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Sita Sings the Blues

Perhaps more interesting than any of the questions Nina Paley’s animated film, Sita Sings the Blues, raise about the human condition is the controversial question surrounding it’s creation. Simply, do attempts to protect intellectual property rights stifle creative development?

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Nina Paley’s critically acclaimed feature-length animated film, Sita Sings the Blues, is finally available for the world to see. Perhaps more interesting than any of the points the film raises about the human condition and human relationships across cultures and time, are the questions implicit in the circumstances regarding its creation.

The film weaves together the story of an Indian epic,Ramayana, with the music of 1920s singer Annette Hanshaw. Though it had received rave reviews on the film festival circuit and from Roger Ebert, for the past year it has been unable to find a distributor due to the use of copyrighted material in the film’s soundtrack. Paley finally found a solution in early March by broadcasting the piece on PBS, which is legally exempt from paying royalties for the use of music. Paley simultaneously managed to obtain the right to distribute the film herself following its public television debut, negotiating from the previous figure of $200,000 to a mere $50,000, which she paid out of her own pocket.

The issue of intellectual property here is far from being cut and dry. The recordings Paley used in her film are no longer protected by copyright but the musical compositions are. The licensing fees do not go to the singer’s heirs, but to large corporations, benefiting none of the actual creative minds behind the music. The usual arguments for intellectual property rights, contingent upon the protection of an artist’s ability to receive monetary compensation for his or her work, are not particularly applicable. While many would say that Paley made an amateur’s mistake by creating the film without first asking permission for the rights to use the music (and using the threat of choosing an alternative score as a negotiating tactic), Paley has argued on her blog and in interviews that this is an issue that stifles creativity and innovation.

The Hanshaw songs are central to the plot and development of the story of Sita. The project grew organically from the combination of Paley’s own failed marriage, her identification on a personal level with the figure of Sita, and the emotional connection forged during her divorce with the lyrics and melodies of Hanshaw’s songs.

“Telling me not to use the songs,” she says, “was like telling me not to make the movie at all.” It’s easy to see how Paley could come to that conclusion; the words of the songs meld perfectly with the action on the screen and the themes explored in each scene. The message of the film is deeper than merely a recounting of a tragic Hindu myth or a self-indulgent comparison between Paley’s life and a work of literature. The Hanshaw lyrics remind the viewer that women have been abandoned and mistreated by their partners throughout time, that no matter how awful things might seem, someone else, somewhere, whether in prohibition-era America or Ancient India, has experienced the same situation.

The message of the film is one of synchronicity and fellowship. The project is both deeply personal and universal, and carries an ability to deeply affect the viewer in a way that a more calculated, less intuitively-made piece couldn’t. Certainly, if Paley had altered the film to use different songs rather than fight to use the original score, the film would be a radically different piece.

The most significant question raised by this controversy is if attempts to protect intellectual property rights stifle creative development. Should a creator who has been inspired to create a heartfelt piece of art be required to delay production or abandon a project entirely in order to negotiate potentially unaffordable licensing fees first? And is the situation different if the original artist has passed away, versus work created by currently living artists who could still stand to profit from royalties? The law on the matter is fairly clear: Paley was in the wrong and paid the $50,000 price. But from an artistic and ethical standpoint, is it detrimental to our culture to make it so difficult to engage in creative dialogue with pre-existing works?

There are no simple solutions to this problem. It’s a difficult balancing act between protecting artists from theft and allowing other artists to create derivative works. The answers are certainly not found in the film itself, and are difficult to parse from the controversy surrounding it. The only definite message that can be taken from Paley’s struggle in distributing her film is that something about the current system is broken and needs to be examined closely. Paley, however, remains optimistic about alterative methods of distribution. The movie can be watched online at at no cost. Paley expects that those who appreciate the film will donate money through the site to pay off the debt incurred releasing the film. She writes, “My personal experience confirms audiences are generous and want to support artists. Surely there’s a way for this to happen without centrally controlling every transaction. The old business model of coercion and extortion is failing. New models are emerging, and I’m happy to be part of that.”

2 Responses to Sita Sings the Blues

  1. Karl Fogel says:

    Re: “It’s a difficult balancing act between protecting artists from theft and allowing other artists to create derivative works.”

    I’m not sure the rhetoric of “balance” works here.

    Copying isn’t theft, and derivation isn’t theft. If you make a film from of my book, nothing is diminished and no one loses anything: my book still exists, and your film exists too. It’s not a zero-sum game :-).

    One can steal socks. When socks are taken, then one person is missing their socks, and some other person has socks they didn’t have before. But songs and texts and movies aren’t like that. Trying to apply the physics of real objects to virtual ones just results in needless limitation.

    There’s a myth running around that copyright was invented to subsidize creativity, and that it’s how artists make a living. But it wasn’t invented for that purpose (it was designed to subsidize *distribution*, that is, the printing business in early eighteenth-century England), and most artists don’t make their livings from copyright.

    So our task is not to “balance” the needs of the public against the needs of artists. They’re on the same side, really. The question is rather, do we want to balance the needs of artists and audiences against the needs of the centralized distribution business model? When put that way, the answer may actually be cut-and-dried: no, we don’t. When a business model results in censorship — as this one regularly does, Nina Paley’s film being an exception only because she was unusually stubborn — then it’s time to chuck the business model.

  2. ray says:

    I happened to see this film at the International Film Festival last year and I’m glad I did. It’s a fantastic movie and I’m glad I went to see it. Despite having paid to see the movie, I donated some money anyway through her site.

    ” The recordings Paley used in her film are no longer protected by copyright but the musical compositions are. The licensing fees do not go to the singer’s heirs, but to large corporations, benefiting none of the actual creative minds behind the music. ”

    Interesting twist… I simply assumed that everything about the songs were still protected by copyright. This goes to show how ridiculously outdated copyright laws are.

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