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Copyright Criminals – Starz Filmcenter

Copyright Criminals – Tuesday, October 27 – Starz FilmCenter – Denver – 7pm, FREE by emailing

Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod direct a new film, “Copyright Criminals,” which is not the first to examine the trials and tribulations related to music sampling, and it won’t be the last. The trailer for the film sets the tone, “SAMPLE (v): to use a segment of another’s musical recording as part of one’s own recording.”


The other documentary that delved into the question of “who owns an idea?” was “Rip: A Remix Manifesto,” was made by Web activist and filmmaker Brett Gaylor, who followed the life and times of Girl Talk, a bio engineer turned mashup DJ whose career reached a level of popularity that he was able to quit his day job in trade for a night job on the stage.

As with “Rip,” “Copyright Criminals” also features musicians and DJs, but goes back further into sampling history, to Clyde Stubblefield, “the original funky drummer” for James Brown. Stubblefield’s name may not be familiar but his beats became quite popular with vinyl bin divers who plucked his tracks for appearance on their songs, but in a different form.

Franzen and McLeod interview the pioneers in hip-hop, from De La Soul, to Chuck D of Public Enemy, who states quite frankly, “We kind of looked at music as an assemblage of sounds. We felt you couldn’t copyright a sound.” And they talk to the hip-hop artists that followed, from DJ Shadow, DJ Qbert, Mix Master Mike, and Saul Williams, to El-P, Eyedea & Abilities, Sage Francis, and Prefuse 73.

A film about copyrighting of one’s artistic material wouldn’t be complete without looking at the Creative Commons licensing system, which gives content creators the freedom to share their works by granting usage rights to others while protecting works they want to maintain control over.

While the “Mine! All Mine!” argument hasn’t waned much since the invention of the MP3 file format, the reality of abiding by copyright laws has reached ridiculous proportions. To refer back to “Rip,” Girl Talk estimated that paying all the licensing rights for one song he creates, which is a mixture of up to 20 or 30 songs, could tally up to millions of dollars. Then there is the time needed to ask “pretty please” for the usage rights with check in hand.

At the end of the day, as with most everything, it always comes down to money. Right? Everyone wants a piece of the action, and when college students first started exchanging their music library on university servers, it was the major labels that sent the RIAA to rescue their control over their revenue stream; to put a choke hold on the willy-nilly distribution of music over the World Wide Wicked Web.

A clip that couldn’t help but cause one to laugh at the copyright scenario, if only for a second, is when George Clinton interjects that he was sued for sampling—HIS OWN MUSIC. I’m guessing that the record label, through one of their fine print contracts, was responsible for his cease and desist.

“Copyright Criminals” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last month, and is now being played throughout the country through a partnership with Independent Lens and Community Cinema. It comes to Starz FilmCenter in Denver on Tuesday, October 27 through support of Rocky Mountain PBS.

RSVP your free ticket at

If you have 10 or so minutes, I encourage you to check out this little video lesson on the rules of copyrighting, featuring the ironic use of Disney characters to get the message across. Ironic, because if there’s one conglomerate that is at the front of the copyright infringement gang, it’s Disney’s remix of literary works, remaking them into blockbuster hits that are still paying out quite nicely.


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