Killing Culture Through Copyright?

We have been cheering on the ‘open source movement’ that is spreading across the world. Go through our blog posts and you will see several posts which highlight this movement and its wonders. But today’s blog post is not about another new initiative or how this movement is changing our lives at an increasing pace. The following article, “Copyright Once Again Being Used to Hinder Culture, Not Enable It“, needs to be read to understand why copyright may not be a necessary evil.

I’m still working my way through James Boyle’s excellent The Public Domain, but it’s chock full of examples of ways that copyright holds back cultural expression — and that comes to mind in reading the saga of a movie called Sita Sings the Blues. It was brought to my attention by Rich W, who saw the film at a film festival a while back and loved it. After that, the film disappeared off the radar, but was brought back to some attention right before Christmas, when Roger Ebert wrote a glowing review of it. But, what he discovered is that the film was unlikely to get any distribution because, despite being an animated reimagining of a classic Indian love story, it uses the songs of popular jazz singer Annette Hanshaw, recorded in the 1920s.

To clear the rights for the music, apparently more money than the entire movie cost was required. As Ebert noted:

“Don’t the copyright owners realize they are contributing to the destruction of their property by removing it from knowledge?”

Exactly. Meanwhile, the creator of the film, Nina Paley, has been actively blogging about the ordeal. The attention brought about by Ebert’s endorsement has resulted in the copyright holders lowering their demands, but including some pretty onerous strings that will make it nearly impossible for her to ever profit from the movie (from which she’s already in debt). Basically, if she actually sells copies of the movie, she’ll owe a lot more — but that doesn’t apply to promotional copies of the movie. In response, she’s worked out a convoluted plan, whereby she’ll pay the awful initial fees, but, knowing she’ll never get direct profits from it, she’s working hard to free the film up as much as possible — by putting the entire movie up as a “promotion” on the Internet Archive, while putting it under some sort of open and free license.

From there, she goes on to list out a whole bunch of ways that she hopes to still make money, indirectly, from the success of the movie — even as she’s going into further debt to pay off the music copyright holders. Many of her suggestions for business models will sound quite familiar to folks around here (ancillary products, special limited edition signed products, sponsorships, etc.). It’s a shame she needs to go to these levels just to pay off the copyright holders on these compositions from nearly a century ago — who would only be helped by the success of this movie.

And we do not want to end on a dismal note, so here is another story : “Hemingway archive opens in Cuba“.

The archive includes photographs, letters and manuscripts, as well as an unpublished epilogue to Hemingway’s novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Curators say the files offer an insight into Hemingway’s life on the island, where he lived for 20 years.

Academics and researchers will be able to request electronic copies of the items from Cuba’s Heritage Council.

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  1. susie orman January 12, 2009

    In another sign that China’s slump is serious enough to evoke crisis responses from the officialdom, banking officials there announced that they were relaxing rules on bank bad debt ratios. The objective is to encourage banks to continue to extend credit to borrowers experiencing short-term difficulties who have viable businesses.


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