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Willful Infringement

Distributed by Fiat Lucre LLC, PO Box 161, Haddonfield, NJ 08033
Produced by Jed Horovitz for Fiat Lucre LLC
Directed by Greg Hittelman
DVD, color, 58 min.
Available on Website
Sr. High - Adult
American Studies, Art, communications, Film Studies, Law, Media Studies, Music, Popular Culture

Reviewed by Susan DeMasi, Ammerman Campus Library, Suffolk County Community College, Selden, NY


It may be considered an act of subversion to purchase or even watch this documentary, but do it while it’s still on the market and not tied up in a court case. Willful Infringement asks provocative questions: Is copyright an instrument of censorship? Do newer copyright controls, such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, suppress the free speech of scientists, artists and others? Does aggressive enforcement of copyright law inhibit artists today in ways that they weren’t in the past? Whose art is it, anyway?

This ambitious documentary argues that copyright law and growing restrictions on the Fair Use doctrine are being used by corporations to control information, suppress free speech and stifle the creativity of artists.

Major players in the movement promoting an “information commons” (i.e., more information entering the public domain, fewer restrictions on fair use) are interviewed, as well as people who have found themselves, perhaps inadvertently, on the wrong side of copyright law. Among others, the interesting mix of those interviewed include copyright attorneys; law professors; cultural historians; the manager of the rap group, Public Enemy; members of a Rolling Stones tribute band; a day care operator and two clowns.

One of the major arguments presented is that artists are inhibited because copyright law doesn’t allow them to build on ideas created by previous artists. Historically, folk, jazz and blues evolved because musicians were inspired by and borrowed from earlier artists. As one interviewee says, in music and other media, artists were able to take the cumulative circulation of stories, ideas and pictures, and then resynthesize them in their own, unique way. They would then pass on their new work to society and the process would continue. (The film does a nice job in covering all media industries - film, music, etc.)

The filmmakers believe that copyright law doesn’t protect artists so much as it protects corporations (or “content industries”). In a discussion of music “sampling,” an interview with the manager of the rap group, Public Enemy, provides an excellent illustration of this point. The group is being sued by a music publishing firm for using a piece from a George Clinton song. But because George Clinton doesn’t own the rights, “he won’t see a dime” from this lawsuit, according to the film.

Other interviews clarify the distinction between piracy and the act of using portions of a work for artistic reasons. (Fair use to some, not to others.) Film and sound clips are used creatively to illustrate certain concepts. (Literally putting his money where his mouth is, the producer did not seek permission for the images or sounds used in the documentary. A long list of credits, serving as sort of a bibliography, was provided.) For instance, there’s a brilliant sequence on Walt Disney and his own artistic influences. Scenes from his animated Snow White are intercut with scenes from a silent film version of the fairy tale, along with a film clip of Walt himself talking about seeing this silent film as a child. It poses this question: If Walt Disney operated in today’s environment, would his version have been a copyright infringement?

While supporting the concept of the information commons, the film does acknowledge the rights of the original creators of art. But the focus is more on questioning the corporate ownership of images, language and sounds. Other areas, such as fair use, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, statutory damages and the history of copyright law (which, historically speaking, is a relatively new concept) are also covered.

Copyright law is intricate. It had to be a daunting task to present information about the law, supplemental legislation of the last few years and related concepts. Mostly, the documentary does a good job of that, though perhaps it would be easier for viewers if some copyright law basics had been introduced earlier in the film. This is easily remedied with side teaching and a look at the documentary’s website and its links. (Note that those wishing to watch portions of the film, or the film in its entirety can do so on its website. This is helpful, because the DVD itself doesn’t allow forward or reverse functions.)

It should be noted here that the press release accompanying the DVD, and the website,, provide information about the film’s conception that the film itself skirts. (Horovitz is being sued by Disney for using their film clips in previews his company produces for video rental stores.) This background information, while touched on in one of the DVD menu choices (Mickey and Me, a kind of mini-documentary) seems essential. Another menu choice, titled 20 Questions, gives the option of delving deeper into specific aspects of copyright.

Production values are generally good, though there are a few lapses (a misspelling in one graphic, some shaky camera work, poor audio quality in an interview done over the Internet). In a few instances, most notably during an interview with a Princeton scientist who decided not to present a paper after the Recording Industry Association of America threatened legal action against him, circumstances could have been made clearer.

You’re going to hear the term “information commons” more frequently, especially as advocates take their fight to legislators and the courts. The concepts are being discussed more and more by librarians, educators, legal experts and many others. This documentary is a great way to bring the debate into the classroom.