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Interview with Filmmaker Brett Gaylor

September 1st, 2009 by Rebecca Harper Editor

Filmmaker Brett Gaylor makes a compelling case for an update of U.S. copyright law in his documentary RiP! A Remix Manifesto, which is now available on Hulu. In the film, he uses examples of artists such as Girltalk to show how, historically, artists have drawn on others’ creative works to produce new music, art and media. Today, he argues, that creativity energy is threatened by corporations leveraging copyright law to their advantage — even though many of those same corporations were once “disruptive technologies” themselves. Drawing on the cultural policies of Brazil, the talking points of law professor (and Creative Commons founder) Lawrence Lessig, and a small work called The Cannibalist Manifesto, he creates his own decree for the digital age. The result: RiP! A Remix Manifesto. Hulu recently spoke to Gaylor about his exposé on this war of ideas; an excerpt of our discussion follows. — Rebecca Harper (), Editor

Hulu: Tell us about your film, RiP!, and why you decided to tackle the recording industry and copyright law?
Brett Gaylor:
Well, I didn’t set out so much to challenge the recording industry. What I really wanted to do was celebrate creativity, specifically individual creativity. Digital technology has always been where I’ve expressed myself from a young age. I was using the Internet in the early days, when it was all about modems and mainframes and things like that. For anybody that was involved in digital culture from the beginning, it was always very apparent that there was a disconnect between the existing industrial models of commerce and production and digital thinking, which is about the free flow of information and connectedness. There’s always been that tension there. And so I wanted to explore that, and when it really became apparent was when the first peer-to-peer file sharing programs came out, like Napster. It sort of crossed over into pop culture, and music became the thing that really grabbed people’s attention and made this tension really apparent. When I first began making the film, it focused on the music industry, but as I did my research and I discovered the history of copyright law, it became a much bigger story. It took several years to make. The record industry is really a moving target, but the kind of basis that this was built upon is an older and a bigger story. It wasn’t so much tackling “What is the future of the music industry?” What I was a lot more concerned with was “What are the other underlying issues here?”

Let’s talk about this disconnect you mentioned. Of course it was felt in the era of Napster, and I think may seem more mainstream than ever now with online video — or at least we feel it every day here at Hulu, where we know what our users want, but we also honor our content partners’ business objectives. How is this relevant today, in the post-Napster world?
Yeah, it’s good stuff. It’s getting bigger and bigger, this conflict. That was the concern that we had while making the film — will people get tired of talking about this? But it just gets more and more relevant as an increasing amount of our communication takes place over the Internet. You know, in 10 years, we won’t even call it the Internet, it will just be communication. When copyright law was originally designed, it was to govern the printing press, which very few people had access to. But now everything, from a post on Facebook to YouTube to Hulu, from the very small people, to the major TV studios that are putting stuff on Hulu, everyone’s covered under the same law, which starts the disconnect.

Copyright law covering is an extremely broad level of discourse, whereas before it was for one specific problem that concerned very few people because very few people were publishers. You know, that’s not quite right, either, because there was this folk creation that people took part in. It used to be that when people listened to music, it was music that created by themselves and by their peers in their living rooms, playing the piano. But over the 20th century, we kind of shifted to more of a consumer-based culture, and fewer and fewer people were making culture, whereas now, anyone can be a publisher, anybody can be an author and reach millions and millions of people, so that’s at the heart of this dilemma.

Were you ever concerned that lawyers would come after you for doing this film?
Well, you know, part of my inspiration for this film has been culture jammers such as Negativland or Dan O’Neill, who are in the film, who basically practiced this, in some sense, as some form of civil disobedience. Mark Hosler from Negativland always told me to “live your life under the rules that you wish existed.” I definitely took that to heart, but the project was always meant to push the boundaries of fair use and of fair dealing, and to really make those issues apparent in the design and the form of the film. We actually felt quite comfortable about the uses that are in the film because we’re using them for the reasons that fair use and fair dealing exist, which is to critique, to comment, and to criticize. We actually had a lot of lawyers look at the film for the interpretation of every clip I had to use, and we’d sort of debate whether that was a fair use or not. Interestingly, nine times out of 10, if a lawyer said “Well, that’s not a very good example of fair use,” it was usually in an artistically uninteresting part of the film, so it almost a part of my creative toolkit, to say, you know, if I’m going to stand behind fair use, I have to be sure my uses are fair.

How much did you know about copyright law going into this? Did anything take you by surprise?
That’s a good question. I was like most people in that I had a vague sort of understanding of it, but as I made the film, I had to amass a lot of knowledge about copyright law. Maybe not what surprised me, but certainly what inspired me was the history of appropriation in Brazil, and how going back to the very beginning of Brazilian culture, there was this history of fair use and appropriation. And you know, we have that in North American culture, as well, with things like the Blues and obviously hip-hop. But what really struck me about Brazilian culture was how recognized it was, and how there was this culture that seemed to be built on taking influences of Europe, of North America, of their native cultures, and sort of putting them in this big pot and making a stew. That was really inspiring, and I read the works of a Brazilian poet and modernist called Oswald de Andrade. He wrote this thing called The Cannibalist Manifesto, which was basically saying that Brazilian culture needed to eat and ingest the cultures of the world to regurgitate and create something new. I just thought that was a really great metaphor for the digital age and postmodernism. That’s why I decided to go to Brazil and spend a good amount of time there.

And this manifesto, of course, was the basis for your “Remix Manifesto.” Can you tell us about that?
It was funny, because the manifesto was actually the last part of the film to come together. I probably would have saved myself several months in the editing suite if I’d come at it first, but it came kind of late in the editing stages of the film. I decided to take a couple of weeks off to think about the film and part of that was the title. And I thought, “Oh, what about a remixer’s manifesto?” And someone asked, “Well, what’s the manifesto?” I realized that a lot of it kind of closely followed a really early speech by Lawrence Lessig, who is also in the film. He was speaking at a convention; I think it was around 2002. I kind of remixed his manifesto and condensed it a little bit, and it was suddenly enough. There wasn’t heck of a lot more editing to do because it really fit with a lot of the progression of the film.