The Making Of

Filmmakers Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod discuss the complexities of making a film about sampling using unauthorized samples, having long dinners with potential interview subjects and incorporating the collage and remix aesthetic into the film itself.

Independent Lens: What impact do you hope this film will have?

Kembrew McLeod and Benjamin Franzen: The controversies surrounding copyright are quite complex, and the position COPYRIGHT CRIMINALS takes is not as simple as good or bad. We wanted people to better understand how copyright laws affect creativity and free expression, while provoking conversations about the laws, ethics and aesthetics surrounding sampling. We hope to inspire viewers to become active participants in a conversation about how to update the laws that regulate remix culture.

IL: What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

KM & BF: This is a major question for us. There are many complexities involved in making a film about sampling and copyright infringement. While telling this story, there is the potential for us to be viewed as copyright criminals ourselves. This movie could not have been made and distributed without a legal doctrine called fair use, which allowed us to briefly quote from a variety of sources without needing to ask for permission. Our documentary budget enabled us to be able to remunerate many copyright owners for more significant uses of their work. However, even if every group of copyright holders had approved their use in this new context — which was not likely — the total cost of clearing the rights would have been an estimated $4 million. Yet to fully tell the story, we also had to include content that is impossible to license — such as songs that have been litigated out of existence, like Biz Markie’s “Alone Again” and Roger & the Goosebumps’ “Stairway to Gilligan’s Island.” In order to avoid being taken to court, it was important to work closely with legal experts that had a firm understanding of the law.

Nevertheless, the legal risks associated with making a documentary about sampling could not be avoided. As in David Cronenberg’s thriller Videodrome, the film’s subject matter has jumped off the screen and become an issue (and headache) in our own lives.

IL: How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

KM & BF: We spent many hours on the phone talking with promoters, PR teams, legal consultants, managers and (most importantly) the artists themselves. Often, interviews would be delayed at club settings until we had dinners or long talks to ensure that our intentions where honest and ethical.

IL: What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

KM & BF: It would be nice to include more information about copyright law, but we often found that the technical details tended to be dry and far less dynamic.

IL: What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

Most everyone has been excited — and even amazed — that a collage-heavy documentary about sampling could even be made. Although the film gets a positive response, the subject of sampling still has a wide variety of viewer reactions. Some people have taken offense, while others love it.

IL: Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

KM & BF: Copyright law and remix culture touches everyone, in different ways, and in order to prompt a conversation about these issues we wanted to make sure that the film could be seen for free by most people.

IL: What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

KM & BF: Making this film has meant sacrificing more profitable work that will not come back; this film closed many past career opportunities, while also opening up new ones.

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