Lessons Wrong and Right

From today’s ASIFA-SF Newsletter by Karl Cohen:

After interviewing Normand Roger about sound design and using original music, I became aware of somebody who chose to use prerecorded music without first clearing the rights to use it. It can be a costly mistake if you want your work seen by the public.

I asked a film distributor what are the person’s options about getting a film out without having all rights to the music cleared. He said, “They are screwed. Over and over filmmakers use music they should never use without getting the rights. The music owners now figure they have to pay whatever they ask. Or change the music. That is what must be done. Compose some original stuff. No distributor will take it on without proper music rights. Even if the filmmaker puts the work online for free they can be sued and brought down by the music owners. They need to go to Lawyers for the Arts.”

I don’t want the lesson others take from Sita to be “don’t do that!” My hope is that Sita shows that yes, you CAN do this. The film violates some immoral and unconstitutional laws, but it EXISTS. If I’d followed all the rules, the film would not exist. If you take a lesson from Sita, let it not be to fear creative expression; let it be that US copyright laws are broken. Don’t use it to teach fear; use it to teach that, with some courage, anything is possible in art.

All film classes, film professors and film “experts” are adamant about not working with any cultural artifact whose rights aren’t cleared in advance. Clearing rights is a byzantine and prohibitively expensive proposition out of reach of all but the wealthiest productions – poor independent artists are shut out of this “required” step. Nonetheless, people who should know better encourage budding artists to self censor; to crush their own ideas before they are born in fear of possible litigious consequences. Rick Prelinger of archive.org calls this “internalizing the permission culture,” and it is a sure way to stifle, if not kill, creativity.

I am outspoken about the wrongness of today’s copyright laws that keep so much American history out of the Public Domain, and other copyright laws that criminalize certain forms of speech (such as computer programming) and criminalize millions of Americans for sharing culture. I was aware that working with existing compositions – compositions that were supposed to be in the Public Domain in the mid-1980′s – could lead to hardships when the film was done. I’m not saying, “boo hoo, poor me, how could this have happened?” I’m blogging so much about Sita‘s legal situation because I want people to know what’s wrong with the laws. Big Media Corporations rely on peoples’ ignorance to continue pushing worse and worse bills through Congress.

An artist’s job is to make art. I understand that many people in “creative” fields like animation aren’t artists but craftsmen, and if their primary goal is to make money off their craft, then indeed they should be warned away from taking risks. But I want to appeal to the artists out there: be free. Start with your own mind. Your job is to make art, not self-censor. Others may try to censor you, threaten you, sue you, imprison you; but that is their sin, not yours. Please don’t commit these crimes against yourself. Let them do it if they must, but don’t assist them in your own oppression. Please stay free.

3 comments to Lessons Wrong and Right

  • Radhika

    Nina, hats off to you for pulling off Sita. we just saw it this afternoon at the Vancouver Film Fest and we saw Mike’s name on the list:-)on the whole business of copyright, i was music supervisor for my friend’s thesis film in 2005 (USC thesis). The laws are insane-why does anybody need a 99 year copyright? and the worst part is that in many cases it is not the individual artist who holds the copyright anymore, it is some entity, progeny (who ought to be doing their own work rather than living off dad or mom’s creativity) or other multinational. aaaaaaaaaargh!

  • Nalini

    I saw your film here in Washington DC last week, and LOVED it! So witty and charming and imaginative. I wish you and your film all the best in your uphill battle against the copyright laws that seem to be preventing “Sita” from getting seen by the larger audiences it so deserves.

  • Wow!! Nina, you are so inspiring and courageous, and I love this post. I will try to stay free and make art :)

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