Our documentary isn't as good as a classic Public Enemy album, but it shares a key characteristic: it's made from fragments of a few hundred copyrighted sources. If Ben and I tried to clear everything in the film, Copyright Criminals would be prohibitively expensive to make. In other words, we made a film that tries to educate people about the ill effects of the copyright clearance system, but that very same system muzzled our ability to show how crazy this state of affairs really is! Somewhere, Kafka is having a laugh attack.
When we started making Copyright Criminals in 2003, I approached a film music clearance professional about working on our project. When I told her that it was a documentary about the history of musical sampling, she said flat out that we wouldn't ever be able to legally distribute our film. She explained in great detail how hard it is to license sample-based songs for a film and, in fact, she used Public Enemy as an example of what goes wrong when you get multiple copyright holders involved.
The clearance costs multiply, and so can the refusals—such as when we tried to license a classic sample-based song for our film. One of the song's corporate co-owners refused us, and even though the other rights holders were willing to take our money this single veto torpedoed the deal. When we contacted the artist who wrote and recorded the track, he tried to intervene on our behalf to no avail.
Another denial came from an infamous company named Bridgeport. Due to some shady (but sadly typical) music biz shenanigans, this entity owns many of the rights to George Clinton's funk oeuvre—specifically, records by his hugely popular and heavily sampled 1970s groups Parliament and Funkadelic. The day after a court affirmed that Bridgeport controlled the copyrights to the P-Funk back catalog it filed suit against a reported eight hundred parties for unauthorized sampling.
In a page ripped straight from Evil Corporation Digest, one of those slapped with a suit was George Clinton—for sampling one of his own records. True story. "Yeah, I got sued for sampling my own stuff," Clinton told us with a bemused smile. "In fact, I still got a suit pending." After trying for six weeks to license a song that Bridgeport partially controlled, a company representative finally got back to us. The man on the other line—who I imagine was chomping on a cigar—said only, "Denied!" Before abruptly hanging up, he added, "Denied. No reason!"
In an email, Bridgeport reminded us that "any of the songs involved in the sample settlements (Public Enemy, Digital Underground, and others) are entirely separate compositions which we own a portion of and which require our approval." That's because Bridgeport now controls portions of hundreds of hip-hop songs as a result of their litigation. For instance, if you want to license Digital Underground's biggest hit, "The Humpty Dance," you have to deal with Bridgeport—as well as up to five other companies currently listed as co-owners.