Author: ninapaley

It’s nice to come across stories of creative people having epiphanies about Free Culture. This latest is from writer Joe Barlow, who recently discovered an article from his blog had been posted on another web site without permission:

I didn’t know what to do. I tried staring at my monitor in disbelief. Then I tried sitting there with my mouth hanging open. I tried stamping my foot. I tried hitting the Refresh key a bunch of times, as if the computer might suddenly jolt itself awake, realize its error, and apologize for having mistakenly implied that my content had been pasted onto someone else’s site. Nothing worked.

After the initial shock and horror wore off, he noticed something interesting:

The site that had stolen my work was actually sending me traffic. People were reading my content on the other blog, then finding The Coffee House Wordsmith as a result….

In that sense, my stolen post is now serving the same purpose as a typical Guest Post. This boggled my mind. Is it possible that having my work pirated could actually result in more readers in the long run?

In the intervening days, I’ve noticed that a small trickle of traffic continues to find its way to me through this illicit link. And that has led me to a very disturbing, or at least controversial, hypothesis:

Writers who keep their work tied exclusively to one location are doing themselves, and their audience, a disservice. As such, almost everything I know about copyright is wrong. It does not protect creative work. It imprisons it.
Hallelujah. Read the whole article here.

This is crossposted from, the home site of our Artist-in-Residence Nina Paley.  Even though it’s a very personal message, we decided to cross-post it here because it raises an important point: the “ask-permission-first culture” has become so pervasive that even people who explicitly release their art to be shared freely still get asked for permission to share!  To be fair, there are many other people who don’t ask permission, but the absolute number of those who do is still significant, and it points to how far we still have to go.  Nina says “[A]pologies for the peevish tone – I really appreciate anyone who copies Sita Sings the Blues, Mimi & Eunice, and any and all of my other works.” –The Editors

Please don’t ask my permission to re-use my work. YOU ALREADY HAVE PERMISSION. Please copy, share, re-use, redistribute, edit, modify, sell, etc.

Asking permission wastes your time, and mine. You might not mind wasting your time. Many people think asking for permission is a “sign of respect.” But what about my time?

Information (including all of my work) is not scarce. Attention (time) is.

Emails get lost in spam filters. They get lost amid the hundreds of other emails in my inbox. I’ve been known to take vacations and actually get away from my computer for a few days – something I should be doing more often. So what happens if you don’t get any response to your permission request? Do you not reuse the work? A work that has been explicitly made Free in the hopes you will reuse it? Not reusing the work harms the work, and harming a work is disrespectful. Delaying reusing the work likewise harms the work, in smaller increments.

Suppose a “respectful” email asking for permission which has already been explicitly granted doesn’t get caught in a spam filter or lost in some other glitch. Suppose it actualy makes it into my inbox. Now I am obligated to respond – the requester essentially said, “I’m not going to use this work unless you respond.” As “respectful” as this sounds, it places an unfair burden on me. The work, and any use of the work, should not be held hostage pending my checking and responding to email.

It is not “respectful” to make me do more, unnecessary work.

More importantly, asking permission is bad for the work itself. If you refuse to reuse the work unless I send you an email, you are blocking an expression or distribution of the work. How many days or weeks or months are you willing to put it off pending my ability to process email? Or worse, someone thinks it’s “respectful” to require me to sign papers and mail them back. Yes, this happens. I have such paperwork sitting right here, telling me that unless I sign it and mail it back, they won’t use the work they already have explicit permission to use. How is it “respectful” to make me jump through more hoops before they redistribute or remix a work I’ve made explicitly Free?

If you want to show respect, please send me something like this instead:

Dear Nina,

I thought you might like to know I’ve reused _________________  in _________________. Check it out at (insert URL here). Thanks for making the work Free!

Someone Who Understands Yes means Yes

Ahh, lovely. Thank you!

A complaint I hear often is that nowadays thanks to the inerwebs, not only do artists “have to give their work away for free” but they also “have to be businessmen.” HA! One goal of freeing my work is to free me of paperwork, contracts, and the role of manager – and what is having to oversee and administrate every re-use but management? In the “Intellectual Property” model, artists either have to do much more negotiating and managing and paperwork, or they have to pay someone else to do it for them. They have to be businessmen, or hire businessmen. And hiring businessmen (agents, lawyers, etc.) still requires much paperwork, negotiating, and contracts.

Some still insist that I’ve “maintained more control” over Sita Sings the Blues. The point is I have maintained no control over it, and that benefits me. The point is I don’t have to be a business(wo)man. The point is that other people, the crowd, distribute the work, and cost me nothing.

As long as they don’t ask for permission.

censorship Over at Techdirt, Mike Masnick is naming names. We’re reposting his list below, but please visit his original article. (Techdirt is great on most of the issues we care about – I read it daily.)

The 19 Senators Who Voted To Censor The Internet:

  • Patrick J. Leahy — Vermont
  • Herb Kohl — Wisconsin
  • Jeff Sessions — Alabama
  • Dianne Feinstein — California
  • Orrin G. Hatch — Utah
  • Russ Feingold — Wisconsin
  • Chuck Grassley — Iowa
  • Arlen Specter — Pennsylvania
  • Jon Kyl — Arizona
  • Chuck Schumer — New York
  • Lindsey Graham — South Carolina
  • Dick Durbin — Illinois
  • John Cornyn — Texas
  • Benjamin L. Cardin — Maryland
  • Tom Coburn — Oklahoma
  • Sheldon Whitehouse — Rhode Island
  • Amy Klobuchar — Minnesota
  • Al Franken — Minnesota
  • Chris Coons — Delaware

Free Speech and Internet Freedom are areas where party affiliations are meaningless. Some of the worst enablers of censorship are Democrats; some of the strongest advocates for liberty are Republicans. Conservative bloggers created, which I just lent my support to; meanwhile everyone’s favorite liberal, Al Franken, voted in favor of drastic censorship this morning. Please pay attention to what the people you elected are doing!

COICA stands for “Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act.” Once again the word “counterfeits” is completely misused: this act has nothing to do with real counterfeiting. The EFF states:

The main mechanism of the bill is to interfere with the Internet’s domain name system (DNS), which translates names like “” or “” into the IP addresses that computers use to communicate. The bill creates a blacklist of censored domains; the Attorney General can ask a court to place any website on the blacklist if infringement is “central” to the purpose of the site.

If this bill passes, the list of targets could conceivably include hosting websites such as Dropbox, MediaFire and Rapidshare; MP3 blogs and mashup/remix music sites like SoundCloud, MashupTown and Hype Machine ; and sites that discuss and make the controversial political and intellectual case for piracy, like, p2pnet, InfoAnarchy, Slyck and ZeroPaid . Indeed, had this bill been passed five or ten years ago, YouTube might not exist today. In other words, the collateral damage from this legislation would be enormous. (Why would all these sites be targets?)

COICA also stands for Censorship Of Internet Communications Act. The acronym is easy to remember because it sounds like CLOACA, with which it shares many similarities.


Some numbers and slides from the Sita Distribution Report (crossposted from

Q. Who owns culture?

Who Owns Culture?

Q. How do you make money?

Q. How many people have seen Sita Sings the Blues?
A. I can’t know for sure, but as of today it’s been downloaded 258,744 times from, viewed 403,421 times at youtube (full movie) plus another 183,649 (installments); it’s been shared widely via torrents, screened at festivals and cinemas and libraries and classrooms, and otherwise copied all over the world. Googling “Sita Sings the Blues” today yields about 2,620,000 results. enjoys about 193,000 visits a month.

Q. How much have you received in donations so far?
A. About $50,000.

Q. How much have you received in profits from the Sita Merchandise Empire?
A. About $45,000 for me as of March 2010. The store opened in March 2009, so that represents one year’s income. The store grossed about $83,000 during that time.

Q. How much have you made from theatrical screenings?
A. About $9,000 for me. I estimate box office gross was about 8x that much, or approx. $72,000, but that’s a gross estimate.

Q. How much have you made from other DVD distributors?
A. About $6,000 so far, which represents a small portion of gross DVD sales from other distributors. Our own DVDs which we offer at the Sita Merchandise Empire are accounted as store income, above.

Q. How much have you made from broadcast?
A. Only about $4,000 so far. Most broadcasters’ legal departments can’t wrap their heads around an open licensed movie. Happily New York’s PBS Affiliate Channel 13 embraced it, as did Link TV. Broadcasters, please show the movie!

Q. How much have you received from voluntary payments from cinemas and festivals?
A. About $12,000. I don’t use copyright to compel payments, but many venues share revenue of out decency and a mission to support artists, rather than legal threats.

Q. What other income have you gotten from the film?
A. Amazingly, $12,500 in Awards money. It still boggles my mind.

Q. So how much money did you personally make releasing a Free film under an open ShareAlike license?
A. In the film’s first year, I got about $132,000. I’ve received more since then.

Q. How much did the movie cost you to make?
A. $270,000: a $200,000 budget plus $50,000 to license the old songs via a “step deal” sufficient to decriminalize it for Free sharing, and another $20,000 in bargain-basement legal transaction costs. So I’m not in the black yet, but I am no longer in personal debt.

Q. How much would you have made had the movie not been Free?
A. When I was still trying to sell conventional monopoly rights to distributors in 2008, the highest advance I was offered was $20,000; I was told by one reputable distributor that the most I could expect in my wildest dreams to make in a 10-year contract was $50,000, and more realistically I could expect about $25,000.

Vive la Revolution! Culture Libre

Watch the video:

Nina Paley at HOPE 2010 – entire talk from Nina Paley on Vimeo.

Our first Minute Meme, Copying Is Not Theft, continues its steady spread online. The two versions currently most shared are’s “official” version, which we unfortunately named “best” instead of “official” (“best” implying a value judgement) and the arrangement by Willbe which uses my original wavery vocals.  Between the two of them they have more than 300,000 views — counting only YouTube, not even including all the other sites where they’re available.

On the Willbe version youtube page, I found a pretty good suggestion in the comments: a Copy Bunny Progress bar. That was easy enough to make; here’s a truncated version in GIF format:

I also uploaded all the original .fla files to, so you can remix and modify to your heart’s content.

Also, did you know there’s a Copying Is Not Theft Cloisonne Pin? Well there is! And you can buy it.

About a year and a half ago I released my film Sita Sings the Blues under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. That license allows truly free distribution, including commercial use, as long as the free license remains in place. But my experience is that most people see the words “Creative Commons” and simply assume the license is Non-Commercial — because the majority of Creative Commons licenses they’ve seen elsewhere have been Non-Commercial.

This is a real problem. Some artists have re-released Sita remixes under Creative Commons Non-Commercial licenses. Many bloggers and journalists assume the non-commercial restrictions, even when the license is correctly named:

The film was made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License, allowing third parties to share the creative content for non-commercial purposes freely as long as the author of the content is attributed as the creator of the work. —Frontline, India’s National Magazine

Initially I tried to explain what “ShareAlike” means, and asked “Sita” remixers to please switch to ShareAlike, per the terms of the ShareAlike license under which I released it. I felt like an ass; I don’t want to be a licensing cop. After a while, mis-identifications of the project’s license became so widespread I gave up trying to correct them. “Creative Commons” means “Non-Commercial” to most people. Fighting it is a sisyphean task.

So I’m stuck with a branding problem. As long as I use any Creative Commons license, most people will think it prohibits commercial use. Hardly anyone seems to register, let alone understand, CC-SA. Worse, those who do notice the ShareAlike marker combine it with Non-Commercial restrictions on their re-releases, which compounds the confusion (CC-NC-SA is the worst license I can imagine).

ShareAlike is an imperfect solution to copyright restrictions, as it imposes one restriction of its own: a restriction against imposing any further restrictions. It’s an attempt to use copyright against itself. As long as we live in a world wherein everything is copyrighted by default, I will use ShareAlike or some other Copyleft equivalent to attempt to maintain a “copyright-free zone” around my works. In a better world, there would be no automatic copyright and thus no need for me to use any license at all. Should that Utopia come about, I will remove all licenses from all my work. Meanwhile I attempt to limit other peoples’ freedom to limit other peoples’ freedom.

It would be nice if the Creative Commons organization did something to address this branding confusion. We suggested re-branding ShareAlike licenses as CC-PRO, but given that Creative Commons’ largest constituency is users of Non-Commercial licenses, it seems unlikely (but not impossible!) that they would distinguish their true Copyleft license with a “pro” brand.

It would also be nice if everyone, including and especially representatives of Creative Commons, referred to their licenses by their names, instead of just “Creative Commons.” “Thank you for using a Creative Commons license,” they tell me. You’re welcome; I would thank you for calling it a ShareAlike license. Almost every journalist refers to all 7 licenses as simply “Creative Commons licenses.” And so in the popular imagination, my ShareAlike license is no different from a Non-Commercial, No-Derivatives license.

This branding crisis came to a head recently when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation banned all Creative Commons licensed music in its shows: 

The issue with our use of Creative Commons music is that a lot of our content is readily available on a multitude of platforms, some of which are deemed to be ‘commercial’ in nature (e.g. streaming with pre-roll ads, or pay for download on iTunes) and currently the vast majority of the music available under a Creative Commons license prohibits commercial use.

In order to ensure that we continue to be in line with current Canadian copyright laws, and given the lack of a wide range of music that has a Creative Commons license allowing for commercial use, we made a decision to use music from our production library in our podcasts as this music has the proper usage rights attached. link

The Creative Commons organization wants to get the CBC to separate out its different licenses. They could help by calling their licenses by their different names. If the Creative Commons organization itself calls them all “Creative Commons Licenses,” how can they expect others to distinguish the licenses from each other?


Perhaps Creative Commons should only offer the Non-Commercial/No Derivatives licenses everyone associates with the name. Then they could create a new name/brand for their Free licenses. FreeCommons? CultureSource? CopyLove?

Meanwhile, I’m wondering how to clearly communicate my work is COPYLEFT. In addition to the CC-SA license, if there’s room I write “COPYLEFT, ALL WRONGS REVERSED”. Unfortunately, the term “Copyleft” is growing increasingly meaningless as well. For example, Brett Gaylor’s mostly excellent film RIP: A Remix Manifesto gets a lot of things right, but it misunderstands and misuses the term “copyleft”. Copyleft actually means this:

the right to distribute copies and modified versions of a work and requiring that the same rights be preserved in modified versions of the work. In other words, copyleft is a general method for making a program (or other work) free, and requiring all modified and extended versions of the program to be free as well. -Wikipedia

But in RIP it means this:

Non-Commercial restrictions are NOT Copyleft!

See that dollar sign with the slash in it? That means Non-Commercial restrictions, which are most definitely NOT Copyleft.


Anyone introduced to the word “Copyleft” in that film won’t understand what Copyleft actually means in terms of licenses.

I need a license that people understand. I’m tempted by the WTFPL but I would have to fork it to add a copyleft provision. The Do Whatever You Want And Don’t Restrict Others From Doing Whatever They Want Public License? WTFDROPL?

Are there any other useable Copyleft licenses out there that aren’t associated with non-commercial restrictions? I’m open to suggestions.