How Copyright Restrictions Suppress Art: An Interview With Nina Paley About "Sita Sings The Blues"

In this November 2008 interview, well-known cartoonist and animator Nina Paley tells how her award-winning, feature-length film Sita Sings The Blues landed in copyright jail. After this interview, Nina joined QuestionCopyright.org as Artist-in-Residence, and is now working on the Minute Memes project as well as on the free distribution model of her film.

(This interview is also available in annotated segments, in case you're looking f'or something specific or are not sure where to start.)

Full Interview

After pouring three years of her life into making the film, and having great success with audiences at festival screenings, she now can't distribute it, because of music licensing issues: the film uses songs recorded in the late 1920's by singer Annette Hanshaw, and although the recordings are out of copyright, the compositions themselves are still restricted. That means if you want to make a film using these songs from the 1920s, you have to pay money — a lot of money (around $50,000.00).

It's a classic example of how today's copyright system suppresses art, effectively forcing artists to make creative choices based on licensing concerns rather than on their artistic vision.

The music in Sita Sings The Blues is integral to the film: entire animation sequences were done around particular songs. As Nina says in the interview, incorporating those particular recordings was part of her inspiration. To tell her — as many people did — to simply use different music would have been like telling her not to do the film at all. And that's part of her point: artists "internalize the permission culture", which in turn affects the kinds of art they make.

Sita Sings The Blues has been nominated for a "One To Watch" Spirit award and won a Gotham "Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You" award, as well as "Best American Feature" at the Avignon Film Festival, "Best Feature" at the Annency Animation Festival, and a Special Mention at the Berlinale. Famed film critic Roger Ebert has raved about it. But the film remains undistributable as of this writing; Nina is trying to work out an arrangement with the holders of the monopolies on the music that inspired her. If you'd like to donate to support Nina, you can do so here.

(2009-12-16: she eventually did pay them off, and then released the film under a free license. You can buy a DVD, or download it online. Buying a DVD directly supports Nina, as do donations obviously.)

Thanks to: Nina Paley for interviewing and for editing help; the Software Freedom Law Center for space and for logistical support; Light House Films for camera work, etc.

Interview Highlights (2:15):

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Free Culture & Columbia Political Union present: Panel Discussion on Illegal Downloading

Lerner Hall at Columbia University

We're taking questions from the Net for the panel discussion below. So if there's something you'd like raised, please leave a comment here — we'll bring the comments to the panel.

(And if you submit your question via, say, a video on YouTube, we'll try our best to play it live during the panel. Yes, that's a hint!)

  • When: Wednesday, 3 December 2008, 8pm-10pm
  • Where: Satow Room - Lerner Hall @ Columbia University (see map)
  • What: Panel discussion about current law and about the future of copyright policy.
  • Who: Stanley Pierre-Louis (VP of IP, Viacom); June Besek (Prof. of Law, Columbia University); Karl Fogel (Editor, QuestionCopyright.org)

The event is free, but space is limited. Please RSVP to: decause{_AT_}softwarefreedom.org.

U.S. Senate Bill 3325: Exactly The Wrong Law

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT)

Patrick Leahy (D-VT) was one of the Senators who sponsored S. 3325, despite his generally good track record on electronic freedom issues. See below for information on how you can help Sen. Leahy understand why he shouldn't support this bill.

QuestionCopyright.org doesn't normally focus on immediate legislative goals. Current copyright law is pretty bad, but our mission is to change the way people think about copyright, in the belief that legislative change will follow.

But every now and then, a proposed new law is so off-the-charts wrongheaded that it needs to be immediately shut down. U.S. Senate Bill S. 3325 is one such. Public Knowledge has a great summary of what's wrong with it:

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee gave the green light to S. 3325, the Enforcement of Intellectual Property Act of 2008. We need you to show them the red light, NOW! This intellectual property enforcement bill lets the DOJ enforce civil copyright claims and lets the government do the MPAA and RIAA's intellectual property rights enforcement work for them — at tax payers' expense.

The bill also needlessly bundles trademark protections with copyright restrictions, thus further confusing these two unrelated things in the mind of the public (and, no doubt, in the minds of many Senators). Identity protection is a fine goal, but it has nothing to do with copyright. Search the bill for the phrase "counterfeit and pirated goods" and you'll see immediately how these different concepts are repeatedly yoked together, with the effect that mere unauthorized copying is tainted with the stigma of counterfeiting. For example:

For purposes of this title, the term `intellectual property enforcement' means matters relating to the enforcement of laws protecting copyrights, patents, trademarks, other forms of intellectual property, and trade secrets, both in the United States and abroad, including in particular matters relating to combating counterfeit and pirated goods.

See the full text of the two proposed versions of the bill for details.

Public Knowledge has set up a very convenient web page from which you can call or fax your Senators (if you're a U.S. citizen) and tell why they should oppose S. 3325. Please, if you have ten minutes to spare today...

GO THERE NOW AND DO IT.

Thank you.

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