Sita Sings the Blues Enters the Public Domain

Via: Sita Sings the
Via: Sita Sings the

Nina Paley has jumped through so many hoops for her feature film Sita Sings the Blues that at this point, she may as well have her own circus. The latest tribulation was caused by, of all people, the National Film Board of Canada, who requested rights for referencing Sita in a film being made by Chris Landreth (amusingly, a bunch of Candians apologise for the NFB’s actions in the comments of the original blog post). Nina, fed up with having to fill out paperwork rendered useless by the Creative Commons license she placed Sita under promptly moved it to the public domain.

If you’re not familiar with Nina’s struggles to make Sita Sings the Blues, I highly encourage you to check out the FAQ page that details pretty much every aspect of the film. (The section of interest to today’s post is the copyright section a wee bit down the page.)

Long story short, Nina was forced to pay enormous sums for the right to use the music she wanted to for the film. The experience turned her into a free culture activist and resulted in her releasing the film online for any and all to view and share.

The Creative Commons License

Initially, Nina released the film under a Creative Commons license that permitted sharing and derivations provided attribution was given and that the resulting works were placed under the same license.

This particular license has numerous benefits insofar as it maintains the link between the work and the creator and ensures that their work is not placed under a restrictive license that runs contrary to the CC one.

Now that Sita Sings the Blues is in the public domain, anyone and everyone can see, share, remix, alter and otherwise do what they please with it without having to adhere to any restrictions. It was a regrettable final step that Nina felt forced to make though.

The Problem

What Nina ran up against wasn’t so much that people didn’t want to use Sita or screen it, but that some of those that did, couldn’t see around the fact that they could without needing to go through the usual legal channels. The result was that they simply decided not to use it altogether.

That represents a significant problem for those of us who wish to see copyright reform. Traditional copyright is too severely restrictive in terms of permitting others to see and use creations but the CC licenses negate certain rights in favour of imposing others. I.e. you can use this film, but you must release your work under a similar license. That can turn a lot of potential users off as they may not share similar views on copyright.

This question of copyright is not unknown throughout the animation universe (pioneer Fred Seibert acknowledged as much a while back) but what is unknown is how to rectify it satisfactorily.

Creators naturally wish to be compensated for their hard work (because everyone has to eat) but the digital era has rendered traditional copyright much harder and prohibitively expensive to enforce. The result is that even the largest corporations fail spectacularly and even then that is after millions are spent on legal fees to fight infringements.

I use a CC license for all original content posted on this blog, but the written word is much easier to attribute than a visual image let alone moving animation or artifacts in the background.

The Solution

With Sita Sings the Blues in the public domain, the regrettable result is that someone could take parts of it and place them under traditional copyright without needing to attribute Nina or even acknowledge her as the creator. Such a possibility harms her as well as her work.

What is needed is multi-layered system where there are various levels of restrictions placed upon works. Those who prefer traditional should receive it, but for a markedly reduced timeframe (say 10 years) with the possibility for a single renewal. Those that wish to let their work spread around a bit could use a CC-esque license but that is simpler than what we have today and with standard attribution methods. Lastly, the public domain should remain as it is because it is too valuable to lose altogether.

Believe it or not, the current system is far more complex than the one I just described and what results is that people cannot be bothered to navigate it. Attitudes play a part, although it is important to note that while plenty choose to ignore CC works because of restrictions, many more simply ignore copyright’s ones altogether; effectively rendering it a pointless idea anyway.

Creators need to be aware of these issues because ultimately, attitudes will change. Networks that decline to screen a film like Sita because of the lack of an “exclusive” license will have not choice; they will either be driven out of business or the playing field will be levelled to such an extent that competition will mandate it.

Creators must be willing and ready to adapt to whatever new system presents itself and to capitalise one it. Sita’s entry into the public domain is merely the opening salvo of the long battle over content that is about to begin.

Does copyright get your goat up or are you out to smite the filthy pirates? Let us know with a comment!

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