Sita Sees the Light
By Rose Hess
Self-proclaimed “America’s Best-Loved Unknown Cartoonist”, Nina Paley is the writer, director, animator and producer of Sita Sings the Blues. It took Paley five years to complete the feature length film based on The Sitayana, a story in the Hindu epic The Ramayana. The film combines different animation techniques and a wide range of music, including traditional Hindu music and Annette Hanshaw recordings. The music sets the tone of the three parallel tales of the Sitayana: the traditional Hindu story of Sita, the 1920’s inspired tale and segments from Paley’s own life. After spending time in obscurity for copyright issues, or as Paley termed “copyjail”, the film has gone on to garner numerous awards and has been shown in theaters all over the world.
It was the Annette Hanshaw recordings from the 1920’s that posed the greatest barrier to Sita Sings the Blues’ initial release. Paley saw the story of Sita as a timeless and universal tale: the music combined with the images gave credibility to the universality of the story. The Annette Hanshaw recordings were non-negotiable; the recordings had to remain for the artistic integrity of the film. Upon investigation Paley found the recordings were in the Public Domain under Federal Law, however under an older New York Law they were still subject to copyright restrictions. In order to clear the film’s rights fully, Paley was asked to pay $220,000.
Instead, Paley, working with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Glushko-Samuelson Intellectual Property Clinic at the Washington College of Law, negotiated a Step Deal with the a rights clearance house to free Sita Sings the Blues. Both the Foundation and the Clinic provide pro-bono assistance on Intellectual Property Issues. The step deal did not clear the songs entirely, but decriminalized them for a fee and future payments based on units sold and box-office sales. The cost of decriminalization including legal fees was $70,000.
Formerly a copyright believer, Nina Paley questioned the purpose and utility of current copyright law to creative artists and eventually released Sita Sing the Blues under a Creative Commons License, known as Share Alike (CC-by-SA) or Copyleft. The Share Alike Copyleft License allows the public to share content by copying, distributing and transmitting the work, including remixing the work by adaptation. Under the Share Alike Copyleft License, the public has created Sita greeting cards, stickers, festivals, fashion shows and earrings, which are all derivative works Paley encourages. Paley sees these derivative works as free market research into what Sita Sings the Blues products the public will buy. The Share Alike Copyleft License does not allow for any derivative work to be copyrighted. The Share Alike Copyleft License allows Paley to incorporate these derivative works back into official Sita Sings the Blues products.
The decision to release Sita Sings the Blues under the Share Alike Copyleft License was motivated by Paley’s desire to show that copyright was no longer necessary. Paley cites digital technology as the main reason copyright laws are increasingly draconian and require congressional reform. Paley asserts copyright law, intended to protect publishers and distributors, did little harm to the public prior to digital technology because there were few publishers. Now everyone can be a publisher. The biggest proponents of copyright extensions are the copyright monopoly holders, not the creative artists.
Paley believes that copyright is a good way to ensure obscurity. Copyright creates a false monopoly by putting a limit on an unlimited good, creativity. If a creative work is restricted by copyright, less people can share and see it. Paley found that contrary to the dominant view, the market works great without the limits of copyright. Under the copyleft model, the movie is freely available online on Youtube and for the iPhone. Sita Sings the Blues and merchandise can be purchased from the Sita Distribution Project at the QuestionCopyright.org where Paley is an “artist in residence,” and can be further distributed by anyone who is willing to pay the per unit release price.
Nina Paley has found that under this model she has made more money then under any traditional model of copyright approved distribution and has managed to reach a wider audience. Anyone wishing to distribute Sita Sings the Blues need only pay the per unit fee to copyright holders outlined on Paley’s website. The result has been multiple distributors fighting in the market, while Paley receives income every way. Additionally, making the movie free has not slowed down DVD sales. The market has shown that audiences are very interested in supporting artists by paying for the container of otherwise free content they enjoy. Meaning the public will pay for a quality DVD case or other Sita Sings the Blues related merchandise regardless of the free movie’s availability. While others are handling distribution, Paley is free to negotiate contracts and endorsements without needing to negotiate rights. Endorsements allow Paley to collect more revenue, but are difficult with multiple distributors. To address endorsement, Nina Paley has turned to the Creator Endorsed Mark. The Creator Endorsed Mark, is a new service trademark that is, as of April 2010, not yet registered. The Creator Endorsed mark, enables the “content is free and the container is not” model Paley has been following.
By placing the Creator Endorsed Mark on official Sita Sings the Blues products, the Creator Endorsed Mark designates to the public the origin of the work as from the creative artist. People who buy Sita merchandise baring the Creator Endorsed Mark contribute directly to Paley. Even with the infinite number of distributors the Copyleft model allows for, Paley remains the largest distributor as the market has shown the public prefers to support the artist directly then to go to a third party for the same content. This makes the Creator Endorsed Mark vital to the creative artist’s revenue. Paley believes this is strong evidence that the laws surrounding trademark serve both the public and the creative artist a better purpose then the current copyright law. Creator Endorsed product sales have been the source of Sita Sings the Blues‘ continued rescue from “copyjail”.
Nina Paley is now working with Questioncopyright.org, making short animated films on free culture and intellectual freedom. Some of these films can be viewed on the Questioncopryight website. More information on Sita Sings the Blues and Sita merchandise can also be found and purchased there.