Blog By Barry

January 14, 2009

Award-Winning Film Can’t Be Distributed Because It Used 80-Year-Old Music

(You can download higher-quality versions of the above trailer here.)

I’ve been a fan of Nina Paley’s comic strips for years, but I didn’t know she’s also an animator. Josh Jasper recently gave me a head’s-up about her full-length, unreleased film, “Sita Sings The Blues.” It’s a bit hard to describe what the film is about, although Roger Ebert, who absolutely loved it, gives it a try.

She begins with the story of Ramayana, which is known to every school child in India but not to me. It tells the story of a brave, noble woman who was made to suffer because of the perfidy of a spineless husband and his mother. […] Paley synchs her life story and singing and dancing with recordings of the American jazz singer Annette Hanshaw (1901-1985)[…] In San Francisco, we meet an American couple, young and in love, named Dave and Nina, and their cat, named Lexi. Oh, they are in love. But Dave flies off to take a “temporary” job in India, Nina pines for him, she flies to join him in India but he is cold to her, and when she returns home she receives a cruel message: “Don’t come back. Love, Dave.” Nina despairs. Lexi despairs. Cockroaches fill her apartment but she hardly notices. One day in her deepest gloom she picks up the book Ramayana and starts to read. Inspiration begins to warm the cold embers of her heart.

There are uncanny parallels between her life and Sita’s. Both were betrayed by the men they loved. Both were separated by long journeys. Both died (Sita really, Nina symbolically) and were reborn–Sita in the form of a lotus flower, Nina in the form of an outraged woman who moves to Brooklyn, sits down at her home computer for five years and creates this film.

The 80-year-old recordings by Annette Hanshaw which Paley used in her film are now in the public domain. But the songs themselves are not, and the owners — who are large corporations, not the songwriters — demanded about $20,000 a song (about $220,000 total) up front before they’ll give permission for the film to be commercially distributed or sold on DVD — much more than Paley is ever likely to profit from the film, if it’s distributed. (Paley may get them to agree to “only” $50,000 for a limited-run DVD release). Negotiating that much has cost Paley about $10,000 in legal fees.

(Paley has offered to pay royalties from the film’s hypothetical profits, but the music corporations don’t find that acceptable.)

The supposed purpose of copyright law is to encourage artists to create. “Sita Sings The Blues” shows how copyright law fails to achieve this purpose. Rather than encouraging Paley to create, the law makes it as hard as possible on her. And for what? Does anyone believe that the people who wrote Hanshaw’s songs, 80+ years ago, would have chosen not to write the songs had they known that almost a century later, Nina Paley would use the songs in an animated film? Does anyone believe that Annette Hanshaw would have preferred that her songs not be listened to?

It’s not just Paley who loses out. It’s us, as audience members, being deprived not only of a chance to see “Sita Sings The Blues,” but also deprived of the chance to see the films or comic strips that Paley could currently be putting her energy and money into — energy and money that is instead being diverted into trying to get permission to legally distribute “Sita.” Furthermore — much against Paley’s wishes — her story is now being used as a cautionary tale, telling artists to limit themselves, to censor themselves before the big corporations do it to them.

Copyright has become, for artists, principally a barrier to creation.

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1 Comment »

  1. Wow, that was enormously fun to watch. I had heard raves about this movie, but hadn’t actually seen bits of it until now. Nina Paley rocks.

    When did you start blogging over here? And why? Who are you? The real Barry Deutsch would have more cartoons on this blog. I suspect an impostor. Where is Barry? Are you some pod person? Is the real Barry just an energy bar for the duplicate? BARRY! IT’S NOT REAL! TAKE THE BLUE PILL! Or is it the red one? I get confused.

    Comment by Kevin Moore — January 14, 2009 @ 2:39 pm


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