Sita Sings the Blues is Free

Nina Paley‘s gorgeous animated epic Sita Sings the Blues has been in distribution limbo for a while now. Because the film uses the jazz songs of Annette Hanshaw on the soundtrack, Paley couldn’t negotiate a theatrical or DVD release of the film without clearing the rights to all the songs, which turned out to be much too expensive for an independent filmmaker. So although the film had played at a number of festivals, to universal critical acclaim, it seemed like it wouldn’t be available to a larger audience. Until now.

Throughout the convoluted process of negotiating with the copyright holders, Paley has become a champion of copyright reform, and has decided to make the film available under a Creative Commons licence. Because the songs have not been licensed, she includes a page of restrictions regarding their use, but the animation work is free, both in a monetary sense and in a legal sense. Her reasoning for releasing the film in this way?

I hereby give Sita Sings the Blues to you. Like all culture, it belongs to you already, but I am making it explicit with a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License. Please distribute, copy, share, archive, and show Sita Sings the Blues. From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes.

You don’t need my permission to copy, share, publish, archive, show, sell, broadcast, or remix Sita Sings the Blues. Conventional wisdom urges me to demand payment for every use of the film, but then how would people without money get to see it? How widely would the film be disseminated if it were limited by permission and fees? Control offers a false sense of security. The only real security I have is trusting you, trusting culture, and trusting freedom.

This is innovative for many reasons. Firstly, Paley has turned her copyright hassles into a huge publicity campaign for the film, and it’s likely that many more people will end up seeing her work than had her film had a traditional theatrical and DVD release. Secondly, she has put her gorgeous and very personal film, into which she has poured her life for the past few years, at the service of a greater cause. Copyright reform can be a dry and boring subject, but having a real case shows the general public why it is necessary, and how to do it. She’s even set up a wiki on the film’s site and encouraged people to contribute.

Paley promises lots of downloadable formats in the near future, but she also provides a wealth of options for anyone wanting to host a screening, including selling hard drives preloaded with all the raw animation files, 35mm film prints, or HDcam tapes. There will also be posters and other merchandise. Although her strategy is a bit risky financially, I admire her guts and she certainly deserves to be rewarded financially for all of the work she’s put in, both on the film itself and on the campaign to get it in front of audiences. I certainly foresee a number of speaking engagements and interviews in Nina Paley’s future. In fact, I’m already thinking they should invite her to SXSW in 2010 to talk about the whole experience.

Best of all, the film is streaming right now absolutely free at Reel 13, the web site of New York PBS affiliate WNET.

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