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Opening Statements

No Longer Singing the Blues


Watch Sita Sings the Blues.

When filmmaker Nina Paley learned she would have to pay more than $200,000 to license the music that her film Sita Sings the Blues was made around, she questioned how she could ever pay for the rights when that cost exceeded her entire budget.

Paley soon found an ally in QuestionCopyright.org, an advocacy group that is part of the small but growing alternative-to-copyright movement. The group’s mission is to change public opinion about traditional copyright law by showing how the existing system harms artists and audiences, says Karl Fogel, who serves as the group’s president.

Fogel thinks culture ought to be free for distribution, copying and derivative uses. This model would not only allow artists to make more money with their work but encourage more art as well.

Copyright skepticism isn’t altogether new, says American University law professor Michael Carroll, but it’s growing as digital technologies empower more people to be more creative and communicative.

“One source of recent copyright skepticism among digital enthusiasts is their feeling that large-copyright owners are using the law to maintain yesterday’s business model rather than working with their fans and customers to embrace the creative potential of new technologies,” he adds.

Paley’s Sita was the perfect platform for Fogel to prove his point.

After Paley was able to negotiate the music rights for her film to $50,000 per 5,000 units sold, she and Fogel devised a distribution plan for the movie that incurred few, if any, royalty fees for the music: The movie can be downloaded for free. In exchange, Paley asks fans for donations.

So far, Paley has raked in some $30,000 from fans—almost all in $10 increments. She’s also making money—an estimated $25,000 to date—selling an artist’s edition DVD of the film and Sita T-shirts through QuestionCopyright.org’s website.

Paley, for her part, says Fogel has converted her. “Had it not been for these horrible struggles, I never would have become aware of free culture. Now I’m never going back.”

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