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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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Minute Memes

Minute Memes: Reframing Copyright One Idea At a Time

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Minute Memes are supported by a generous grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and donations from supporters like you. We're planning on making many more memes and anything you can give will help; so if you like the Minute Memes project, please consider making a directed donation.

What are the Minute Memes?

The Minute Memes project is a series of one-minute videos about copyright restrictions and artistic freedom, made by award-winning animator Nina Paley.

 Copying Is Not Theft title  
 EFF Cartoon  Credit Is Due
 Copying Is Not Theft    All Creative Work Is Derivative  EFF Tribute  Credit Is Due: The Attribution Song

The series counteracts widely-available videos from the recording and publishing industries that seek to frame copyright as natural property right. The Minute Memes build a new frame of reference to supplant received rhetoric about copyright -- such as:

  • the notion of "balancing" the needs of creators and the public, which assumes that the two are in opposition;
  • the idea that copying is a form of stealing; and
  • the idea that control of copying must be bound up with questions of attribution.

The Minute Memes use visual storytelling, music, lyrics, and high production values to show how art, artists, and audiences can thrive in a permissive and non-monopolistic environment. Several have been completed and are already widely shared on the Internet. Please consider donating to this project to support the production of more Minute Memes.

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