Is there a connection between Andy Warhol‘s painting of Campbell’s Soup cans and Public Enemy‘s sampling of Clyde Stubblefield‘s drum beats? Is sample-based hip-hop art or theft? The two questions have been at the base of a legal and cultural debate for almost two decades now, and while legally it appears the “theft” side has won, culturally, the “art” side will not be silenced (see GQ’s excellent profile of mash-up artist Girl Talk). It’s a loaded argument, and while COPYRIGHT CRIMINALS filmmakers Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod don’t necessary offer a defining statement on the debate, they do a fine job tracing the history of sampling from its raw and humble beginnings in the boroughs of New York City to its MTV fame, Rolling Stone magazine covers and top of the Billboard charts and back down again — or depending on how you look at it, up again, at least when it comes to digital critical mass — where it thrives in the nightclubs of the UK, college town concert venues (again, see GQ’s excellent profile of mash-up artist Girl Talk), You Tube, home laptops and cell phones.
NPT, together with ITVS, Hands on Nashville and the Nashville Public Library, wants to engage you in the discussion with a free screening of COPYRIGHT CRIMINALS, this SUNDAY, OCTOBER 18 at 3:00 p.m. at the Main Library downtown. Come early for a 2:30 reception with Franzen. Joining him after the film for a panel discussion will be Lynn Morrow, entertainment attorney with Nashville firm Adams and Reese, and Shane Martin, aka Pimpdaddysupreme, Nashville DJ and self-proclaimed copyright anarchist. Jonathan Martin, co-anchor of Channel 4 News Today/Saturday on WSMV-TV, will moderate.
The post-screening discussion should be particularly lively, especially after the final quarter of Franzen and McLeod’s film, when the bottom falls out of sampling’s free-market reign and the lawyers swoop in. It’s then that Public Enemy producer Hank Shockley goes from (paraphrasing) “we didn’t know we couldn’t use the samples” to “we used to bury the samples so you couldn’t tell where they were from.” It’s in this latter part of the film that correlations to contemporary art are presented, including very eloquently by Jeff Chang of SoleSides Records. It’s a valid argument that I wished was explored more and defended more by the artists. Ultimately, you walk away realizing that when it’s really all about money, it’s really not about art. Which is why I was slightly disappointed that the concept of the Creative Commons copyright isn’t explored more (or at all). But the film can’t possibly cover every aspect of the issue and still be a palatable length. It needs a symposium (any takers?). And where Community Cinema is concerned, leaves perfect room for debate and spirited discussion.
Incidentally, Campbell’s Soup wasn’t too keen on Warhol using its label for art, until it realized how much the artist’s work was revitalizing its brand. But what happens when another brand associates Warhol’s iconic work with an entirely different brand? About a year ago, Pop Burger in New York City found itself on the receiving end of a legal letter demanding the burger outlet refrain from using multiple images of Warhol’s famous work. Its premise? “…displaying the famous red, gold, black and white label makes it seem that the restaurant is ‘affiliated with or sponsored by Campbell in some way.’ ” Pop Burger’s response to the New York Post: “”Who knew that Campbell’s Soup still existed? The only reason they are probably still in business is because Andy gave them a place in pop culture history that will forever be celebrated as some of the best art work ever created.”