Yesterday I stumbled over a short video clip summarizing the history of the land commonly known as Israel/Palestine/Canaan. Before the 3 and a half minutes were over I found myself laughing uncontrollably due to the sheer tragic comedy of it all.

But (although a fascinating topic) the history of the Middle East is not really what I’d like to talk about today.

Like always when I find noteworthy content on the Net, I follow the breadcrumb trail for more. So I clicked through to the website of the creator, Nina Paley, and found that she’s not only (successfully) using Kickstarter to found a current project, but that she created a feature-length animation film called Sita sings the blues which she gives away for free, no strings attached.

This film is an interesting mashup between the legendary Indian epos of the Ramayana, the creator’s personal breakup drama, and eleven songs of the 20ies American jazz singer Annette Hanshaw.

If you’re wondering how that all fits together, well, it does – in its own colorful way, and you can watch the whole movie in HD on YouTube or download it.

After watching the movie I decided to find out more about it and read through the FAQ on the animator’s homepage.

And here’s the interesting bit: The songs used in the film were supposed to be in the public domain (because copyrights naturally expire after a while) but the compositions underlying the songs were far from being copyright-free. Their copyright was “extended by big media corporations for various reasons”.

To legally use the songs in her film, the director (who’s just a normal individual like you and me, not a corporate identity) was asked to pay an average of $20,000 per song, totaling at $220,000 for all eleven songs, a cost far higher than the production of the whole movie!

In the utterly weird way contemporary copyright laws work, she had to borrow $50,000 dollars to decriminalize the film, just for “making it a bit safer” to give it away freely.

All of this begs the question: Why do media corporations put such hurdles on using songs from the 20ies which aren’t creating huge profits for them anyway?

Paley had an interesting answer to that:

The corporations that hold these copyrights are media companies that also control most of the new media that comes out. Estimates vary, but it’s said that 98 percent of all culture is unavailable right now because of copyrights. So the reason they hold the copyrights isn’t because they want to get paid, it’s because they don’t want all the old stuff competing with the media stream that they control now. If you control Britney Spears, people are only going to listen to Britney Spears if they can’t listen to anything else. That’s why I think the system is still in place. There’s so much old good music that people would be listening to now. But if people listened to it, what would they do with the new stuff? If culture were freer, it would compete with people’s time in consuming new stuff.

Driven to an extreme, this theory sounds like a conspiracy, but I have to admit there’s something to it. Personally, I don’t watch many big Hollywood movies, actually I can’t remember when was the last time I went to the cinema to pay for a blockbuster. One reason for that is that there are simply too many preferable alternatives, whether it’s independently produced movies or classics whose copyright has expired.

I’ve always questioned copyrights, not just regarding other people’s content, but also when it comes to the piracy of my own work, and while it’s obvious that artists and content producers have to be able to earn enough to keep going, draconian copyright laws and lawsuits in the end just tie the hands of their proponents, while more and more people are using digital tools to shift from being content-consumers to content-creators.

img: Nina Paley