Derivative Artwork Inspiring Derivative Artwork -- But Will The Lawyers Ruin It?

from the but-what-about-the-copyrights? dept

We've written numerous times about the famed mashup artist Girl Talk (Gregg Gillis), who has created some extremely popular and well-reviewed albums by mashing up hundreds of songs together into songs that sound both entirely new, and which give appreciative nods towards the originals. Girl Talk has won various awards and has even been mentioned in Congress by Rep. Mike Doyle, as an example of why copyright should allow more such mashups and remixes, rather than having it crack down on the practice. And, of course, there's also been an excellent movie about Girl Talk, called RiP: A Remix Manifesto, which I encourage people to watch if they haven't seen it yet.

Of course, there are all sorts of copyright questions around this. Some folks are stunned that Gillis hasn't been sued over his widespread sampling. There are a variety of theories as to why that might be -- from the idea that Gillis' use might actually cause courts to recognize that such sampling should be fair use, to the theory that the music industry doesn't go after Gillis because he's "white, middle-class and educated," as opposed to those who often do find themselves on the receiving end of sampling lawsuits.

Either way, we may get to jump deeper into the copyright conundrum, as the NY Times magazine recently covered an effort to make an entire movie based on people dancing to Girl Talk's latest album, All Day. You can see the trailer below:
Even if you're not a fan of Girl Talk's music, the idea -- "an epic, 71-minute-long dance-music video" -- is pretty cool. It's tough to watch the video and not smile, just in general, at the joy it expresses (my favorite part is right in the middle where a woman in the background, who is clearly just a bystander, starts dancing along as well). The filmmaker, Jacob Krupnick, has also put up a Kickstarter page for the project, and it's more than met its goal (it had already, but I'm sure the NYT Magazine article has only helped it get a lot more money too).

What struck me as interesting wasn't just that Krupnick wanted to make a movie based on All Day, but that a lot of his inspiration came from both RiP: Remix a Manifesto and having briefly worked with the lead dancer, Anne Marsen, in a video shoot for a commercial a year and a half ago. As the article recounts, Marsen is a classically trained ballet dancer, who dropped out of the University of the Arts and has since:
gone rogue, dance-wise, taking three or four classes a day from studios all over New York City -- jazz, modern, tap, salsa, flamenco, belly-dancing, break-­dancing, West African, pole dancing, capoeira -- borrowing gestures and movements and boiling them all down into her own unique B-girl bouillabaisse.
Basically, she mixes a variety of different styles in a somewhat freelance manner. Krupnick had been looking for another project to work with Marsen on, and when he heard the latest Girl Talk album, he realized the basic similarities in style:
As Krupnick listened to the album, it struck him that Girl Talk makes music the way Anne Marsen makes dance. "I started to hyperventilate a little bit, the way you do when you get excited about something that you really want to come true," he told me.
And this is how art gets created. Of course, it's interesting that no one questions Marsen for mixing all different kinds of dances that she's learned from others into her own style -- but when Girl Talk does it, people complain about how it's "stealing" and "infringing." Either way, take these two individuals (along with a supporting cast) and you get this entirely new and entertaining movie as well.

Derivative art creating derivative art.

That this goes against the claims of copyright maximalists will, undoubtedly, be ignored by those copyright maximalists. Of course, there's a separate question here: which is what about the copyright on the film. Gillis releases all of the Girl Talk stuff under a Creative Commons license. But, it's a license that does not allow for commercial use (which some find hypocritical on his part). I doubt he would object to the film (if he did, the social backlash would likely be quite strong), but given that Krupnick is raising money via Kickstarter, someone could make an argument that this is "commercial use." Separately, if Krupnick actually tries to do something more with the movie, he'll almost certainly not be able to get E&O (errors and omissions insurance). Last year, I covered the ridiculous difficulty that RiP's filmmaker, Brett Gaylor had to go through trying to get insurance for his film -- showing us his massive spreadsheet of samples he tried to clear, before giving up.

But the bigger question is whether or not any of the copyright holders on the music Girl Talk uses would decide to step in as well. While they might not have sued Gillis, there's nothing saying that they have to let this movie go forward. Beyond the copyright issues in the samples in the album itself, now Krupnick also has to worry about synch rights, which appear to be one of the lower levels of hell according to various filmmakers I've dealt with in the past.

One can hope, that as with Gillis' original works, that any rights holders know better than to call the lawyers -- and it would be a great story if that actually happens. But, I certainly wouldn't be surprised (though, I'd be very disappointed) if this wonderful idea for a film runs into legal problems. Assuming that happens, it'll be yet another example of copyright not inspiring new creative works, but stifling them (though inspiring legal fees).

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Mar 2011 @ 2:59pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    It never is around here. Worst analogies in the world are compiled here every day.

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