Segments from “How Copyright Restrictions Suppress Art”: An Interview With Nina Paley About “Sita Sings The Blues”

Below, we offer this November 2008 interview with our artist-in-residence Nina Paley in self-contained segments (transcripts and Youtube videos), since Nina covers so much ground — from the tendency of artists to “internalize the permission culture” and shy away from re-use, to the financial effects copyright restrictions have had on her.


The segments are exactly the same material as the full interview, but are divided up by topic (so the clips are shorter) and indexed by representative quotes. Feel free to remix or use these in other projects, of course. The entire interview is released under a Creative Commons Attribution – Share Alike license.

  • Why Old Music?

    When I told people I wanted to incorporate old music… everybody said “No, no, don’t do that, don’t do that. Don’t touch any music, just don’t touch it!” … Just leave it alone, don’t do it. I actually wept at one point, because all these people were saying don’t do it. And I had to do it. I had to make this piece of art… it had to be them.

  • Art vs Censorship

    I just thought, you know, if I don’t make this piece of art because I’m scared, then the terrorists have won, right? It’s bad enough that they’ve affected policy like this, but if I internalize it, if I kill my own art out of fear of them, then I’ve really lost.

  • Lessons Wrong And Right

    What really bothers me is now the film is done and it’s getting awards, it’s getting all this praise, but people are saying “Oh, you’re having rights problems, oh you really should have cleared those before.” And they’re using me as like this lesson, it’s like “Let that be a lesson to all of you, don’t touch anything that you haven’t cleared first!” And I’m like, how is any independent artist going to clear this stuff first?

    …We have the technology now so that ordinary people… people without a lot of money or resources can make a film alone. That’s why I made it. It’s like, I know you’re supposed to do this, this and this, … you’re supposed to do all this financing first. That’s like the first thing: before you take pen to paper, you’re supposed to have financing. And I thought, I don’t actually technically need to do this. I have a computer and I have the skills and I have the drive, and that’s enough to make this piece. And I knew there could be problems on the other end, but I also felt it was just more important to make the film. So I’m appalled that people think.. that what they take away from this film is “Don’t do that”. Because the point, what I hope they take away from it is, yes you can do this. You know, if you’re not scared, you can do this stuff, and I am not wrong for making this film. There’s something very wrong with the laws right now, but I’m really really glad I made this film.

  • Threats To Expression

    …pretty much everyone I know has sort of stunted their creative impulses over this. But there’s a lot of other things they’re afraid of, you know, they’re afraid of criticism… there are all these threats to expression. I was also warned off by [Hindu] fundamentalists: don’t touch the Ramayana, that belongs to us. So actually I see a real… how to say it?… If you want to express yourself, you have to be brave, and this is just one obstacle among many of expressing yourself freely. I mean I think the first thing people internalize is just criticism. This makes it much, much worse. This is like, it’s bad enough someone might think your art’s not good, but hey, you could go to jail for it!

  • Teaching Fear Of Music

    …Most of the artists I know are animators who work in studios. And some of these animators have also made their own films, being terrified to use any music they couldn’t clear. And this just breaks my heart, you know, in education, all these schools are like “Don’t use this, and don’t use that, don’t do this, don’t do that!” They’re teaching … young artists to be scared of music [laughs]. …

  • The Most Important Thing Is To Make The Film

    All the criticism, all the threats, all the dangers, I was able to set aside. I was aware of them, but I just thought… the vision of the film was so strong, I just sort of surrendered to my faith in that film. It’s like, I know all these things might be happening, but the most important thing is to make the film.

  • Film Finance; Alienation At Film Festivals

    …The way you’re supposed to make a film is, like I say, first you’re supposed to go to investors. You’re supposed to get the money first. … Even the independent film world, I’m really disappointed to say, is about commercial product-making, it’s really not about art. And it’s been very alienating for me to go to a lot of these film festivals and, you know, meet my fellow film-makers, and they’ve really internalized the permission culture…

  • Hemorrhaging Money

    …You can lose all your money… even without being sued. That’s what amazes me, is how much money I’ve lost without being sued at all! No one’s had to sue me for me to be just hemorrhaging money because of copyright. [interviewer: “It’s a pre-emptive strike on artists”] Yeah.

  • The Indie Film Biz

    The advice that I got… was “Look just make the film, and then if a distributor wants to release it, the distributor can pay to clear the rights.”

  • Distributors That Kill

    I actually know of several films that were picked up [by distributors]… and all they did was sit on it for two years. […] They just killed it for two years.

  • Distributors Cannot Afford $220,000.00

    There was no way I was going to find a distributor that was going to put money into this, no way. I mean, the most distributors were offering for my film was like $10,000 for unlimited use… [$220,000 was the cost needed to clear just the music rights]

  • Costs Of “Negotiating”

    When it became clear that no distributor was going to take this on, so we had to investigate how much it was going to cost to clear the rights. So I, back when I had money, because I don’t have money anymore, out of my own pocket had to pay for a law firm to talk to these publishers. Because if you’re just some schmuck like me, it’s not worth their trouble to even talk to you.

  • Festival Licenses $220,000.00

    First they want you to pay $500 for a festival license. … A festival license says “You pay us $500 for non-commercial use only, non-commercial.” And I was like, but, if it’s non-commercial, then I’m not going to get any money at all. Where am I getting the money to pay you to not make any money?…

  • Festival Licenses, Middlemen

    [Nina lists the series of payments and law firms and negotiations she went through]

    [my lawyers] went back to all these corporations, and all the corporations said “But we already talked about this film with Greenberg Traurig, and where’s our festival licenses? You were supposed to give us $500 and sign a festival license, and we’re not gonna talk to you at all, or negotiate anything, until you do these first.” And I was out of money, and I had to decide whether I was gonna pay for medical care or pay these things. And I was just sitting here… and I realized I couldn’t do it.

    …All we get is the right to negotiate. It’s like I’m paying them money to negotiate with them, after already being out more than $8000 hiring middlemen to try to negotiate with them. And I should add that we tried going to them directly, and we just got the runaround.

  • Distributor Won’t Pay Festival Licenses

    So I went to the distributor that said that she would help with the money, and she said, well, I can’t really pay you for the festival licences. And so then I had to go back to DiamondTime and say “Guess what? I really am out of money. I have to decide whether I’m gonna pay for medical care this month, or pay these festival licenses, and I really have to pay for medical care.” …

  • I Won’t Ask Fans To Pay Extortionists

    I’d really spent everything I had on making the film, that’s what I believed in, and I actually raised money to make the film. … I got donations… There are some people that I would tell how these corporations wanted $220,000, and they said “Well, ask the Internet! Write on your blog again! Say that you need money.” And I’ve always said, there’s no way I’m gonna ask my fans to support this. … I asked for money so that I could actually complete the art. I was using it for good, and it was given by people, with love, for the art. This is ridiculous… So for that reason I’ve just refused to ask my fans and viewers to participate in this.

  • Control vs Freedom

    I think it’s okay for artists to be uncomfortable with this loss of control. I think it’s a lot to expect an artist to be like “Oh, yeah, it’s fine, do whatever you want with it.” But what I think a lot of artists forget is that we’re losing something by having this much control.

  • Control vs Freedom redux; Commercial or Noncommercial

    The scenario people always bring up… is like “Well, what if a corporation exploited [laughs] your work without your permission.” It’s like, well, you know, let’s just balance that with corporations keeping me from making work in the first place!

  • A Post-Copyright World

    …Again, one of the things that’s hard to imagine is in a post copyright world there could just be so much work available, that, you know, my work wouldn’t really be at any particular risk, there would just so much of it…

  • Humility; Remix

    I do have to remember as an artist to be humble, and that you know, in my case especially I am taking ideas that are already there, that have been around for thousands of years [the Ramayana], eighty years [songs recorded by Annette Hanshaw], and only a few years, but these are ideas that are just out in the world, and I synthesize them. But this whole, like, “This is my original idea, I own this,” is a bit much. So I certainly acknowledge that my project is a remix project.. and yes, having done that, of course people will remix my thing.

  • Crediting, Remixing

    …I want credit for my creativity… and again, it’s credit, it’s like the difference between credit and money. I’m much more interested in the credit, and just the work itself. I just want the work itself to be seen. I want my voice to be heard. And if my voice is heard, it will be remixed. I just want it to be heard first. I don’t want to be speaking directly into a microphone that’s going to garble it up. … Because the remix is a kind of feedback from the audience really, and that’s nice, you know, it’s a conversation. Art is a conversation between me and an audience…

  • Originality vs Honesty

    …When you try to be original, you’re usually pretty lame. I don’t know if you’ve read “Impro” by Keith Johnstone? It’s a fantastic book, and — he wrote it like twenty years or maybe even longer ago — he says one of the worst problems improvisers face, one of the things that make them fail, that makes their work suck, is that they try to be original, rather than be honest. And I think honesty is where the … soul of art comes from.

  • Synch vs Insycherate

    … All my problems come from “synch rights” — “synch rights”, not mechanical rights, synchronization rights, which only applies to film. I can’t release my film on DVD for less than $220,000 — although we’re still working on it, you know, I haven’t completely given up on the rights negotiation route, although calling it “negotiation” is like, you know, a serf “negotiating” with a king: one party has absolutely no power at all, the other one has all the power. But we’re still trying that route, trying to get them to come down. And we may succeed, who knows.

    …So I can’t release a DVD of the film without paying some absurd amount of money paying off these corporations. But I could release a soundtrack of the film and pay mechanical rights on it, mechanical rights being regulated. So I could release a soundtrack of the film for 9 cents a song, payed to the Harry Fox agency. So for about a dollar a disk, it’s fine, for the sound. …

  • My Next Project; Fundamentalists; Who Owns Culture?

    Ah, my next project. I would like it to have something to do with freedom of expression, and beyond that I can’t really say what it’s going to be. …

    …In addition to these copyright issues, there are also these fundamentalist Hindu nationalists who want to stop the film and want to hang me, so they say, for having used the Ramayana. And what’s interesting to me is how similar these things are, because there’s this idea that you own culture. …

  • A Commercial Future For Sita

    … There is some hope that there will be some sort of commercial future for the film, maybe. I wish that there were a different kind of commercial future for the film. I wish that there a fair commercial future for the film, rather than a pay-off-the-extortionists commercial future. One of the other problems with paying off the extortionists is that I have to get the money from somewhere, and where I’m getting that money from is the distributor, and then I have to do much more what the distributor wants me to do. …

  • No Money Expected From Commercial Release

    …I should add that a lot of filmmakers that I’ve talked to that have had their films distributed commercially have not made any money from that…

    …The people that make money on the commercial releases are the distributors, or in the case of indy films, sometimes even the distributors don’t make money, they do it for “prestige”.

  • The Role Of Cinemas

    I do think that the role of cinemas is going to change, is changing. … I don’t live in France [which has laws about how a film can’t be available on DVD while it’s still in theaters] and I don’t know what’s making it work in France, but I do have to say I love French audiences. They’re incredibly generous, they have responded overwhelmingly positively to my film, so I’m grateful for that. But for me as a filmgoer, I don’t think I ever see a movie in the cinema because I can’t get it anywhere else. I go to cinemas because I want to see it in the cinema.

  • Academy Awards

    …I cannot submit the film for an Academy Award. Because to qualify for an Academy Award, you need a week-long commercial run, and I cannot show the film commercially. …

    … The Academy Awards, you know, it is for commercial films, that’s why you need a commercial run to be nominated. A lot of people don’t realize that, and they just think it’s for, you know, … the best film, they believe it’s the best film. … Correct: a film like mine is not eligible for an Academy Award.

  • Suffering Becomes My Next Project

    …I’ve decided my next project is going to be about this [copyright issue] …

    I’m thrilled that so many people are, you know, resisting this, or they’ve identified that this is a problem, a lot of poeple are putting a lot of time and energy and money and work into trying to make this better. So I’m definitely not alone, and right now I’m all about connecting with the people who “get it”, because so many people don’t understand what’s happening, so many people don’t understand that it’s a free speech issue. …”

  • A Clear Landing Space For The Film

    Nina talks about licensing schemes, artists having control over the audience’s experience, and more.

  • My Mom Is My Secret Weapon

    Nina points out how she’s gotten a lot of volunteer administrative assistance from her mom, who’s superb at it — and this volunteer labor should be counted too, in the sense that it’s one more thing Nina would have had to pay for if she hadn’t been lucky enough to get it for free.