Creative Commons

The Creative Commons Conundrum

Copyright is a concept that has, and continues to, perplex many people. The concept of Creative Commons is designed to help address many issues surrounding copyright that are often ignored to the peril of legal liability. In this new media landscape, where can Creative Commons fit into the animation industry and how can it do so while maintaining revenue sources.

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!

Animators and the Law – Copyright

This is the second in a series of posts that take a look at just some of the many legal aspects of the animation industry.

While it is not the be all and end all of the profession, copyright is employed fairly heavily by industry players both large and small and it does affect an animator’s work in some very real ways.

Copyright is defined as:

The exclusive legal right, given to an originator or an assignee to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material, and to authorize others to do the same. Via: Google

The very first thing to understand about copyright is what is covered and what is not. Furthermore, it is important to note that copyright is not a ‘right’, it is a legal privilege extended to creators by the US Constitution.

US Federal copyright law: The Facts

  • Covers anything considered “original works of authorship” (authorship is defined as being the written word, lyrics, melodies, visual works and, for some reason, software)
  • Granted the moment something is put in “fixated form”, no registration with the Copyright Office is necessary.
  • Terms last for 70 years beyond the death of the author or if done under “corporate authorship” terms are 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation (whichever is shorter).
  • Places responsibility on the copyright holder to actively enforce their copyright.
  • Applicable in the US only!

As an animator, how does copyright affect you?

First of all, it depends on the work created. Is it your own idea done on your own time*? If so, then copyright will rest with you. If it is work done “for hire” then it does not.

“For hire” is an exception to the rule that the creator of the work is considered the author or owner of the copyright. It is also called “corporate authorship”. A good example of this is anything you create for a studio. While you created the actual content, you were paid by way of compensation for it and thus the studio retains the copyright for themselves.

As mentioned in the ideas post, copyright only covers actual creations only. So get those ideas down on paper!

Copyright may also affect you when it comes to your personal works. While you are free to use copyrighted material for influence, direction and inspiration, you cannot create works that could be considered as infringing on the original piece. An example would be you creating a CGI panda who is learning the ways of kung fu and calling him Bo; Jeffrey Katzenburg may want to have a word with you about that.

Do My Works Have To Be Covered By Copyright?

No. As important as copyright is, it is also worthwhile knowing that submitting works under copyright is not mandatory. While it is an automatically granted legal privilege, you are quite free (at least in the US) to publish your work under a multitude of alternative methods if you so wish. Alternatives such as the public domain and the various Creative Commons licenses.

Nina Paley is well known in the animation community for the copyright issues that she had to deal with in order to get her self-animated feature film Sita Sings the Blues released. The gist of it is that she wanted to use a particular jazz song from the 1920s but whose copyright holder was demanding $250,000 in exchange for the necessary licenses.

As a result, she has become an advocate for the ideals of copyleft and permitting people to copy, modify and redistribute works without restriction. Sita Sings the Blues has become immensely popular since it was made available online and its popularity has brought Nina worldwide fame, accolades and work.

The post you are reading right now is published under a Creative Commons license with the only restrictions being that you provide attribution and publish any alterations to the post under the same CC license.

If you would like to learn more about copyright, please consult the following websites:

US Copyright Office

Wikipedia article on copyright

Creative Commons


*your own time is defined as being that outside of the office/studio. Creations made on company time can (and have) been considered the property of the company not the individual, so create your personal stuff at home!

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at pay and cost as the relate to animation production.