Sita Sings the Blues Enters the Public Domain

Via: Sita Sings the Blues.com
Via: Sita Sings the Blues.com

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!

The One and Only Reason We Don’t See More Diverse Animated Films

 The Secret of Kells most definitely counts as diverse animation.

On Sunday, Nora Lumiere posted a very passionate call to arms with a wonderful post that expounded the very many areas that we have yet to see in theatrical animated form. Far from a wistful wishlist, it’s a well thought out look at the various genres and styles that are rare or unheard of in animated form.

Hinting on the success of Tangled’s “painterly” style, Nora rattle off style after style that could easily be used on a theatrical scale today thanks to modern technology.

The only caveat with her post is that she is speaking for theatrical animation. We already see plenty of diversity in shorts for the simple reason that they are inherently more independent examples that are created at the whims of the animator themselves. Nora touches upon one reason why we don’t see more diverse animated films (emphasis mine):

It’s time to dare to push the animation envelope and break out of the children’s toy box.  Forget about box-office profits for a minute, hire some innovative scientists and adventurous animators to research new artistic software.

Ah, therein lies the dilemma. As much as we like to think of theatrical animation as an artistic market where the dreams of the artist make it to the silver screen, that is the view that is presented to the great unwashed masses. who truly believe that Hollywood is a “dream factory”.

Not to say that Nora’s post does not acknowledge this, it does, however the fact remains that no matter how right she is, unless there is enough (notice I said enough, not any) money in it, the main studios won’t touch it.

The Big 6 will only ever play within a safe set of boundaries when it come to films because they are incredibly risk averse, and justifiably so. If you were coughing up in the region of $500-600 million (including promotion/marketing) you’d be making princess movies all the time too.

That’s the current problem with the way things are set up at the moment. Independent, inspiring and mould-breaking movies are well within arms reach. Sita Sings the Blues was done by one person, ONE! Why on earth don’t we see many more films like that? The simple answer in this case is that Nina Paley busted her butt and her bank account to get the film made and released. There aren’t too many people who are willing to make that kind of commitment, let alone do it regularly.

Since cost/risk is arguably the main problem when it comes to genre-defying films, there is a logical argument that subsidies could be a potential solution. This is true, certainly in the case of The Secret of Kells, which benefited from a few grants from the European Union and tax credits from the Irish government.

Such subsidies are the sad reality of the style of films that Nora calls for. They are too risky for mainstream, commercial studios, but they clearly have more than enough potential to succeed based on their many merits.

That is the reason why we don’t see more diverse animated films. The unholy mix of risk and cost which combine to make most films that are outside the mainstream too much of a hot potato. Hopefully in the future, as traditional distribution shenanigans break down, we will see more daring films that push the envelope.