New York, Central Park

We’re holding a New York City area informational meeting on Monday. If you’d like to learn more about what we do and how you can get involved, please come!

We’ll focus on the Sita Distribution Project, and a couple of other exciting projects that are ready for more hands. Students, we’re open to offering credit if we can work it out with your school.


  • When: Monday, 2 February 2009, 6:30pm-8:30pm

  • Where: Software Freedom Law Center, 1995 Broadway, 17th floor (cross street is 68th; take [A,B,C,D,1] to 59th / Columbus Circle, or [1,2,3] to 72nd, or [1] to 66th; see map)

  • What: Learn about current QuestionCopyright.org projects and how you can get involved. Refreshments will be served.

  • Who: Nina Paley (artist in residence), Karl Fogel (editor), you and all your friends who want to do something about precambrian copyright restrictions.


If you know you’re coming, please let us know. It’s also okay to just show up at 6:30pm. If you’d like to come but that night doesn’t work for you, tell us — we’ll arrange to meet with you another time.

They can’t keep a lid on all of us…

They Can't Keep A Lid On It

Sita Sings the Blues movie cover.

(NOTE: If you came here to help support Nina Paley’s free distribution of Sita Sings the Blues with a donation toward her expenses in releasing her film, please see the donations section below.)

The Sita Distribution Project is a public demonstration of how an artist can flourish — economically and artistically — by letting her works circulate freely and making it easy for audiences to support the artist financially.

It's not about self-distribution, it's about audience-distribution: put the work out there, let people share it, give them the freedom to organize activities (both commercial and non-commercial) around it, and the artist will benefit, because audiences want to support artists. Our goal is a comprehensible, repeatable model that can be used by independent artists everywhere.

The test subject is artist Nina Paley (now our Artist-in-Residence), who released her award-winning, feature-length animated film Sita Sings the Blues to the world under a totally free license in early 2009. That's free as in "freedom": anyone can make copies, anyone can sell copies, anyone can hold a screening (for profit or otherwise), anyone can make related merchandise, no one needs to ask permission for anything.

Subtitles provided by audience members from around the world.

You can also watch the entire film on Vimeo, Channel 13, and download it from The Pirate Bay and other peer to peer communities.

The Recipe

This distribution model puts the artist squarely on the audience's side: instead of telling people they shouldn't share, the artist encourages them to share. But the key is to do more than just put the work out there and hope for the best. You have to set up infrastructure that makes the artist the focal point for economic activity around the work — not the exclusive owner of all economic activity, just the focal point. Instead of imposing a monopoly on the work itself (which pits artist against audience), let the work flow freely and take advantage of the one natural monopoly that comes from being the artist: attribution, that is, credit for having made the work. Audiences appreciate proper attribution, and will enforce it, because they want to be on the artist's side. Nina explains this all step by step in her piece, “How To Free Your Work“.

The Results So Far

So far, Nina has made more money by this method than any traditional (i.e., exclusive) distributor was offering before the film's release. Since releasing it for free distribution in February of 2009, she's received approximately $28,000 in donations and another $25,000 in sales of DVDs and other film-related merchandise from the online store. (Note that the donations are dedicated to paying back music licensing fees she had to pay to be able to release the film at all; there's more on that here.)  The average donation is a bit over $10 US (but that's not counting the rare outliers, the occasional donations of $500 or $1000 — if you include those, the average donation is around $30).

Sita Sings the Blues DVD   Sita Sings the Blues DVD (Artist's Edition)   Sita Sings the Blues Ravana T-shirt   Sita Sings the Blues Valmiki T-shirt

Best of all, her income stream is fairly steady. This is the opposite of the traditional "burst and fade" distribution model that so many works endure, dragged out of circulation prematurely to avoid competing with new releases from the same publisher. Because Nina's film is audience-distributed, it's in circulation forever, whenever and wherever people want to see it. And all those audience members are potential customers and donors, as the financial results bear out.

Raw data: While we have to protect the privacy of donors and customers at the online store, we can release summary data and anonymized data. Please see the donations summary, store sales summary, and the store sales details. We're sharing this data in order to give other independent artists some concrete numbers about what a freedom-based distribution model can bring.

Further resources:

Nina Paley's preliminary report from five months after the free release of her film, including the talk she gave at DIY in Philadelphia.

See also The More She Shared, The More She Made by Mike Masnick at TechDirt, for a good writeup of the talk.


Getting Out Of Copyright Jail

Because Sita Sings the Blues uses some music from the 1920s that's still under copyright, Nina Paley had to pay a lot of money — approximately US $50,000.00 plus another $20,000 in transaction costs  —  to get it out of copyright jail (she talks about it in this interview.)

82.2%   


Fund-o-Meter (last updated: 2013-09-18)

QuestionCopyright.org is helping her — and you can help too. We want to see this distribution project succeed, as an example of how letting go of monopoly control can benefit everyone (including the artist), so we're using donations to this project to help pay back that loan, in a fiscal sponsorship arrangement with Nina Paley.

That means you can donate to help with the costs of getting "Sita Sings the Blues" out of copyright jail (see below), and your donation will be 100% tax-deductible in the U.S. to the extent permitted by law.

The response so far has been tremendous, and gratifying to Nina as well. But we've still got a long way to go. If you liked "Sita Sings the Blues", and liked the fact that you can make copies for all your friends, please consider donating.

"Sita Sing The Blues" has a lot of momentum right now. It's been extremely successful at screenings (you can hold a screening too, if you want), and the famous film critic Roger Ebert wrote a rave review of Sita. The time is right to show what happens when a film of that quality is released freely, in such a way that anyone can do any kind of screening anywhere. We're working with Nina Paley to use this as a platform for advocating copyright reform and freedom of information — and the bigger the audience, the more minds we can reach. Please help!


Sita Standing in Copyright Jail Cell

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):

The full interview can also be played at the Internet Archive, and you can download it from there in a variety of formats.

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. 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.

seal of public.resource.org

Thanks to James Jacobs for sending in a link to the article “He’s giving you access, one document at a time” by Nathan Halverson at pressdemocrat.com. It’s about how Carl Malamud and public.resource.org are defying the state of California by — get this — putting California’s laws online for public access.

You wouldn’t think that would be a particularly controversial thing to do. In fact, you might even expect California to have done so already, and in standard, parseable electronic formats too (as per the Open Government Data Principles). But instead, California enforces copyright over the texts of its laws. Quoting from the article:

California asserts copyright protections for its laws, contending it ensures the public gets accurate, timely information while generating revenue for the state.

“We exercise our copyright to benefit the people of California,” said Linda Brown, deputy director of the Office of Administrative Law, which manages the state’s laws. “We are obtaining compensation for the people of California.”

It’s a great example of how copyright restrictions inevitably spread to new areas, without regard to the public purpose. The logic goes something like this: the law is a text; a text has value according to its usefulness; if a text has value, someone can make money by restricting who shares it and then charging money for a lease on that monopoly; the state always needs revenue; ergo, the state should restrict the spread of its own laws, in order to raise funds! The reasoning is bizarre, almost breath-taking in its audacity. And it leads civil servants to claim, with straight faces, that the state has an interest in denying people access to the text of the law.

What’s most interesting is how clearly this case reveals the old relationship between printers’ monopolies and copyright law. California justifies their copyright restriction in exactly the same way the English Parliament justified the first copyright law: that the public good is best served by profitable distribution, and that means supporting printers by giving them a monopoly.

Of course, that argument made a lot more sense in 1709, when there wasn’t an Internet around to allow zero-cost distribution of public goods :-).

Piracy Is Not Theft

Thanks to Jessica Ferris for sending in this great image by Patri Friedman. How much more simply can one say it? Copying leaves the original untouched, therefore copying is not theft.

It’s interesting to read some of the commentary on Friedman’s post. For example: “This seems like semantic hair-splitting. If I go to some sort of practitioner of whatever and walk out without paying, I haven’t stolen anything tangible, just their time. Is it meaningfully different than if I’d reached into their wallet and removed $60 or whatever? I doubt they’d be any less cheesed off if I told them “actually what just happened wasn’t technically theft, it was something else.” [1]

Friedman’s response is terrific:

It is not semantic hair-splitting. It is a simple, genuine, important difference. Your example indicates that you don’t understand it, which I find weird:

“If I go to some sort of practitioner of whatever and walk out without paying, I haven’t stolen anything tangible, just their time.”

But their time is not a copy. It is irreplaceable. They will never get those moments back. Therefore what you have done is theft. If you used the public record to create an AI simulacrum of the practitioner, and consult the simulacrum instead of the practitioner, that is analogous to pirating the time of the practitioner. (You may be stealing the time of the simulacrum, but that is a separate issue).

The question is not tangibility. The question is whether, after I do ____, someone else then has less of something than they did before. If I “go to someone for their services, and don’t pay them”, they have less time than before. If I ask Google what I was going to ask the professional and so don’t need their services, they haven’t lost anything.

There is a comment relating copyright with trademark law (that’s something that we see all the time; can we come up with an equally powerful graphic to show how they’re unrelated?). And there’s the inevitable comment reiterating the received theory argument, which says that without monopolies people won’t be motivated to innovate. We really need to start countering that one with the point that a monopoly in a given field tends to suppress innovation in that field. And anyway, where’s the evidence? If these monopolies are so necessary for innovation, then why is there no shortage of innovation where monopolies are not given (the fashion industry, say, or cooking).

But all these words don’t match the eloquence of Patri Friedman’s graphic. It’s simple, memorable, and irrefutable.

And no, by the way, I didn’t ask Patri Friedman before posting a copy of the image here. His whole point is that we shouldn’t have to. We credit him and link back, of course, because credit is like time or money, in that when you take it from someone, that person actually loses something. Copying the image while still giving him full credit is exactly in the spirit of his post.

The Beach

Hey everyone: it’s been quiet around here because I’m on vacation for August (and have already been for part of July).

No, this is not because copyright reform must involve long vacations. It’s just that I’m in the middle of a move, and need some extra time to complete it. (But I admit there are a few beaches involved too.) Someday, it will be the case that just because I take a break doesn’t mean QuestionCopyright.org does — but we’re not there yet.

See you in September, and enjoy your summer (or winter, if you’re in the Southern hemisphere).

-Karl Fogel

Ghost Works Survey temporary logo

We’re launching the Ghost Works Survey, and you can help.

The Ghost Works Survey is a project to investigate how often, and in what ways, copyright prevents artists from making new derivative works.

In the article “Seen Any Ghost Works Lately?”, we defined a ghost work as a creative work that never got made, or was made but not released, because copyright concerns prevented it from being started or from being distributed. Since then, informal conversations with artists, publishers and others have made it very clear that such suppression is a common event, much more common than most people think. But the public rarely hears about it, because no one does publicity for a work that doesn’t exist.

The purpose of the Ghost Works Survey is twofold: to demonstrate the scope and scale of this phenomenon by gathering and organizing as much data about it as we can, and to highlight compelling individual stories of artists and other creators who had their work thwarted by copyright restrictions. The survey will not attempt to catalogue every ghost work — there are likely far too many, given that almost every artist we’ve talked to so far has a story of a work they had to alter or lay aside due to copyright concerns. Rather, we’ll focus on qualitative results: we want to collect enough stories to discern large-scale patterns, so we can understand and publicize the effects of copyright suppression. For more information, see the projects page.

If you want to help, or are interested but want to know more before committing, please send an email to:

The time commitment will only be as great as you want it to be — we’ll need help with tasks both large and small. Since much of the project involves receiving and processing stories from artists, our capacity is directly proportional to the number of volunteers: the more people are involved, the more we can do! QuestionCopyright.org can provide technical infrastructure and planning, but there is no substitute for human minds.

We’ll also need some volunteers willing to take on specific responsibilities: for example, a maintainer for a MySpace page and a maintainer for a Facebook page (because we need to make it as easy as possible for people to send us stories).

And we welcome ideas, of course — please leave suggestions as comments on this article.

ApacheCon EU 2008 logo

If you’re in or near Amsterdam in the second week of April, come on over to ApacheCon EU, the 2008 European conference of the Apache Software Foundation. There are a lot of interesting speakers and sessions going on, not all of them technical (for example, “Open Source Business in Europe” by Arje Cahn).

I’ll be giving a talk entitled Creation Myths: Three Centuries of Open Source and Copyright, on Wednesday, 9 April, at 5:30pm. It’s about the similarities between today’s open source movement and the creative world of the pre-copyright era, how copyright and centralized distribution gradually changed the nature of creativity, and how open source and decentralized distribution are changing it back again — but with some new twists. (This is an updated version of a talk I gave last summer at OSS2007 in Ireland.) We’ll also look at some non-software business models based on unrestricted information flow and collaboration.

Slides are here: OpenOffice.org (ODP), Adobe PDF, Microsoft PowerPoint (PPT).