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Sita Sings the Copyright Blues

Boing Boing, Roger Ebert, and the Tribeca Film Festival all love Nina Paley's brilliant cartoon, which links heartbreak, the Ramayana, and 1920s jazz. Copyright law, though? That's another story. Find out why.

First things first. Sita Sings the Blues is a completely unique animated feature, mixing up personal pain, heartbreak, the boop-boop-a-doop jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw, and the epic Indian poem the Ramayana. A painstakingly-animated passion project for director Nina Paley, Sita is the sum of five years of work and a touching story that showcases a disarmingly bright talent. It is safe to say that there is nothing quite like Sita playing at the multiplex. (It is also a film that some people obsess over—a coworker saw it at last year's Festival and proceeded to preach the gospel of Sita anytime somebody mentioned anything almost related to it.)

So, for a film that's won lots of awards and honors—including the Gotham Awards' Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You—and that has played scores of festivals, including the Berlinale (where it won a Silver Bear) and the Tribeca Film Festival, why can't the average moviegoer see it?

The answer, of course, is quite complicated for a tiny handmade indie film made by a "scrapster," to quote Paley. And that's where things get interesting. Media luminaries like Boing Boing, Roger Ebert, and the New York Times have written extensively about the modern absurdity of Paley's plight, and what it reveals for artists, copyright, and the work that they want to make.

The use of Annette Hanshaw's recordings—and the exorbitant prices that Paley does/may owe to companies like Warner Brothers, EMI, and others—is what got Sita into trouble (or "copyright jail") and has left it virtually unseen until now. On the phone with Paley, who just got back from the Independent Spirit Awards (where she was nominated as Someone to Watch, and ended up "at an accursed table with a lot of nominees but no one won"), she explains further: "I was researching the copyright on the Hanshaw recordings when I was working on Sita. Just because copyright issues meant that there were going to be problems didn't stop me from making the film. I knew what I was doing might be civil disobedience, and it might turn out to be otherwise. It's very complicated and it's like a game of telephone when people are writing about it."


Songs come with a set of four rights: publishing rights, master rights, mechanical rights (cover a song and pay nine cents per unit to the Harry Fox Agency, and you're okay), and sync rights. The sync rights—the right to use the composition synchronized with a moving picture (in this case, Hanshaw and Sita)—are what's costing Paley. "It's not Hanshaw's estate, it's not even the issue of her voice. It's the compositions, which all belong to the big corporations right now. They've all been traded. None of the money [that Paley needs to pay to distribute Sita] is going to the artists. The only time that the companies go after you is if you're making money. At the time that I wanted a distributor, I went to the companies to clear it, and they wanted $20K-26K per song. Plus an additional cost for a festival license."

"I don't want a distributor anymore," says the animator.

Paley, inspired by the free-software movement, has decided to go a different route than distribution, whether through a company or doing it herself. She's giving her film to the audience, after paying an argued-down fee of $50K for sync rights. This fee is so that Paley can "give the film away for free. They might sue me anyways. If I want to protect myself and give it away for free I would have to pay $220K."

The key to Paley's route is the Internet: "I'm giving it to the audience so they can distribute it. Audiences are eager to share this stuff. We're making it available in as many formats as possibile. It's going to be all un-encrypted. No digital rights management allowed. No one's done this before. This is the complete opposite of what anyone's trying to do. Hopefully this will's only going to be carried by people sharing it and word of mouth. There's no time limit on it. It's forever."

Paley's plan starts with Sita's airing on New York PBS station, Channel 13, on Saturday, March 7, at 10:45 pm. It will also be streaming on Reel13's website beginning Thursday, February 26. (PBS stations can clear music. There's a special section of copyright law that's in there specifically to cover them.) After that, Paley says the film will be available online under a Creative Commons license. She doesn't expect to make any money on this plan for getting Sita seen. Rather, Paley's working on ancillary products (art, t-shirts), which will be available on her site. "Audiences are likelier to pay for something if they know that the artist is getting [the money]. They buy t-shirts at concerts because they know that the band is getting the money. Audiences really want to support artists."



Sita Sings the Blues will be available on the Reel13 website starting tomorrow.


Catch it on Channel 13 on March 7.


Check Nina Paley's official website for Sita updates.


Paley sat down for a 40-minute interview with
Click here to catch up.


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