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Nina Paley

Open Culture

Nina Paley’s Sita Sings The Blues, released online a little over two months ago, has been generating great press and even greater viewership, closing in on 70,000 downloads at alone. For the non-inundated, there is great background information on the film at Paley’s website.

We recently had the opportunity to talk with Paley about the film – we touched on the film’s aesthetics and plot points, but perhaps most interesting to those in the CC community is Paley’s decision to utilize our copyleft license, Attribution-ShareAlike, and her thoughts on free licensing and the open source movement in general. Read on to learn more about the licensing trials and tribulations associated with the film’s release, how CC has played a role, and Paley’s opinions on the Free Culture movement as a whole.

RamSitaGods, Nina Paley | CC BY-SA

One of the major stories surrounding Sita Sings The Blues been your use of songs by musician Annette Hanshaw and the back-and-forth dialogue you have had with the copyright owners as a result. Can you explain why you used these songs?

The songs themselves inspired the film. There would be no film without those songs. Until I heard them, the Ramayana was just another ancient Indian epic to me. I was feebly connecting this ancient epic to my own experiences in 2002. But the Hanshaw songs were a revelation: Sita’s story has been told a million times not just in India, not just through the Ramayana, but also through American Blues. Hers is a story so primal, so basic to human experience, it has been told by people who never heard of the Ramayana. The Hanshaw songs deal with exactly the same themes as the epic; but they emerged completely independent of it. Their sound is distinctively 1920’s American, and therein lies their power: the listener/viewer knows I didn’t make them up. They are authentic. They are historical evidence supporting the film’s central point: the story of the Ramayana transcends time, place and culture.

What is this story? Sita is a goddess/princess/woman utterly devoted to her husband Rama, the god/prince/man. Sita’s story moves from total enmeshment and romantic joy (Here We Are, What Wouldn’t I Do For That Man) to hopeful longing separation (Daddy Won’t You Please Come Home) to reunion (Who’s That Knockin’ At My Door) to romantic rejection (Mean to Me) to reconciliation (If You Want the Rainbow) to further rejection (Moanin’ Low, Am I Blue) to hopeless longing (Lover Come Back to Me,) back to love – this time self-love (I’ve Got a Feelin’ I’m Fallin’).

Sita’s role is to suffer, especially through loving a man who rejects her. Women especially connect emotionally to her story and these emotions are clearly expressed in songs. As Nabaneeta Dev Sen writes in “Lady sings the Blues: When Women retell the Ramayana”:

But there are always alternative ways of using a myth. If patriarchy has used the Sita myth to silence women, the village women have picked up the Sita myth to give themselves a voice. They have found a suitable mask in the myth of Sita, a persona through which they can express themselves, speak of their day-to-day problems, and critique patriarchy in their own fashion.

Sen is talking about the songs of Indian village women, but she could just as easily been talking about American Blues. That is the point of Sita Sings the Blues: we all struggle with this story, which connects humans through time, space and culture, whether we’re aware of it or not. Just as the Ramayana has mostly been written down and controlled by men, the songs in Sita Sings the Blues were mostly written by men; but sung by a woman – Hanshaw – they pack an emotional wallop and express a woman’s voice.

The synchronicity of the Hanshaw songs and Sita’s story is uncanny. This impresses audiences and allows the film’s point to be made: the story of the Ramayana transcends time, place and culture. Because the songs feature an authentic voice from the 1920’s, they demonstrate that this story emerged organically in history. New songs composed by the director, while they could be entertaining, could not make that point. They would be a mere contrivance, whereas the authentic, historical songs give weight to the film’s thesis. They are in fact the basis of the film’s thesis, irrefutable evidence that certain stories – like the story of Sita and Rama – are inherent to human experience.

Upon reading the above, Karl Fogel added:

Using something that already exists demonstrates that the universality of your theme is external to yourself. Whereas causing something new to exist wouldn’t achieve the same effect. Instead, it would be circular: it would demonstrate that the artist has the ability to make more of what she’s already making. So rather than being connective or expanding, it would be narcissistic (just in a descriptive sense, not necessarily a pejorative one).

There has to be a reason so many composers, even non-Catholic ones like Bach, set the Latin Mass to music instead of making up their own words. (Hmm, now imagine if those words had been monopoly-restricted… 🙂 ).

What has your experience been in trying to get permission it use Hanshaw’s music in the film, and the current state of affairs?

Because distributors were going bankrupt right and left in 2008, it was no longer possible to sell an indie film to a distributor for big money and then “have them take care of” the licenses. Since in February of 2008, when the film premiered in Berlin, I was not yet a Free Culture convert, I thought I needed a conventional distributor. So it fell on me to clear the rights. I had to pay intermediaries to contact the license holders, since they don’t speak to mere riff raff like me; they’re too busy, and under no obligation to do so. Even before that, I needed legal help to research who owned the rights in the first place, since there’s no central copyright registry any more, and rights are traded like baseball cards between corporations. Luckily, I was aided by the student attorneys of the Glushko-Samuelson Intellectual Property Law Clinic of American University.

Anyway, in 2008 a lawyer charged me $7,000 to get this response from the licensors: an estimate of $15,000 to $26,000 per song, AFTER I’d paid a $500 per song Festival License. (Festival Licenses last one whole year and require a promise to not make any money showing the film. So a festival license isn’t enough to get the “week-long commercial run” required for Academy Award qualification. Now that “Sita”‘s been broadcast, she will never qualify for an Academy nomination; if I’d really wanted one, I would have had to delayed the release of the film for another year. But I digress.).

Even though we made it explicitly clear the entire budget for the film was under $200,000, the licensors came back with the “bargain” estimate of about $220,000. It was simply not possible for me to acquire that kind of money. So legally, my only option was to not show the film or commit civil disobedience.

I hired another intermediary, a “rights clearance house” which is less expensive than a lawyer, and they negotiated the “step deal” I eventually signed. This brought the price tag of the licenses down to $50,000, but with many restrictions. If more than 5,000 DVDs (or downloads) are sold, I must pay the licensors more. I wrote about this at length on my website.

I borrowed $50,000 to pay these licenses for several reasons. First, to reduce my liability. I may still be sued for releasing the film freely online – after all, the licensors may interpret free sharing as “selling” for zero dollars – but I’ll only be sued for breach of contract, not copyright infringement. Copyright infringement carries much harsher penalties, including possible jail time. I also wanted to make free sharing of “Sita” as legal, and therefore legitimate, as possible. Sharing shouldn’t be the exclusive purview of lawbreakers. Sharing should – and can – be wholesome fun for the whole family. I paid up to indemnify the audience, because the audience is Sita’s main distributor.

So it’s now legal to copy and share Sita Sings the Blues. The files went up on in early March 2009 and have spread far and wide since. Having paid off the licensors, I could have chosen conventional distribution. But I chose a CC BY-SA license to allow the film to reach a much wider audience; to prohibit the copyrighting – “locking up” – of my art; to give back to the greater culture which gave to me; to exploit the power of the audience to promote and distribute more efficiently than a conventional distributor; and to educate about the dangers of copy restrictions, and the beauty and benefits of sharing.

As a result of the trouble you’ve had in regards to Annete Hanshaw’s music, you have turned into a self-proclaimed Free Culture activist. Was this shift gradual? What has that experience in particular informed your views on copyright, fair use, and the public domain?

Annette Hanshaw was immensely popular in the late 1920’s. Now almost no one’s heard of her. Why? Because of copy-restrictions.

I met many talented filmmakers on my “festival circuit.” Most had conventional distribution deals, but it’s very hard to see any of their films, which had small, brief theatrical runs, and then were never heard from again. Why? Copy-restrictions.

I’m an artist. I need money to live, but even more importantly I need my art to reach people. A $10,000 advance in return for having my work locked up for 10 years is a devil’s bargain. More than anything, I wanted people to see my film – now and in years to come.

My turning point in choosing a CC license happened in October of 2008. “Sita” had just opened the San Francisco Animation Festival, and I’d disclosed to the audience we’d all just done something illegal. It’s always great to share the film on a big screen in a theater with an audience, and this one was particularly enthusiastic. The next morning I woke up realizing that a free release online wouldn’t in any way prevent theatrical screenings. Why had I never considered that before? Because the film industry insists people won’t go to theaters if they can see a film online. But that’s not true of me, nor many cinephiles. When I lived in San Francisco my favorite movie outings were to classic films at the Catsro: 2001, Nights of Cabiria, Modern Times, Mommy Dearest. These are all available on home video, but I went to the Castro for the big screen and the dark room and the shared experience. If enough people watched and liked “Sita” online, there’d be demand for it in cinemas. And so far that’s proving true.

In particular, how have you viewed CC licenses in this whole process? What was your motivation to release Sita Sings the Blues under a CC BY-SA license? Why did you choose that license and not another CC license? What are the obstacles and benefits you’ve seen in using CC licenses?

I want my film to reach the widest audience. It costs money to run a theater; it costs money to manufacture DVDs; it costs money to make and distribute 35mm film prints. It’s essential I allow people to make money distributing Sita these ways and others; otherwise, no one will do it. So I eschewed the “non commercial” license. Share Alike would “protect” the work from ever being locked up. It’s better than Public Domain; works are routinely removed from the Public Domain via privatized derivatives (just try making your own Pinocchio). I didn’t want some corporation locking up a play or TV show based on Sita. They are certainly welcome to make derivative works, and make money from them; in fact I encourage this. But they may not sue or punish anyone for sharing those works.

I looked to the Free Software movement as a model. The CC BY-SA license most closely resembles the GNU GPL, which is the foundation of Free Software. People make plenty of money in Free Software; there’s no reason they can’t do the same in Free Culture, except for those pernicious “non commercial” licenses. A Share Alike license eliminates the corporate abuse everyone’s so afraid of, while it encourages entrepreneurship and innovation. Everyone wins, especially the artist!

What else would you like our reader’s to know? Any plans for the future?

I’d love you all to read my essay Understanding Free Content and of course watch the film!

I’m currently busy making “containers” like DVDs and T shirts available now at our e-store. QuestionCopyright is my main partner in releasing Sita; we’re trying to prove a model in which freedom and revenue work together. We know other filmmakers are watching what happens to Sita, and we’d like to show that yes, you can make money without impinging on everyone else’s freedom.

I’m also negotiating with theatrical distributors in France and Switzerland, as well as a couple book publishers. I’m negotiating not “rights” to the film, which belong to everyone already, but rather my Endorsement and assistance. To understand how this works, please read about the Creator Endorsed Mark.

Once I have the Sita Sings the Blues Merchandise Empire started, I hope to work on short musical cartoons about free speech – you can hear one of the songs here. There’s more where that came from. Really, I have more ideas than I have time to implement them – a happy yet vexing problem.

I also hope to have all my old Nina’s Adventures and Fluff syndicated comic strips scanned and uploaded at high resolution onto under a CC BY-SA license. The University of Illinois Library is currently seeking funding to move ahead on this project – interested individuals should contact Betsy Kruger.

Lastly, I’m still looking for money, although the Sita Sings the Blues Merchandise Empire should be generating some in a few months. Still, I plan to apply for grants and fellowships. Any foundations with too much money burning a hole in your accounts, please get in touch.

Nina Paley, anonymous | CC BY-SA

Posted 03 June 2009