Several years ago I wrote a Scene4 essay titled "Dear Mr. Beckett," concerning the copyright restrictions imposed by the Beckett estate on productions of the dead Mr. Beckett's plays. The essay took aim at what I consider the protection racket that copyright has turned into, which serves, as I believe, "the exact opposite of [copyright's] original purpose. Copyright law now is about figuring out how to keep knowledge out of the public domain and milking it for cash-back for as long as possible."
Yes, I understand the opposing arguments about the need to protect an always fragile ability for artists to obtain recognition for and a living from their efforts, and I don't dispute their analysis. I just don't like the arguments and don't like living under their regimen. I believe there are others ways to do this "making a living" thing, and I'm in support of those trying to build that path.
Such as Nina Paley, the creative team behind the animated Sita Sings The Blues, now making its limited run in theatres. (And I mean a single person "creative team": Paley pretty much did all the work on the film, aside from the voiceovers and music and other technical matters.)
I saw Sita at the IFC in New York -- but you don't even have to go to a movie theatre to see this because you can watch it, for free, on her website, www.sitasingstheblues.com Yes, for free. Here's why (from the home page):
I hereby give Sita Sings the Blues to you. Like all culture, it belongs to you already, but I am making it explicit with a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License. Please distribute, copy, share, archive, and show Sita Sings the Blues. From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes.
You don't need my permission to copy, share, publish, archive, show, sell, broadcast, or remix Sita Sings the Blues. Conventional wisdom urges me to demand payment for every use of the film, but then how would people without money get to see it? How widely would the film be disseminated if it were limited by permission and fees? Control offers a false sense of security. The only real security I have is trusting you, trusting culture, and trusting freedom.
That said, my colleagues and I will enforce the Share Alike License. You are not free to copy-restrict ("copyright") or attach Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) to Sita Sings the Blues or its derivative works.
And now for the "money shot," so to speak:
There is the question of how I'll get money from all this. My personal experience confirms audiences are generous and want to support artists. Surely there's a way for this to happen without centrally controlling every transaction. The old business model of coercion and extortion is failing. New models are emerging, and I'm happy to be part of that. But we're still making this up as we go along. You are free to make money with the free content of Sita Sings the Blues, and you are free to share money with me. People have been making money in Free Software for years; it's time for Free Culture to follow. I look forward to your innovations.
And she says this in the section on showing the film: "People often ask 'Are TV rights available?', 'Are theatrical rights available?', etc. The answer is yes, yes, and yes. You already have those rights. Sita Sings the Blues uses a yes-based distribution model. It is not part of the permission culture, it is part of the yes culture. So if you'd like hold a screening, don't ask first — just do it. (And see here for how to add it to this page). See the license page for more information about Sita Sings the Blues' permissive licensing."
She offers more detail on the site about how money might be made and shared through screenings, distribution agreements, film festivals, PBS showings, and the use of different formats (35mm, HD, DVD) for different screening situations. (The Marvelous Maria-Beatriz and I watched the movie through her computer, which we could have hooked up to our projector if we had wanted it in a larger format.)
I like this whole approach very much, this "yes-based distribution model." I don't know if it's viable. It may be crazy (and crazy-making) to buck the economic tide like this.
But it's equally clear, as the music industry found out, and the book industry is now discovering with the onslaught of e-readers needing e-books for reading, and as newspapers are seeing as that industry spirals into extinction, that what Paley called "the old business model of coercion and extortion" does not map well with a burgeoning web-based world.
Like it or not, every cultural institution has to find a way to re-invent itself in the light of digitization and social media, and there are precious few guideposts for how to do that. As Paley says, "we're still making this up as we go along." And for a playwright like myself, who will never make a living from my craft, what do I have to lose by making my work available to anyone who wants to use it? The "getting done" is just as important as the "getting paid," and the latter should not stand in the way of the former.
As Annette Hanshaw, the singer featured in Sita, says at the end of each of her songs: "That's all."