Nina Paley knew she was bucking the prevailing wisdom when she released her animated feature film under a copyright license so liberal that it was just shy of putting the film in the public domain. The surprise came when her film, Sita Sings the Blues , grossed more than six times more in its first year than any distributor had offered as an advance.
While trying to market the film, one reputable distributor told her that she might realistically expect to make $25,000 over a 10-year contract, perhaps $50,000 in her wildest dreams. The highest advance she was offered by a distributor was $20,000.
Rather than sign with a distributor, Paley opted to work with nonprofit organization Question Copyright. They made digital files freely available on the Internet, relied on word-of-mouth and modest promotion to spread its name, and then counted on audiences and exhibitors wanting to be on the artist’s side.
The model they chose is meant to encourage sharing and makes the artist the focal point, but not the exclusive owner, of economic activity surrounding the work.
The approach was a huge success. From March 2009 to March 2010, “Sita Sings the Blues” brought in $132,259, nearly $75,000 in donations and voluntary fees from screenings and broadcast, $12,500 from awards, and $45,000 in merchandise sales from the film’s website. The film is meant as a contemporary take on the “Ramayana,” and parallel’s Paley’s breakup with her husband.
“I fundamentally believe you cannot own art and treat it as property,” said Paley.
Instead of using traditional copyright, “Sita Sings the Blues” is covered by a Creative Commons “Share Alike” license, which allows any commercial or noncommercial use, even making derivative works, with no legal obligation to share the proceeds with Paley. The license requires only that Paley be credited as the original creator and that no one place additional restrictions on her work.
Paley’s contrarian view of copyright came partly from her experience in securing the rights to use the music of 1930s American singer Annette Hanshaw. Although Hanshaw’s recorded songs are in the public domain, the compositions are still under copyright. Paley was enchanted when she discovered Hanshaw’s relatively unknown work and believes copyright actually helped keep her songs obscure.
“I did not want that to happen to my film,” said Paley.
She ultimately borrowed $70,000 to secure the rights to Hanshaw’s songs. The copyright owners were unwilling to negotiate a lower price, even though putting the songs in a film would arguably increase their commercial value by making them better known. According to Paley, “The cost of having their lawyers negotiate a new agreement would have been more than the fees they were charging.”
Her close encounter with copyright convinced her it creates a commercial monopoly that does more harm than good for artists.
“Having a monopoly on your work will inhibit your ability to profit from it,” Paley said. “Mostly it restricts access to your work. These days, now that the cost of distribution is approaching zero, if you restrict access to your work, the main party you will harm is you.”
Karl Fogel of Question Copyright sympathizes with artists who believe unauthorized copying online has pulled the rug from under a social contract where they would sell or rent rights to their work and share in the profits.
“What I think is not appreciated by enough authors yet is that deal is simply one possible deal of many,” Fogel said. “The invention of the Internet meant that the world is no longer signing on to that deal. Authors who recognize that sooner are going to do better.”
“Most artists do not make their livings from copyright,” Paley said. “Most artists, if they make a living at all, make their living through commissions, grants, work for hire, and donations.”
Paley believes publishers, music companies, and film distributors need to embrace a new role. “There is still plenty of work for middlemen to do if they want to help enable works to reach audiences,” she said. “The current business model is based on gatekeeping, on preventing works from reaching audiences unless they pay. Those business models have to change.”
According to Fogel, audiences are showing that they are ready to enter into a completely new way of relating to creators: “The Internet, as well as making all that copying possible, makes it so much easier for people to directly support the artists they love [through donations and merchandise].”
“Nina recognized that, and she has successfully entered into a new bargain with her fans that is incompatible with the old control mentality. Instead, it said ‘I give you freedom, I give you my blessing, go forth and multiply my works,’” he said.
Rich Bailey is a freelance writer living in New York City. He writes about urban design, the arts, and sustainability. To read more of his articles, visit www.richbailey3.com.