March 01, 2009

Two Copyrights Can Make a Wrong

Sham pulp culture buried in time
True pulp culture there to be plundered

I stopped by Pharyngula this morning, as I usually do on Sunday mornings, to see whether there were any questions for the radio show. There weren't, which was fine. We got more questions during the show than we could fit in.

What was at Pharyngula was a link to a feature-length animated movie by Nina Paley.

"Aha," I said to myself, "That's what she's been doing!"

I used to read Nina's Adventures (here's a fun one), and I missed their cheerful cynicism, so, discovering that she had a blog, I decided to play a little catch up.

I didn't find quite what I'd expected. Instead, I found another lesson in why the current U.S. copyright law hurts artists:

Even with the $50,000, I still may not be able to clear all the songs. So far only Warner-Chappell and EMI have informally agreed to those terms, but they haven’t issued contracts yet, and they can still change their minds for any reason. The rest of the rightsholders are under no obligation to agree. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, will they work with me or against me?

What's the big deal, right? Of course she has to clear copyright on the music in her movie. Well, yes, but the copyrights she's clearing are for 1920s jazz songs. The singer is dead, the writers are dead, but the corporations that now own the rights live on. And on and on.

For three years, Paley's been working to be able to distribute this film built around music older than anyone who's going to read this post. And so, another artist I admire is supporting


We pay our artists next to nothing to feed our minds and our hearts. How much can we afford to charge them for the materials they need to do it?

Jane Yolen (whose views on copyright I don't know), tells a story about a letter she received from an elementary student. This student had been assigned Jane's book Wizard's Hall and had noted several similarities between Wizard's Hall and the Harry Potter books. Indignant, the child asked the teacher whether J. K. Rowling was going to sue Jane for ripping off Harry Potter.

The teacher suggested the student look at the respective publication dates.


Now the student wanted to know whether Jane was going to sue J. K. Rowling.

Jane suggested, with the patient gentleness that is one of her charms, that if Rowling wanted to send her something for the idea, she wouldn't turn it down. But no, she wasn't going to sue.

She could, perhaps, have sued, but (back to my opinions) what would have been the point? Harry Potter wasn't terribly original, but that wasn't why kids loved it. In fact, kids adored some of the least original parts of the books: the magic wands, the lonely orphan, the staunch friendships, the classic British boarding school format, the rivalries, the rebellion. If Rowling had insisted that every part of her book had been untraceable in modern children's literature, would anyone have read it? And what would have happened to all those kids inspired to read had Jane sued?

If Harry Potter doesn't seal the argument against long copyrights for you, try reading Will Shetterly's fable, "The People Who Owned the Bible."

But when his Lulabelle ran off with a Bible salesman, Jimmy retired to one of his mansions and refused to let anyone print any more Bibles or use the Bible in any way that raised money.

The surviving churches sent delegates to Disney, begging them to get Congress to shorten the copyright period to put the KJV back in the public domain. But Disney had picked up the rights to a Restoration revenge tragedy that looked like a great vehicle for Britney Spears, so they made a counteroffer.

It's funny as hell, but how far is it really from what would happen?

Nina Paley could use your help to get this movie fully free from its copyright issues. You can go see whether you think its worth the help. She needs donations to pay off the record companies. She needs server space and bandwidth for distribution. She may still even need a lawyer. There's just one thing she's asking you not do.

Many more formats will be online by March 7th, the day Sita Sings the Blues airs on WNET TV (part of Reel 13 on March 7 at 10:45 pm). These will be higher resolution and free to copy and share. If you want a copy, please wait for the higher quality formats instead of capturing the very compressed streaming version. As the artist, I want the highest quality versions to circulate; it’d be sad if a super-compressed capture started torrenting first. Together, we can keep quality high!

So please don't distribute the film yourself--not yet.

So check beneath your fingernails
In between your toes
Right between your earlobes, darling,
That's where culture grows


Will Shetterly said...

I didn't expect to be mentioned! Aw.

Jane's actually quite conservative on copyright, but she's not stupidly conservative. She likes the idea of long copyright periods because she thinks of her work as an asset for her kids. At least, that was what I gathered the last time we talked about copyright periods.

But she completely gets that some things inspire other things, so she's not about to go crazy suing people.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Believe it or not, Will, I completely forgot you might read this when I pointed people at your fable. I just like it and wanted to get more people to read it. That, and I wanted to illustrate the post by building the argument out of things other people have said. :)

That's about where I figured Jane was on copyright, based on a few of the things she said around the time of the last SFWA kerfuffle on the topic. I just hadn't seen a clear public statement from her on the topic. Thanks.