Byte Rights: Show Business Blues

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This may seem odd, but I’d like to recommend a movie this time. It’s called Sita Sings the Blues . It’s an animated retelling of the Hindu Ramayana interwoven with commentary about the story and the creator’s real life troubles, set to the 1920s-era songs of Annette Hanshaw. I know, not what you were expecting, but trust me. It’s in turns hilarious, lush, sad, and beautiful. It’s worth your time, and it’s free at Sitasingstheblues.com . Go ahead. The rest of the column will still be here when you’re done.

See, wasn’t that great?

Most talk of whether copyright is restricting free expression is theoretical, but for film makers like Sita ’s Nina Paley it’s a real and common problem. Paley read the Ramayana and discovered Hanshaw’s jazz singing around the same time that she lost her relationship, and got inspired. It’s often a bit of music or a shot with something in the background that gets indie filmmakers in trouble, but Paley was particularly stuck.

It’s obvious when you see the film that Hanshaw’s songs are vital. A different movie could have been made, but not Sita Sings the Blues . Hanshaw is older, but not public domain. Paley went ahead anyway, unsure how it would turn out. “If I kill my own art out of fear of them, then I’ve really lost,” she told QuestionCopyright.org. Turned out she couldn’t afford the rights. It could cost up to $200,000 to ever show Sita commercially.

So, more than $80,000 into making Sita with her own money, Paley Creative Commons licensed it and gave it away. As I write, the archive alone had 113,629 downloads, plus who knows how many on the torrents and from other sites. Paley also released the source files for Sita as well as posting it, and others have started to remix her scenes into new things, which she posts on her blog. She says her next project will be inspired by the copyright troubles in her life right now.

I know it’s selfish, but I’m glad Paley ran into trouble. We got a great movie, and the copyright reformers got a great auteur on their side.

Quinn Norton writes about copyright for Wired News and other publications. Her work has ranged from legal journalism to the inner life of pirate organizations.

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