Sita Sings the Blues is an animated film filled with the strange and unlikely: American jazz age music provides the soundtrack to an ancient Sanskrit epic; the deeds of heroes are brought down to Earth by the nattering of shadow puppets; and a love story that's inspired generations is the backdrop to a modern tale of heartbreak.
Film critic Roger Ebert calls it enchanting.
Dancing moons, monkey musicians, a half-dozen animation styles, all the result of three years of work by Brooklyn-based cartoonist Nina Paley, who wrote, directed and produced the film.
And perhaps the strangest and most unlikely aspect of Sita Sings the Blues is that Paley is giving it away.
You can download it here.
Or watch her dazzling colours and animation techniques in high definition.
Paley is releasing the film in many formats to give it maximum exposure. She estimates Sita cost her about $80,000 plus $50,000 for the rights to the music (more on that shortly) and $160,000 in living expenses.
So, why the generosity?
"I thought about it a good long time before I did it," Paley said in an email to CBC news. "The decision was motivated by both stick and carrot. Stick: the conventional distribution system isn't working any more; independent filmmakers make virtually no money via commercial distributors anyway; copyright today functions as censorship. Carrot: letting people share the film gives it the widest possible exposure and outsources the otherwise expensive and laborious work of distribution, archiving and promotion to the audience; freedom feels great."
Make a donation
Not that she wouldn't mind a donation. The Questioncopyright.org website has made it easy for fans to donate to help Paley with her bills. Because, behind Sita 's story of supernatural struggle lies a titanic clash over copyright.
Much of the soundtrack to Sita is provided by the music of Annette Hanshaw, the 1920s singer who popularized Am I Blue?. The copyright on her recordings was never renewed, but in the U.S. at least, elements of the work remain protected. The rights holders initially wanted a lot of cash before Paley could release her film. Eventually, they came to an agreement: if she paid $50,000 for the rights, she could release as many as 5,000 copies of Sita on DVD. Promotional copies would be exempt.
And that's why Sita is free. It's a promotion.
Some have suggested that Paley should have negotiated the rights before finishing the film. She feels now that the technology has finally arrived to allow a person to make a feature-length film of their own, the copyright laws often prevent independent filmmakers from having their films released.
"I would do nothing differently," said Paley "It costs money even to talk to the copyright holders; when we tried approaching them directly, they gave us the runaround. So, I had to pay a rights clearance house (and a lawyer before that). I didn't have that money back when I started, any more than I have it now. And licensors offer no special discounts for contacting them early. The only 'deals' they make are because someone knows someone who knows someone. That's how the middlemen stay in business. I had other things to do, like actually make the film, and I had no money. I'm glad I focused on making the film."
Since she released the film on the internet, Paley has earned some money by selling Sita merchandise.
'The more I let go, the more money seems to be heading back toward me. There's enormous untapped power in the audience. ' — Nina Paley, filmmaker
"[Sita] has only been free for two weeks now, but I can see a big increase in demand for purchasable items like DVDs and T-shirts," she said. "Now, I'm scrambling to make those available. Hopefully, people will still be interested in a month or so, when these products are finally ready. To anyone else considering doing this for money: make your purchasable products available at the same time you free the work! Use the unlimited resource to sell the limited resource."
Make your own Sita
You might be wondering if Paley is so critical of the copyright laws, what's protecting her from having her stuff used by someone else? If that's what you're wondering, Paley is so far ahead of you, she's out of sight. She's selling autographed hard drives containing all the Sita files for $500 US. And you're free to remix your own movie.
"If I could give out hard drives for free, I would, but it happens they cost money and are a pain to load up, so I'm selling them," says Paley. "Of course, anyone who gets one can make and sell additional hard drives without my signature. Most fans buy merchandise to support the artist, so they may want to get a drive from me anyway; and many like limited edition collector's items, which my signature adds to it."
"At some recent festival screenings, I've announced to the audience: 'You can download this film for free!' And then crowds rush up to buy signed DVDs. If I were better at merch, I'd be a lot closer to solvency now. There's still time, though."
Before becoming a filmmaker, Paley was a syndicated cartoonist for years and says the copyright laws never benefited her as an artist then either. But she does support the creator-endorsement model as an alternative. Under that scheme, if someone does make money with Sita Sings the Blues or related merchandise and decides to share their profits with Paley, they can stick a "creator-endorsed " logo on the product to show customers they support the artist.
"The more I let go, the more money seems to be heading back toward me," said Paley. "There's enormous untapped power in the audience. "
Paley says she's received threats from Hindu fundamentalists for appropriating the plot of the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana, for her film. She says they have something in common with the big media corporations in that they believe they own culture. Not surprisingly, her copyright battles have inspired her next project: Minute Memes. She hopes the one-minute films on copyright law will untangle unauthorized copying from stealing and plagiarism.
"I hope to bring the laws of physics back into discussion of copyright law," Paley said. "I want my ideas to reach as many people as possible, and free is the way to do that. The goal of Minute Memes is education, not profit.".
By making her work so freely available and consequently vulnerable to borrowing, remixing or parody, Paley seems ready to take her art into uncharted waters.
As Sita/Hanshaw would sing:
Though we haven't got a bank-full,
We can still be thankful:
Here we are.