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Brett Gaylor, director of RiP: A Remix Manifesto. ((Mark Elam) )

For the last few years, Montreal-based filmmaker Brett Gaylor has been intrigued by what the digital revolution is doing to the notion of intellectual property and copyright laws. But while it’s been on his mind a lot, he says "it seemed like the ultimate unfilmable subject."

Sample-based musician Gregg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk, contends he’s not stealing music — merely creating something new by reconfiguring bits and pieces of pop culture.

Yet Gaylor could see the debates about the sampling of music by mash-up artists and the online distribution of music, films and TV shows were going to continue for some time. Along with shaking up the music industry, the internet has also been cited as a big reason for the meltdown of daily newspapers and other print media and is causing heartburn at the movie studios.

While this subject affects a lot of people, Gaylor knew that the raging debates around such issues could result in a bone-dry documentary mired in legalese.

"I had to find characters I could follow through this. I had to tell the stories in a visual way. How are some of these copyright and patent issues interrelated? What is the connection between developing an AIDS vaccine and music sampling? How are we going to think about property now? It’s been irrevocably changed. How do we face that?"

One of the characters Gaylor follows in his dazzling new documentary, RiP: A Remix Manifesto, is Gregg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk. He’s a Pittsburgh-based musician who splices together well-known pop songs to create epic mash-ups. Gillis has faced various legal battles over his use of samples in recordings and live performances. Gillis contends he’s not stealing anything — merely creating something new by reworking and reconfiguring bits and pieces of pop culture.

In many respects, the music industry was the first to have to deal with the brave new world of internet distribution, as the cost of owning a song was reduced to virtually nothing (99 cents a song on iTunes; free on the many sites that enable you to share music and other files). Some have discussed RiP: A Remix Manifesto as a film about copyright vs. copyleft, but Gaylor knows the debate is far less about a binary opposition and more like a pretzel.

The film is ultimately concerned with the question of who precisely owns any given piece of art. When does the public domain distinguish itself from private ownership — particularly in this age of digital distribution and replication? RiP brings these issues to life in an invigorating, fascinating way. Each sequence raises questions about our collective notions of intellectual property, rights and residuals, forcing us to think about and rethink our positions on each issue. (In an appropriate and playful note at the end, the film invites viewers to sample and rework RiP in any way they see fit.)

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Greg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk, is one of the artists mentioned in RiP: A Remix Manifesto. ((Andrew Strasser/EyeSteelFilm) )

At times, it's stimulating almost to the point of exhaustion. RiP is one of those documentaries that demands multiple screenings — which is fitting, given that Gaylor says the debate is so fluid and amorphous.

"I got lost in some of the questions I was raising," Gaylor says of the complex process of making RiP, a co-production with the National Film Board and Montreal’s EyeSteelFilm, the company behind Up the Yangtze, an acclaimed documentary by fellow Montrealer Yung Chang.

Gaylor makes the obvious nod to Andy Warhol, whose postmodern work generated questions as it lifted images from classical art and pop culture — witness Warhol’s overlapping of the Mona Lisa with the Pepsi logo. But Warhol himself referred to this as outright theft.

Gaylor also revisits some more complex cases. In the 1960s, the Rolling Stones enjoyed one of their biggest successes with the single The Last Time. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards relied heavily on a gospel song by the Staple Singers while writing their hit. Gaylor shows us the clear debt that Jagger and Richards owed to their predecessors, making clear that artistic creativity does not exist in a vacuum but is part of a continuum. This process would continue when Richards and Jagger's agent, Andrew Loog Oldham, recorded his own orchestral version of The Last Time. Three decades later, the British band the Verve sampled bits and pieces of Oldham’s rendition for what would become their biggest hit, Bittersweet Symphony. Richards and Jagger’s publishing company successfully sued the Verve for copyright infringement, effectively gaining all the money the band made from the song. Jagger and Richards then made even more money by selling the Verve version of the song to Nike for an advertising campaign.

Gaylor also recalls the case of artist Dan O’Neill, who drew and wrote a series of radical cartoons in the 1970s, telling his own bizarre alternate version of the story of Mickey Mouse. Disney Corp. took O’Neill all the way to the Supreme Court — which ruled in Disney's favour and admonished O’Neill for drawing the famous rodent.

Filmmaker Brett Gaylor makes the obvious nod to Andy Warhol, whose work  lifted images from classical art and pop culture. Warhol himself saw it as theft.

This triggers another intriguing discussion in the film. While the Disney Corp. has been fervently protectionist over its various properties, Walt Disney himself was the ultimate mash-up artist, a man who lifted and appropriated all sorts of ideas from earlier artistic works, reshaping them into his own cultural products.

While there is nuance in Gaylor’s sprawling analysis of these debates, he clearly leans away from the copyright capitalists and toward the copyleft activists. His manifesto is laid out in RiP: "Number one: creativity always builds on the past. Number two: The past will always try to control the future. Number three: Our future is becoming less free. Number four: To build something free, you must limit control of the past."

Gaylor insists he’s not advocating the shredding of every copyright law and regulation, but he also makes no claims to objectivity.

"This film is more about raising questions than pretending that I know every solution. How is the new economy going to work? Hybrids seem to work. I don’t think everything should be for free. Some rights are reserved. But I don’t think someone should be prevented from remixing some music. All rights reserved prevents that. What’s the harm from someone remixing your work?"

RiP achieves the documentary sublime when Gaylor successfully connects a series of copyright issues — from music downloading to AIDS medication patents to the patenting of a newly developed plant species (which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled was A-OK). That puts the intellectual property debate into the realm of the chilling: corporations could actually claim ownership of an entire species.

"Pop culture never asked our permission to be placed in our lives," says Gaylor. "The mass media machine gets to put it everywhere. The idea that we’re supposed to ask permission to sample that work, to critique and recontextualize it, that is the core statement I was trying to make. It’s a real puzzle. We live in this universe where we’re constantly being pushed to buy something, or vote for someone. I think it’s the ultimate literacy to be able to take that and recontextualize it — to say, I won’t be sold this; I won’t vote for that. I have my own statement to make.

"We should never have to ask permission to do that."

RiP: A Remix Manifesto is currently playing in Montreal and opens in Toronto and Vancouver on March 13.

Matthew Hays is a writer based in Montreal.