The question of copyright and who owns what in the new world of digital media still contains a lot of gray area. RiP: a remix manifesto (EyeSteel Films/NFB) questions that gray area and the attempts of corporations to lay claim on intellectual property. Director Brett Gaylor spoke with realscreen about what working on this doc taught him about copyright law and how it's applied, not only to music but to documentary filmmaking.
March 4, 2009

RiP: a remix manifesto was six years in the making, a process that involved following Girl Talk, a musician who remixes existing sounds and songs to create new music, and then consulting with experts about what is in the public domain and what is allowable under fair use. After six years of following the struggle of the new media generation to protect the public domain, director Brett Gaylor (pictured), who is head of new media at EyeSteelFilms, learned much about what clips and samples are legally allowable under the terms of fair use.

‘We can get away with a lot more in this movie because this movie is about rights,’ says Gaylor of his doc, a proponent of the movement to rethink intellectual property. Since his doc focuses on sampling and the reworking of pre-existing music and footage, he had to use examples of this in order to properly articulate his point. This allowed him to use Rolling Stones and Disney songs under the terms of fair use, while an independent filmmaker wouldn’t normally be able to afford such clips. ‘To actually try to clear Girl Talk’s [work] would be a multi-million dollar endeavor for anyone else,’ says Gaylor. ‘But we can use more of that because we’re actually making commentary on that material.’

Fair use (or fair dealing) is a murky concept, full of gray areas and completely open to interpretation. Anyone who has ever had to clear music or film clips can see the dodgy area Gaylor was entering by taking on this project. Because of this, Gaylor and EyeSteelFilms (Up the Yangtze) had a team of lawyers on board going through the film moment by moment, and clip by clip to make sure each second that wasn’t cleared could fall under fair use. ‘My feet were held to the fire by these experts in the field of copyright, and it was a really cool experience because if they thought my argument didn’t hold up legally, nine times out of 10 it didn’t hold up artistically either,’ says Gaylor. For example, in an early edit there was a moment where Arnold Schwarzenegger was ‘chasing’ Gaylor, as Schwarzenegger is a proponent of expanding copyright law. The scene was made using a clip from Terminator 2. ‘They said, ‘You could probably get away with making the same point without using clips from Terminator 2,’ and it was obvious that it was artistically indulgent as well,’ says Gaylor. ‘It helped make a better film to collaborate with the right legal team.’

As part of the film’s argument that more media should be made freely available to the public in order to create new art, Gaylor has made his own doc available to viewers to re-edit in their own way. Gaylor created, where viewers can access scenes from the film to make their own ‘mash-ups’ and Gaylor plans to re-edit his film to include the new footage. This week, to accompany the release of the film in Canadian theatres, will launch online editing software so that viewers can edit the film right on the site, without needing their own editing software. ‘This is the beginning of the conversation… A lot of people have different opinions, so my answer is, if you want to add to the conversation, you can do that,’ says Gaylor. ‘We’re going to give them the tools so you’ll be able to edit in the window. But also because we’ve released the film under a Creative Commons license we’ve made it clear that it’s okay to remix this film.’

Taking this film to festivals all over the world, Gaylor has had mostly positive experiences, winning the audience award at IDFA, the Special Jury Prize at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, and both the Audience Choice and Special Jury Prize at the Whistler Film Festival. While he has mainly experienced camaraderie from his fellow docmakers, most of which know the copyright business all too well, the main place where he’s felt resistance to his message is from his home-base, Quebec. ‘Quebec is a very progressive province; it has a lot of artists, and I think the discourse so far in Quebec has been, ‘Art is good, so protecting art is even better,” he says. The concept of the artistic freedoms that are threatened by ‘protecting’ art with copyright laws hasn’t hit the mainstream, Gaylor finds, so those armed with preconceived notions to the film think he’s saying it’s okay for people to steal. ‘That’s not really the message of the film, what we’re saying is we need to kind of relax,’ he says. ‘We need to look at the existing laws and ask if they make sense with the technology we have. Are they encouraging the creation of new business models or are they harming them?’

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.