Turning down Netflix

Sita Sing the Blues has a few Endorsed DVD distributors. In addition to QuestionCopyright.org and myself, there’s FilmKaravan, a distribution collective that handles “downstream” deals with VistaIndia and IndiePix. Their distributions are on amazon.com (I get a much smaller percentage from those than from my DVDs, but they reach a much wider market) and Netflix.

In addition to physical DVD rentals, Netflix offers subscribers instant electronic delivery: streaming movies over the Internet to Mac, PC, Wii, PS3 and Xbox players. Many subscribers conveniently find new titles through this service. It’s just the sort of distribution channel that benefits a small film like Sita. They also pay producers, and don’t demand exclusivity. It’s a good deal all around, except for one problem: DRM.

DRM, or Digital Restrictions Management, is technology “to control use of digital media by preventing access, copying or conversion to other formats by end users.” At best DRM reduces the functionality of computers; at worst it invades privacy and adds surveillance and malware. DRM End User License Agreements (EULAs) force users to surrender rights well beyond what copyright restricts.

In the last few years DRM has grown increasingly pervasive, with little-to-no press coverage. Consumers passively accept it, as proven by Apple’s new “everything-DRM” device, the iPad.

Creators, too, are accepting DRM as a fact of media distribution; offered no alternatives, they lose their ability to even imagine alternatives. DRM, like rights monopolies, is said to be made for creators. But like copyright, DRM is designed to benefit Big Media conglomerates, not artists.

If this type of invasion of privacy were coming from any other source, it would not be tolerated. That it is the media and technology companies leading the way, does not make it benign. (link)

A few weeks ago a content aggregator called Victory Multimedia contacted FilmKaravan:

Netflix has shown interest in carrying your title “Sita Sings the Blues” for Electronic Delivery.  For a 12 month license period they are offering $4,620.00.  You would received $2310.00 no later than 60 days after the Netflix title release date and the balance of $2310.00 will be paid 6 months after the initial payment.

First I asked (Filmkaravan to ask the aggregator to ask Netflix) if Netflix could make a DRM exception for Sita. Unfortunately no such option currently exists in Netflix’s electronic delivery system. Possibly no other filmmakers have even asked for such an option. iTunes used to offer only DRM music, but eventually enough people – including savvy “content providers”? –  demanded DRM-free channels that they now offer DRM-free music for sale along with Defective options (all iTunes movies carry DRM). Filmmakers lag far beyond musicians in understanding the Internet, so it may be a while before Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, and other online distributors allow our “content” in their channels without adding malware and spyware to our films.

I still wanted Sita to be in Netflix’s on-demand system. I want as many people to see Sita as possible; surely many viewers now rely on such a convenient delivery system to explore new films. Anyone who became a fan of Sita this way might still find the film’s web site, and learn how to download a free copy for themselves. Although Sita’s site states:

You are not free to copy-restrict (“copyright”) or attach Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) to Sita Sings the Blues or its derivative works.

I could still grant special permission to Netflix to add DRM to Sita. I asked if I could add a card to the front of the movie stating simply:

Download and share this film from:


The aggregator responded this was not possible, due to a Netflix “no bumpers” policy.

Looking back, I was conflicted because it was hard for me to see the DRM on Netflix’s streaming service as problematic. It’s not as though Netflix is telling anyone they’re “buying” the movies they stream; they’re just “renting” them. “Rental” already implies restrictions and limited use terms. They’re just trying to make the Internet work like the physical world, imposing artificial scarcities to resemble the natural scarcities of physical DVD rentals. We can accept natural scarcities; why not accept artificial ones?

I was so conflicted, I asked my “Facebook friends” for advice. Responses were pretty split. Only a few knew what DRM was, but understood I could be compromising my principles by endorsing its use. Was that compromise significant? Was it time to “rise above my principles”?

Facebook, being a walled garden whose “business model is spying,” is problematic itself; obviously I use it anyway, although I don’t expect it to be around in a few years unless it opens up. Two of my moral guidestars don’t use it out of principle, and I emailed them for advice. Richard Stallman wrote,

I faced the same sort of question today: whether to approve release of my biuography with DRM for the iBad. I said no, because the fight against DRM is my cause, and the iBad is the most extreme attack against computer users’ freedom today.

It is self-defeating to try to promote a cause by supporting a direct attack against it.  Lesser forms of participation in things that you hope to eliminate can be overlooked, but Netflix is something we must specifically fight.  The example you would set by giving in would undermine everything….

We launched an action against Netflix.  We tell people, “Don’t be customers of Netflix.”

So I learned Netflix DRM was “real” DRM, rental or not. DefectiveByDesign.org asks people who rent physical DVDs from Netflix, to protest their DRM-laden electronic delivery service.

It was John Gilmore’s email that hit me where I live:

Don’t post your film via a DRM service.

Insist that Netflix is free to release it without DRM, but they cannot release it with DRM.

Creators keep knuckling under to these media middlemen who push DRM onto end users for their own lock-in reasons.  Like Apple. Like CDbaby.

It will take pushback from creators to change this.  Be the change that you want to see….

I’ve been the “change I want to see” in regards to copyright monopolies. People told me I’d lose everything by copylefting Sita, including all hope of professional distribution. But in fact, some professional distributors became willing to distribute Sita without claiming monopolies over it, and we’re all fine.

I’d still love Sita to be offered through Netflix’s online channels; if they ever offer DRM-free video-on-demand, I hope they remember Sita Sings the Blues.

For now, people will just have to obtain Sita by visiting the vast big Internet outside of Netflix. Most of the Internet still isn’t enclosed by Netflix, or Amazon, or iTunes. Most of the Internet is still Free; I’m doing what little I can to keep it that way. I’m sad to lose the potential viewers who may have found Sita through Netflix’s electronic delivery. But maybe some of those Netflix subscribers will discover the rest of the Internet because of my tiny act of resisting DRM.


Author: Nina Paley

Animator. Director. Artist. Scapegoat.

73 thoughts on “Turning down Netflix”

  1. @Elfwreck, Marco, and others (including Nina!)

    Seriously, I’m not the smartest person in the world. Can you explain to me what exactly Netflix’s DRM prevents users from doing with their streaming content?

  2. re: ” Can you explain to me what exactly Netflix’s DRM prevents users from doing with their streaming content?”

    It prevents someone from capturing it to their hard drive.

    So your next question might be, what could one do with it by capturing it to their hard drive?

    * Watch it offline, i.e. when no internet connection is available (perhaps storing it to watch on an upcoming plane flight, for example)

    * Save it to watch (or watch again) in the future, even if you are no longer a netflix subscriber then, or even if the studio decides to no longer make it available for streaming on netflix (movies disappear from the “available to stream” list all the time).

    * Burn it to a DVD and give it to a friend (or sell it)

    * Make it available on a torrent for other people to download

    I am making no statement about whether these things are good or bad, whether they justify DRM or they do not, I’m just answering the questions about what DRM stops people from doing.

  3. @AnotherScott:
    I don’t mind those consequences, actually.

    It’s the way those results are obtained, that I oppose. To illustrate: I’m all for 35mm cinemas screening “Sita.” You can’t copy a cinema screening to your hard drive either, nor can you burn 35mm to DVD, etc. But cinemas don’t break your computer to make this so. DRM does.

    DRM disables your computer (and invades your privacy) in an attempt to make computers behave like cinemas. I like cinemas. I also like computers. They’re different, and the only way to force computers to resemble cinemas is to break them. If you want your film to have all the restrictions of film, keep it on film. If you put it on the internet, let it be on the internet. Don’t go breaking peoples’ machines and invading their privacy to make the internet resemble film. We already have film. Use it.

  4. @AnotherScott

    Saving the data to your hard drive isn’t even a part of the question here – we’re talking about a stream, which by definition is not saved on your computer. If your complaint about Netflix is that they don’t let you download free copies of movies, I’m afraid I don’t have a rebuttal that could ever satisfy you.


    You’re obviously making a symbolic stand here. That’s fine. But please at least be honest about that instead of claiming that Netflix streaming is “breaking” my home electronics. My computer and my Xbox work just fine and my rights have not been violated in any tangible or meaningful way.

  5. Interesting perspective, Nina. And while I appreciate it, I think you’ve convinced me that I disagree with your stand. 🙂

    It sounds like you feel that content should either be available on the internet without DRM, or it should not be available on the internet at all. If the big studios had your philosophy of “If you want your film to have all the restrictions of film, keep it on film” then most films would simply not be available online, period. Would that really be better? For that matter, they would not be available on DVD either, since DVD usually has a form of DRM as well. Would we really be better off, if the only way we had to see most movies would be to see them in the theater, or wait for them to be on TV? People today can *choose* to view movies only in such non-DRM environments, but does that justifying arguing that everyone else should be denied the ability to make that choice for themselves?

    I, for one, am glad Netflix offers all those streaming movies. No one is forcing me to watch them, I can simply choose not to use the service if I want to avoid the DRM. But I would not want to deny everyone else the ability to see those movies at home, just because I choose not to. I think it is better that the movies are offered with DRM than not offered online at all, which seems to be what you’re suggesting is preferable if the content owner wants to maintain film-style restrictions, which you seem to agree are not, in themselves, necessarily unreasonable.

    I am curious, though… in what way does Netflix’s DRM harm the computer? I checked the link to defectivebydesign, and the closest thing there was that it stops the computer from being able to do something it would otherwise be able to do (i.e. save the movie to the hard drive). Is that it? This sounds to me like child-prood caps. They designed a bottle cap such that, otherwise perfectly good working hands would no longer be able to open the bottle. Yes, defective by design. But to say that the caps have harmed the children’s hands (because they prevented them from doing something they would otherwise be able to do) is quite the stretch. Am I missing something here?

    And I’m not sure, but I think the other part of your beef is really with EULA, not against DRM, no? Which, I suspect, means that not only should your movie not be available on Netflix, but probably should not even be available to people running Microsoft WIndows, which also comes with a substantial EULA. But I guess you have to make the statements where you can. 🙂

    Personally, what bugs me is when I BUY a DVD, I have to sit through endless nonsense screens, studio logos, fbi warning, etc., when my FF button tells me “Operation Not Permitted” — What the heck do you mean not permitted? Talk about crippled by design. Bring back VHS! At least all the buttons worked.

  6. Hey Nina.

    I just saw “Sita”…WOW!!! Your creativity and artistry are amazing.

    I noticed your agonizing over the DRM question with various online services. You may consider allowing iTunes downloads in a way that would avoid DRM locks.

    Instead of posting to the iTunes Movie store, just post “Sita” instead as a free video podcast…no DRM, free to view, free to download, free to stream to computers, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad and Apple TV on an HD screen. 😉

    Hope this helps.

  7. I don’t care for DRM and try to avoid it myself. I’ll make an exception here and there with MS and Adobe software because it’s part of my line of work, but generally it’s a showstopper for me as a consumer – but I think you’re being too strict about it. It doesn’t sound like you’d be signing an end to end distribution deal, you’d maintain your copyrights/lefts and seem to be free to use other channels of distribution. I’d take the money and enjoy it. Just my 2¢

  8. wow, you have a oppurtunity to expose your talent to millions of people and you chose not to because of streaming DRM..That is so ludicrous. Its not a download or purchase , its “Free Streaming” . From my Roku box to my tv why should you or I care if it has drm. When i decide to purchase it then we can talk drm…You did a ver big disservice to your fans. You really should to reconsider you decision.

    Take Care

  9. Mark,

    She is not doing a dis-service to her fans by refusing Netflix carring Sita Sings the Blues. She’s doing them a favor. The reason why Digital Rights Management is so bad is that it doesn’t allow you to make copies for your own personal use and enjoyment. Nor does it allow you use on multiple computers you own.

    Copyright is (c)ensorship, and DRM is (c)ensorship in a big – although sneaky – way. What Nina did is maintain her integrity in the long run. She is being honest with herself and the public that watches Sita. Honesty is never a disservice to the public and to the consumer.

  10. I just wanted to point out that your description of the way DRM was vanquished from most music services is off the mark. The events are actually quite ironic in a “coyote ugly” kind of way. I’ll try to summarize:

    1) Apple achieves a near monopoly with over 90% of the mp3 player market.
    2) The ipod implemented the FairPlay(tm) DRM system. Apple refused to license FairPlay to any other company for any other purpose.
    3) Therefore if a music studio wanted DRM and wanted to reach 90% of the market they were forced to go through the iTunes store and use FairPlay.
    4) Here’s the irony – the studios absolutely could not stand the fact that Apple was able to control what the studios did with their music. They hated that Apple was able to dictate pricing (ala 99 cent price limits). It really chaffed them so much that they eventually took the only way out – drop the requirement for DRM. That step gave them the freedom to sell music through Amazon, Wal-Mart, etc and implement all kinds of variable pricing schemes and still reach the 90% of the market with ipods.

    So, unfortunately, the freeing of music from the clutches of DRM had practically nothing to do with what the people wanted and the only reason Big Media pushed for it was that they preferred to gnaw off their arm rather than stay shackled to Steve Jobs.

    One lesson to take away from those events is that we will not see Big Media give up DRM for video the same way they did for music because no video player has anything resembling a monopoly and many of them just license standardized DRM implementations from companies like Rovi Corp (nee Macrovision). We will have to find another way to exert leverage in order to create change.

    I applaud you for taking your own steps to exert leverage, especially since it means a lot of sacrifice on your part. Your principled stand is admirable.

  11. @jeffk

    Streamed data has to be cached, decoded, rendered. Cached & paged either from a file system on disk, swap ( on disk) or memory, it is already “stored” at least in chunks. What we’re talking about is giving the DRM enforcers & IP holders the power to tell you & me how we should allocate computer memory, what hardware we MUST have….seems pretty drastic.

    BTW, I saw ‘Sita sings the blues’ here -> http://www.archive.org/details/Sita_Sings_the_Blues

  12. I heard about the movie through At the Movies. I immediately went to Netflix to see if it was available for streaming. It wasn’t. That brought me to the movie’s website. Which allowed me to download the movie. Which allowed me to view the movie. Which caused me to order a shirt.

    You just made $28.00 off of your refusal to allow Netflix to stream your film. And, I was still able to see the movie. I don’t think your decision will prove to be a distraction for people who want to see the film to see the film.

  13. Good for you, Nina.

    Fighting DRM on the beaches is an important way of protecting the right to buy and own films and music, and once bought, play them on any device you want. Making allowances for DRM is step towards having to rent instead of buying, paying for every time we view or listen. Some may not mind this. They may not mind having to repurchase a DVD because they weren’t able to back up the original before the their kid put it in the toaster. Even if the maker of the film would have wanted them to be able to do this.

    Wonderful film, BTW. I treausre my HD copy, despite the time it took me to download it and space it takes on my drive.


  14. great policy, Nina! DRM is bad for everyone, imho, and frankly Netflix’s choice of using Silverlight to stream the movies they DO offer makes them utterly useless to me because it’s not compatible with the computing platform I use.

    Digital delivery of movies is the future (well, and the now, I guess) but it needs to be done in a way we can all access.

    And great film, btw. I saw it months ago and thought it was amazing, and now I think you’re kinda amazing too. Sooo, thanks.

  15. I commend you for sticking by your beliefs and ultimately turning them down. I try to avoid DRM as much as possible. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. While it really is a shame you can’t share Sita on Netflix, you will still find great success because people enjoy the work.

  16. jeffk said: “We’re talking about a stream, which by definition is not saved on your computer.”
    But it’s still copied to computer, and thus can be captured. Buffering creates a temporary, transient copy, thus described in the CDPA as an exception to the law.

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