Free as in Phreedom

Cultural value is related to monetary value, but they are not synonymous. Just as air has more value when it circulates freely, culture is more valuable when it is shared.

Consider the value of language (which is culture). The more people use any particular language, the more valuable it becomes. A scarce language is far less valuable than a common one like English. The more people speak English, the more desirable English becomes; the more songs, books, films, and other communications are produced in English. The value of a language comes from those who use it.

But suppose we commodify language. I’ll start. Let’s say I’m granted a monopoly on the letter “F”. I could have patented a big letter like “E” (12.702% frequency) or “T” (9.056%), but my aspirations are modest. At 2.228%, “F” is below average frequency, so it shouldn’t be any major hardship if I start collecting a royalty of, say, 20 cents per use. Even a pauper can afford $.20 to splurge on an “F” from time to time. And they will! Because you can’t spell “FUN” without “F.” Not to mention “FREEDOM”.

(Since my permission is required for any use of “F,” I won’t permit its degradation in uses I don’t approve of. That word that ends in “uck,” for example. That won’t be allowed under any circumstances, to protect the integrity, quality and reputation of my letter.)

Assigning monetary value to an intangible is the first step towards having its real value recognized. All those other, un-patented letters suddenly seem worthless in comparison. How valuable can “A” (8.167%) be, after all, when you can get it for free? “F” is clearly worth more, or I wouldn’t have invested in privatizing it.

Yet in spite of its clear monetary value, my letter seems to be showing up less and less phrequently. Gradually people adopt cheap phakes instead oph the real thing. They phind a way to spell “PHREEDOM” without paying me.

Soon, the letter “eph” is so scarce, no one recognizes it. Like Avestan, Elbasan, Old Uyghur, and the Dodo, “eph” goes extinct.

And that is the dipherence between cultural value and monetary value.

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Sita almost free!

Chris Carlson of Diamond Time sends this news:

“we are all approved across the boards with the exception of Memory
Lane Music, who only have a small piece of the song, Mean to Me.”

It will take many months to actually get the contracts from them, and I still need to raise about $45,000 to pay for this limited permission, but films are customarily released right after approvals; Sita Sings the Blues is more or less decriminalized at this point. So it’s time to release her! I have to update the credits and sound designer Greg Sextro is doing some final tweaking of the audio, but we’re hoping to have the film online and free under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License in about a month.

There’s a ton of work that needs to be done: web design, database set-ups, scanning documents, ideally having some ancillary products ready to go (who wants to make open-source merch? talk to us!),  an automated system to give credits to donors….much more work than I can do alone. We’re trying to build a new model for film distribution, one that respects the audience and rewards sharing and freedom. Want to help? Please come to QuestionCopyright.org’s open meeting this Monday February 2 at the Software Freedom Law Center in New York.

See also: Sita’s Distribution Plan.

Your Children Are Not Your Children

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;

For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Khalil Gibran, from The Prophet

Likewise, your Art is not your Art. It too belongs to Life.

Copyright terms were initially 14 years – about the time it took to raise a child to adulthood. After 14 years (or 18 years now, we’ve extended legal infancy) parents really have to let go of their children, and acknowledge they don’t “own” them. In fact they never did.

So it is with Art. An artist nurtures a work from an invisible little idea into a form that can stand on its own. But eventually they have to let go of it. Letting go is essential for the growth of both the “child” and the “parent.” Parents who don’t let go of their children never mature; children who are never released wilt. 14 years is a long time to “own” a child…50 years is ridiculous. Imagine changing your kid’s diaper for 50 years! And life plus 70 years is simply obscene. Would you want your kid beholden to your rotting corpse? Would you rather it belong to your corpse than to Life?

Sita’s Distribution Plan

Dear Audience,

That Roger Ebert article has brought a lot of attention to Sita‘s plight, and you are responding awesomely, as always. Audience, I trust you. So it’s time for me to share with you my distribution plan for Sita:

197px-copyleftsvg.jpg

First I must decriminalize it to the tune of about $50,000. That’s down from the $220,000 the rights-holders initially quoted. However, that “bargain” price comes with many strings: a “step deal.” This stipulates that for every 5,000 home video units sold (DVD or download sales or on-demand sales) I must pay another $750 per song, meaning $8,250, plus middleman fees (lawyer or negotiator – I’ve already been billed about $10,000 just trying to negotiate with these corporations). Also for every $1million at the box office, I must pay another $3,500 per song, or $38,500.

To put that in perspective, after theaters, distributors, agents, etc. take their cuts and deduct their costs, $1million in theatrical receipts would trickle down to about $30,000 to $80,000 for me. Luckily(?) it’s very unlikely to ever generate that much box office revenue, so I’m safe. DVDs are another story – the corporations measure their fees per unit (it works out to $1.65 per), regardless of how much the DVDs sell for.

But the good news is, promotional copies are traditionally exempted from step deals. Everyone needs to make free promotional copies for reviewers, festival committees, journalists, etc, and those shouldn’t be “taxed” by the licensors.

Which brings us to step two: while making one DVD pressing of 4,999 copies, I will place promotional files of the entire film – at all resolutions, including broadcast-quality, HD, and film-quality image sequences – online at archive.org and as many mirror hosts as volunteer to share it. I will license it either as Creative Commons Share-Alike, or some equivalent of the GNU/Linux license. This will prevent it and any derivative works from ever being copyrighted by anyone. Of course this license won’t apply to the songs, which will remain under copyright by their respective corporate overlords. But clearing the licenses first will decriminalize it, and make it safer to screen in theaters (and theaters will be free to screen it and charge for it without obligation to me). The free online copies are promotional copies.

“But Nina, how will you make money?” The way artists always make money: donations, commissions, grants, patrons, speaking fees. Indie distributors can’t pay anywhere near what it cost me to make the film ($80,000 + $50,000 to clear rights + $160,000 living expenses over the years I made the film + my TIME) but they do lock up the rights for 10+ years. In the Digital Age, distributors function primarily as a barrier between artists and audiences, prohibiting access rather than facilitating it.

I’m betting that you, audience, can find me more money – and certainly wider distribution – than a commercial distributor could. I get wonderful emails from people like you, people who offer to set up little fundraising screenings, who write good reviews, and do lots of things to help. Audiences are so eager to help distribute films! Old-school commercial distributors not only ignore the power of the audience, they actively fight it, calling it “piracy” and “theft” for example. And the audience comes up with much better ideas than I or a distributor could (I didn’t think of doing fundraising screenings, you did). And once I free the film, I won’t have to do any more work on it! You, the audience, can take care of everything.

Here are some ways I imagine copylefting Sita could generate some income for me:

1. Direct donations (aka voluntary payments, aka “pay-what-you-wish”)

2. Ancillary products: t-shirts, pins, toys, books, merchandise. Under a share-alike license these will be open-content as well, but there is little incentive for competitors to invest in producing such merch when it is already available (and much incentive if a certain product is not available, which is good). Any companies producing merch could use their sharing profits with me as part of their marketing; fans are much more interested in seeing their $$ go directly to the artist, than being all eaten up by some publisher or distributor.

3. Sponsorships. We expect the film to spread far and wide under a free license, and a sponsoring credit would be excellent publicity for anyone who cares to make it. Corporations sponsor shows on Public Television all the time for this reason (and under the free license, Sita can also be broadcast anywhere. At least one PBS station says they’re committed to broadcasting it.).

4. DVD sales and auctions. Although the film may be downloaded and copied for free, some will prefer an “official” signed DVD from the artist. These could be sold directly by me in a limited edition (of 4,999), and/or auctioned online.

5. Voluntary payments from public screenings. We encourage the film to be shown in theaters, schools, etc. and anyone can set up a screening and charge admission. They may voluntarily send some of the revenue on to me. Most exhibitors already expect to pay something to distributors, and although this is completely voluntary, we expect many will be willing to do this.

6. Selling 35mm film prints to collectors, archives, museums, and (hopefully) distributors willing to try a non-exclusive service model instead of the existing licensing model. Prints cost about $2,500 to make; I could sell them for $5,000 each. This also outsources the expensive work of archiving.

7. Probably many more that we just haven’t thought of yet!

Now dear audience, if you’ve read this far, what do you think of this? Maybe some of you want to help. Here’s some help I could use right now:

Money
I’m about to take out a $50,000 loan, and am already deep in debt from having to hold on to the film. But obviously I can’t guarantee I’ll make it back. Donors and sponsors will, as always, be acknowledged in the credits of the final version. Big donation? Big credit. Plus I can modify the “intermission” scene to include messages from really, really big sponsors – like $50,000 sponsors – so get in touch if you’re interested. Questioncopyright.org is hoping to arrange Fiscal Sponsorship for the Sita distribution project, so that you could get a tax write-off by donating to them. They would pass the whole thing on to me without skimming any of it (most nonprofits skim 7 to 10%). Questioncopyright.org is AWESOME.

Even with the $50,000, I still may not be able to clear all the songs. So far only Warner-Chappell and EMI have informally agreed to those terms, but they haven’t issued contracts yet, and they can still change their minds for any reason. The rest of the rightsholders are under no obligation to agree. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, will they work with me or against me? Hence my next request:

Is there a lawyer in the house?
I mean a good, progressive, Free-Culture-oriented lawyer. Right now we have questioncopyright.org‘s legal counsel, whose experience lies in Free Software. The California-based Electronic Frontier Foundation hasn’t yet agreed to help directly (maybe they’ll change their minds!) but is looking for additional pro bono legal help for me here in New York. The coolest legal work seems to be in Software; I haven’t yet found anyone in Entertainment Law who really gets it. But if you’re out there, please get in touch! Let’s make a Sita Legal Defense team.

Love,

–Nina

Watch me go on and on (and on) about copyright!

See me babble away on my current favorite subject, copyright and what’s wrong with it, over at questioncopyright.org. Here’s a sample:


Yes, the video is squished horizontally, because it was in DV format but uploaded on square pixels (I can’t wait until everyone just uses solid-state progressive-scan cameras). Also the audio is way compressed – it thoundth like I’m lithping. But the ideas come through.

This interview was conducted by Karl Fogel on November 6, 2008, at the Software Freedom Law Center in New York.

Dead Lawyers by John Weldon

Mr Deity

My friend John in Oakland turned me on to this video, which explains the power of prayer:

Catch the whole series at Mr. Deity.com

“fairies are forever”

As we know from the US Constitution, copyright is permitted

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts

This was supposed to be for limited Times, but Big Media corporations like Disney have managed to extend copyright terms continually. How are their efforts promoting the Progress of Science and useful Arts?

Fairies!

disney-fairies.jpg

That’s right, the way for the new Disney Fairies franchise has been paved by Disney’s tireless efforts to secure endless copyright extensions. Limited copyright terms would conflict with their “Fairies” business plan:

Mr. Iger said he singled out the Fairies line as a potential blockbuster in part because longevity would not be reliant on the aging of human stars, as is the case with “Hannah Montana” or “High School Musical.”

“As everyone knows,” Mr. Iger said, “fairies are forever.” (link)

Unlike nasty ol’ human beings, who age, and nasty ol’ constitutional limits to copyright monopolies, today’s copyrights – and the Fairy Franchises they protect – are forever. Let’s hope that’s worth sacrificing freedom of expression for, ’cause this is what “culture” is going to look like for a long, long time.

tinkerbell-3.jpg

 

 

my next project

I’m finally ready to start my next project. It will be about freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and current threats to those traditions, especially our corrupted copyright system. As with Sita before it, “I’ve got a song in my heart and it’s gotta get out.” Also as with Sita before it, I have no idea at this point exactly what I’m going to make or how I’m going to make it, but I know it’s gotta be made.

Will it be another feature film? Or will it be a series of shorts, or a comic book? Whatever its form, I’m thinking it should be free by design. The problem with feature films is they’re still distributed through an old business model that runs counter to freedom of expression. It doesn’t have to be this way forever, but right now bad laws, media consolidation, and “gatekeepers” make the film world work against cultural progress. And I’m all about cultural progress, just like the US constitution:

“To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”(link)

Unlike Sita before it, I am beginning from a place of financial ruin; I am broke and in debt. But I still have my computer, and I have as much time as the project needs. I do need a way to stay alive though. I need money, but NOT through suppressing speech or restricting access to my work, which doesn’t make money anyway. Suggestions? I could:

– ask for donations here
– partner with existing free speech organizations

If the latter, who can help? Where do they get money? Anyone want to partner up with me?

The copyright system has certainly failed me as a means to extract money from my art. Perhaps the old patronage system will work better, especially if distributed over thousands of supporters. Or maybe we should try this? What do you think?

“copyright was designed by distributors, to subsidize distributors, not creators.”

Read more at QuestionCopyright.org. Or continue reading here after the fold – the author, Karl Fogel, actually wants people to read his essay – imagine that! – and therefore grants permission for all to copy it.

Continue reading “copyright was designed by distributors, to subsidize distributors, not creators.”

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.

A Fair(y) Use Tale

Watch this now. It’s absolutely brilliant. And it’s 100% animated!

A Very Bad Time

Infested

These last few weeks have been pretty awful. I am broke and homeless. Time I should be spending working on promoting my film – my only asset, my life’s work – has instead been consumed salvaging what I can from my apartment, bagging things in ziplocs, laundry laundry laundry, carrying stuff up and down and back and forth, throwing things out, calling exterminators, calling the landlord, calling friends, sleeping on a sofa, not sleeping on a sofa, taking showers and immediately changing into more ziploc-ed clothes, more laundry, wiping salvaged computer parts down with alcohol, weeping, talking to other tenants in my now-former building, confronting debt, canceling accounts, checking messages, begging for help, watching red bumps grow on my hands and arms (I have a delayed reaction to bed bug bites; it takes 9 days for the red welts to really blossom, then they linger a long time), reading bedbugger.com, reading craigslist housing ads, weeping some more, et cetera.

Continue reading A Very Bad Time

Meanwhile, at Michael Sporn’s Splog…

…there’s a long rambling and somewhat provocative guest blog by me about 2D animation vs. live action, and the rise of 3D CGI. The comments are taking my mind off bed bugs for a few minutes.

Return of the Stork

npaley.jpg

My short film The Stork went missing recently – in fact its entire host, clusterfunction.com, was alarmingly missing from the interwebs for a while. But it’s back now (whew!), and cluster-functional as ever. Nonetheless, here’s a link for another host, Channel13. (The clusterfunction link can always be accessed by clicking the little picture of a stork head on the right-hand column of this page. Click all the different pictures and see what happens!)

Channel13, like Frederator before them and every other corporate or commercial or just plain big web site wants me, the media creator, to direct my fans to their site for their benefit, throwing in a small bone – you can vote for my film, and if it wins it’ll be broadcast on Channel 13 next Saturday, and I’ll get $500. I can tell you that in spite of countless friends and family voting for the Sita Trailer, it failed to win the “Freddie Award” – meaning some other creator managed to send even more of their friends and family to the site (for free of course). So I’m not very optimistic about “winning,” and I’m pretty ambivalent about these contests, as they exploit small non-commercial fan communities. However, I want both the Sita Trailer and The Stork to be seen by as many people as possible, so I’ll continue to let bigger websites use them as hit-bait under the guise of a contest. I guess. Maybe.

Oh yeah, feel free to vote. Or not.

UPDATE: “Stork” didn’t win, but did lead for a while. Thanks to everyone who voted for it!