for substantial financial advantage.

"It's almost a no-brainer that if they're sitting on material, they're not making any money," said Miller. "What they should do is activate their archives and encourage this kind of thinking."

Miller will also be releasing a film soon, "Rebirth of a Nation," which he'll let the public remix under a Creative Commons license.

The Copyright Criminals contest is open for all submissions until March 14. The winner will have his or her song featured "prominently" in McLeod and Franzen's documentary.

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