Sita Sings the Blues is a great, sad movie about a breakup. The creator, Nina Paley, mixes animation styles and narrators, using the story of the Hindu gods Rama and Sita in the Ramayana. It’s beloved by reviewers , but it’s not always easy to see. That’s because the work produced its own drama, that of Paley attempting to get the rights to include the songs of Annette Hanshaw. The issue is the underlying compositions, which are owned by big publishing companies. Copyright on works created before 1978 now lasts a total of 95 years; Congress extended the law mostly at the request of the Walt Disney Company to protect the image of Mickey Mouse.
Copyright is a balancing act. On the one hand, creators should be able to derive economic value from their work. On the other hand, there is a point where a work either becomes useless (such as articles I wrote in 2001 on virtual private network technology) or part of the culture at large. The problem is that now, copyright has extended beyond the creator’s lifetime and probably the lifetime of the creator’s heirs. The big beneficiaries are corporations that have the ability to lobby Congress.
Music publishing, of course, has long been a route to riches, which is why so many publishing companies have ripped off so many naïve composers over the decades. Nina Paley cannot negotiate with the estates of the composers to use their songs, because they do not own the works. The publishing company that does offered to clear the songs for $3500 each, more than Paley could afford to pay. They would not negotiate further, and says on her Web site that she realized that it would cost the publishing company too much in legal fees. (I doubt Sony BMG is relying on Lawyers for the Creative Arts.) Film distributors will not handle Sita Sings the Blues until the copyrights are cleared.
Paley’s solution is to give the film away for free. You can watch it online, or you can buy the DVD. (Netflix carries it if you’d rather rent it.) Sita often appears at film festivals put on by non-profit organizations, and public television is allowed to show it because Congress exempted it from having to pay royalties. Paley is allowed to charge for the physical DVD the same way that Office Depot does, but she cannot charge for the work on the disk.
Paley is now an activist with the Free Culture movement, which promotes the free distribution of creative works. That, I have a problem with. We still need copyright. Creators need to control their works. Popdose doesn’t pay me, but plenty of my clients do. And that is how I pay the mortgage and buy the groceries and keep my child in music lessons and shoes. It’s easy to talk about how artists should work for free for the “exposure,” but people die of exposure. For me, Popdose is a chance to write about pretty much whatever I want, which is not the case with my paid work, and it lets me be part of some broader conversations about politics and culture. But I can assure you, if someone offered to pay me for the same column, I’d be out of here, and I’m not sure Jeff Giles would even try to stop me!
I made a choice to do this, but we should not take the choice away from others. We should not ask living artists to be impoverished because we want stuff for free. Likewise, we should not impoverish our culture because a handful of companies want to make money in perpetuity.
The simplest way to restore the balance is to go back to a shorter copyright period. (Prior to the 1992 extension, copyright lasted for the life of the creator or 70 years, whichever was longer.) Let the creators receive the money while they are alive to spend it. Let the work fall into the public domain so that others can explore it freely as part of our national cultural heritage. And yes, that includes you, Mickey Mouse.