Kembrew McLeod’s youthful interest in 1980s hip-hop became a life-long scholarly pursuit when some of the groups he’d listened to as a teenager were sued in the early 1990s for using samples of previously recorded music.
“The issue—how the law affects sampling—is the entire reason I’m a professor,” says Mr. McLeod, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa.
It’s the subject of his second documentary film, Copyright Criminals, co-directed by Ben Franzen, which ran last year as part of PBS’s Independent Lens series and will be released on DVD in March. It is also available at Hulu.com.
As part of its Community Classroom program, PBS has released a curriculum centered on excerpts from the film that accompanies teaching materials for the classroom.
The materials are designed to apply to a wide variety of subjects, Mr. McLeod says, and could be used for discussions of plagiarism or the ethics of illegally downloading music and movies, although the film shies away from that issue.
Steve Jones, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, screened an early version of the film for an introductory communications class several years ago and has used excerpts several times since. “It gets them thinking about the interplay of art and commerce,” he says.
The film traces the rise of sample-driven hip-hop in the late 1970s and early 1980s through interviews with members of seminal groups like Public Enemy and De La Soul. Musicians like George Clinton, whose material was sampled in hip-hop music, weigh in, too, along with lawyers, scholars, and record executives.
Students respond more to the movie than they would to lectures on the same topic, says Mr. Jones. “I don’t think they see anyone who’s a professor as having authority on hip-hop and rap.”
The movie both emerged from and contributed to Mr. McLeod’s academic work. It shares its title with a chapter in his 2007 book, Freedom of Expression: Resistance and Repression in the Age of Intellectual Property, and he used interviews from the movie for his forthcoming book, Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling,written with Peter DiCola, an assistant professor of law at Northwestern University.
The movie’s subject informed its own creation, as copyright law affected how much of the subject material Mr. McLeod and Mr. Franzen could use. Mr. McLeod applied the doctrine of fair use, which allows for the use of short excerpts of material in criticism or scholarly work.
“If it wasn’t for the very same thing that allows me to teach media classes, fair use,” he says, “the film wouldn’t exist.”