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. It’s probably too late now, but can’t you make a special master DVD that would include the message “Download and share this film from sitasingstheblues.com” at the beginning? It wouldn’t be a bumper; it would be an integral part of the film you delivered to Netflix.

  2. $4620.00 seems like a very small amount of money to get from streaming. Netflix has 12.3 million subscribers right now – if we assume that only a third of those people watch streaming Netflix (not a bad assumption, as the revealed number nearly a year ago was 25%), and only 1 in 1000 of that subset of people streamed Sita, that would come out to a little bit over $1.00 per stream. I wonder how much more money the “content aggregator” middleman gets? Is it even possible to deal with Netflix directly?

  3. I am convinced. I thought it would be worth letting Netflix stream Sita with DRM just to be able to feed the proceeds back into the anti-DRM cause…but you are right to stick to your principles on this. Thanks for writing about your decision.

  4. Though I am a Netflix subscriber (I realize part of my fees go toward their DRM payments, but I accept that for practical purposes of consumption), I have to say your well intended, well thought out, and heartfelt defiance have gained you another viewer for Sita. You have no one to ‘blame’ but yourself (and maybe the EFF, who pointed me to the story), and I thank you.

  5. came here by way of @EFF, great story, big decision.

    The mere fact that DRM is considered an empowerment of the author by many people in positions of power is a shame, i will back you up and continue to spread the word among my peers (librarians). Like richard stallmann said in his letter, there’s no need for us to become another shopfront for media corporations.

  6. Thank you for:
    1. Breathing a little life into this issue. I knew nothing about it.
    2. Offering your film for free on your web site. I can’t wait to see it.


  7. I am touched, inspired and awed – to see such conviction and willingness to stick by your principles. I have this kind of conviction with few things in my life and have felt rather lonely with it and now am feeling uplifted seeing another with such courage. Thank you! Here is a quote for you:
    “Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
    — Vaclav Havel

  8. I think you made the right decision here. If we can’t rely on companies or our representatives in government to protect innovation and free speech, our best and only option is for artists themselves to show the world a better way.

    But, let’s take a step back for a moment…

    Why does Netflix need to hold on to your money for 60 days after release date? They should have a check for you soon after you deliver the master and all the paperwork – 30 days, if not sooner. How long after delivery does it take them to release?

  9. Nina, what does the DRM matter? You can’t “download” a movie with Netflix, you don’t “own” it. DRM matters when you buy a movie or song that you “own”, but the organization that you buy it from sets rules around what you can and can’t do with that item. With Netflix, you stream it (live), you don’t save it, and if you want to watch it again you download it again. It’s the key difference between services like Unbox and iTunes versus Netflix.

  10. I don’t understand; you’ll release your title on a DRM-laden media (DVD) that attempts to block you from using it within your legal rights, but not on a service that has completely transparent DRM that people knowingly pay for? Silly.

  11. “Sita” DVDs are explicitly un-encrypted and have no regional restrictions. They’re as easy to rip as possible, given the crappy DVD codec. Even Richard Stallman owns one, by choice.

  12. It’s not worth arguing the semantics of how DVDs work; but suffice to say what you’re asking for is Netflix to compromise their own system to potentially allow people to download the title for free from them, without paying for a Netflix account. I fully support your cause, but it’s not fair to expect them to distribute your content for free when, as you stated yourself, it costs them money to distribute it.

  13. While it’s unfortunate that Sita won’t get to be marketed to Netflix users, that’s really all Netflix offers here. There are multiple sites that stream the whole film already.
    I have another problem with Netflix streaming: It’s only compatible with two of the major operating systems, Windows and Mac. Linux distros and others get left out in the cold. I had to tell a friend to just boot Windows after he’d spent the last hour trying to watch Netflix on his prefered system. Stallman won’t be able to use Netflix even if they remove the DRM until they fix this or Apple or Microsoft release their source code under a GPL compatible license.

  14. Nina,

    You’re my hero. Not only are you a brilliant film maker, you are a courageous rebel and educator. I’m so grateful I discovered you and your blog through Sita Sings the Blues on The Internet Archive. Netflix is for suckers. xo


  15. To Anonymous who made the comment entitled “Interesting”:

    The whole idea that there is some sort fundamental difference between “downloading” and “streaming” is a result of the artificial scarcity mentality. Once data comes to your computer, it should be up to you to decide how long it stays there and what you do with it. True, there are sometimes technical differences between streaming formats and downloadable ones, since streams are optimized for speed over quality, but they’re both still just digital representations of the content, and both can be preserved and played back. The fact that the user’s side of a streaming connection sometimes does not offer the ability to save the stream is just (in those cases) a deficiency in the user-side software.

    Netflix may like the idea of a rental model, but their desire for a particular business model does not change the reality of the situation: they sent the data to your computer, so the only way for them to take away your ability to preserve that data is for your computer to run software that looks out for Netflix’s interests instead of yours. That’s DRM.

  16. Karl, your reasoning is flawed. It’s not yours to do what you want with it; you’ve rented the right to watch it, not bought the content. If you buy it a la iTunes, do whatever you want with it and DRM is a joke.

  17. My dear sainted mother, a painter, once told me that artists are important because they help us see the world in new ways. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to see DRM through your eyes.

  18. This was a poor choice, but it was your choice, so I can respect that.

    However, more than money, Netflix offers exposure. You can’t get exposure by turning down avenues of distribution. Netflix streaming has exploded in the past year. Every gaming device streams Netflix, the iPad streams Netflix, Ruko and many DVD players and TV can stream Netflix, and soon the iPhone/iPod will be streaming Netflix. That’s a lot of eyeballs. That’s a huge percentage of their customer base, and whoever said 33% is way off. Netflix is pushing streaming hard because physical DVD rental is slow and costly. In the coming years, it will be Streaming 80-90%. Physical media is on the way out.

    Regardless, your arguments about DRM are a little silly. Streaming is not ownership, instead it’s rentalship. You can’t honestly believe the big copyright holders would allow Netflix will give away their product for $9/month. Of course the bit stream has to be locked down, otherwise it’s just a download that one could keep forever. Yes, if I buy a music file online and then discover I can’t use it a year later when the service goes out of business, that’s bad DRM. But Netflix is hardly defective by design, and were it not for DRM Netflix Streaming would not be possible. Internet Streaming in general would not be possible. As for the disclaimer, very few people streaming a movie would care about “sharing” it online, and those who might would easily know how to find it. The disclaimer is unnecessary, but it’s equally stupid for Netflix to deny it.

    But like I said before, this is a new avenue for you to get exposure. I’ve never seen your film, because I’ve never found a convenient way to watch it. (I’m not staring at a tiny YouTube box for 90 minutes.) Like with Facebook, sometimes you just have to deal with the devil a little. They’re not asking for the eternal rights to your film. They just want to show your film. But in the end, I guess everyone loses — except Netflix, who still has a billion happy subscribers…

  19. I am downloading the 720p version, and I have donated $10. I wish I could give more. I hope more artists and producers take a stand as you have.

    thanks for being awesome. 🙂

    oh, and the film is really good! My 3 year old son was entranced by it as well!

  20. Well, unlike Brandon above, I’m one of many viewers who will happily buy the DVD (whoever forced anyone to watch a tiny YouTube video for 90 minutes?), and buy more copies for friends because it not only supports a great artist, but also a great cause. Go you!

  21. I appreciate and applaud your conviction and the stand you’ve taken. I would very much like to encourage others to do the same and the best way I can think to accomplish this, is financially. It would be great if creators did not have to choose between doing the right thing and receiving compensation. To this end, I was wondering if you had a Paypal account to which I could donate a few dollars? It would be great if others would pitch in and we matched Netflix’s 12-month offer…

  22. I find myself a bit torn. There’s a part of me that applauds you standing by your principals, and there’s a part of me that loves Netflix.

    For one thing I’m an old school pirate (and a libertarian). I’ve “stolen” a lot of content since I’ve been a kid. For example the first copies of Metallica and Slayer albums I owned were pirated cassettes. With that being said I went on and spent hundreds of legitimate dollars on both those bands. I choose my own morality.

    However, I don’t mind paying $10 a month to watch what I want to watch, when I want to watch it, as many times as I want. I like the Netflix model a lot. I used to go to Bit Torrent (and before that E-Mule etc.) first when I was looking for something. Now I find myself increasingly going to Netflix first, and often finding the content I want. Netflix is pretty transparent and I get it, I’m renting a virtual copy. It’s not like Sony’s DRM that made DVD’s I actually bought unplayable on the Sony DVD player I paid $350 for in 2000. I don’t really need to own every Magnum PI episode either.

    I guess all that means something (c:

  23. It just occurred to me…what you really want is for Netflix to not pay you.

    Isn’t that what this all comes down to? Either Netflix can “rent” the movie to their subscribers and pay you; or give it to their subscribers and not pay you.

  24. Well done Nina!

    You faced a hard decision and made the right choice I think. And even though you lost the revenue and exposure Netflix would’ve brought I bet all the added publicity from EFF and Boingboing about your defiance of DRM will more than make up for it! From the comments it sounds like a lot of people just discovered Sita because of this. Thanks for fighting the good fight and sticking to your principles. You rock 🙂

  25. I’d love Sita to be in Netflix’s video-on-demand (VOD) service, but only sans DRM. DRM is not at all necessary for VOD. I like Netflix. I just don’t like DRM. Netflix isn’t a “bad guy” here. They use DRM on all their streams, probably because no one has asked for it not to be on their films. Now I have asked.

    Streaming is good. Money is good. DRM is bad.

  26. Thanks for standing up for your beliefs, Nina. Healthy societies need people like you.

    I already vaguely remembered the title of your movie from previous online discussions, but this weekend’s BoingBoing & EFF stories finally attracted enough of my attention to read about it and download it. I’ve also donated some money, and encourage others to do likewise.


  27. I will watch it for the sole fact that you have released it under a copyleft license. Glad to see that some people still stand up for what is right.

  28. I don’t buy the whole “if Netflix didn’t have DRM, there wouldn’t be any streaming” argument. If you really want to steal a movie, odds are you can find 9 out of 10 movies on Netflix on a torrent site within minutes.
    What Netflix offer is convenience. That’s what keeping streaming services in business, not DRM. DRM has never stopped piracy, and it never will. That whole argument is flawed.
    And, I might add, it’s usually easier to find a torrent for a movie and download that, than it is to save/extract a stream to your harddrive.

  29. Oh, and kudos to Nina. I applaud both your attitude towards Netflix, and your movie as well. 🙂

  30. I applaud your convictions. It’s my personal opinion that anyone who isn’t against DRM simply doesn’t “get” DRM. Like David J above, they are locked into the artificial scarcity mindset perpetuated by the film, music, and entertainment industries.

    It’s not that you are “renting” a movie from Netflix, therefore Netflix has the right to run software on your computer that disables your own access to it– It’s that the whole idea of “renting” any type of media is in the process of being eviscerated.

    What we need are more content creators to stand up like you have, and like Cory Doctorow does, and say, “I have the right to give away my work if I want to.” And in the process you are helping to bring about the gift and reputation economy that is replacing the economy of things on the internet.

    Heading to your movie site to download and donate now. Now THERE’s a business model for content creation I can get behind! If I like it, I pay for it.

    Talk about a TRUE free economy. Maybe that’s why the big media companies are so scared: their products would have to compete on their own merits.

  31. Include your DRM thoughts at the beginning of the body of the work, and a tag at the end. What you are trying to achieve , is to bring the DRM subject matter into the forefront, where it will, when more are aware, become the discussion on the front page. Just dont let the “look for it for free/donate/buy” portion be cut. It is a very cool production, Thank you for offering it the way you do.

  32. > You can’t honestly believe the big copyright holders would allow Netflix will give away their product for $9/month.

    I think this misses the point. I don’t think Nina is advocating that big studios give away their products, so that’s a straw-man argument. What I find sad is that Netflix has no way to and no interest in streaming without DRM, it’s not even on their radar. (BTW, “Roku” not “Ruko”.)

    Nina, you might want to put your work on Vimeo, if possible, as they provide much better quality than YouTube.

  33. People are mixing up libre (liberty, Free-as-in-Free-Speech) with gratis (free as in free beer, no-cost).

    I want Netflix to charge money for their service. DRM is not necessary for them to do that.

    Anyone who wants to put “Sita” on Vimeo, please do!

  34. I stream most of my Netflix movies over my Xbox or my computer, and the system is reliable, there are no commercials, and the quality is fantastic. I can already do everything I want to do … so what is their DRM preventing me from doing? I could understand your position if we were talking about downloading a full digital copy of Sita, but I use Netflix’s streaming service so I don’t have to download and store entire films on my hard drive. I’m confused by this whole situation.

  35. Thank you so much for “Sita Sings the Blues”, which is an awesome film. For a fan of animation, mythology and jazz it is sensational. It also had my whole family howling.

    But it is your stand on copyright & DRM that makes you my hero.

    DRM is an incredibly bad thing.

    I just returned a camcorder that would not allow me to get my own content I recorded onto my computer without first loading their proprietary software. The DRM also prevented me from just watching it on my TV by running it through my VHS – DVD burner unit. (Because I “don’t have permission for the content”)

    There is an awful lot of DRM out there that most people do not even recognize. When we buy newer tech stuff that doesn’t work as well as the old it never even occurs to us that the manufacturer has deliberately engineered it to work badly.

  36. Good for you! I applaud your decision.

    I had already donated to help make the film and bought the two different DVDs (which came with the free film as a bonus!)

    Time to buy me some merchandise. I think I need some cool t shirts for pottery class!

    – Michael

  37. Several people have said variations of, “you can’t expect Netflix to change their security around just for you.”

    And you haven’t. You offered (or at least brought up the idea) to allow the DRM–with a note indicating that the content was available elsewhere without the DRM. The fact that Netflix isn’t willing to consider an annotation that says “the copyright holder doesn’t require these restrictions” says that the purpose of DRM is usage restriction, not rights protection.

    Doctorow had the same problem trying to release an audiobook–not only would Audible not allow him to release Little Brother without DRM, they wouldn’t allow him to put a note at the beginning that said “Random House Audio and Cory Doctorow, the copyright holders to this recording, grant you permission to use this book in any way consistent with your nation’s copyright laws.”

    DRM isn’t about protecting copyrights; it’s about restricting customer uses. Thank you for refusing to accept it.

  38. I wonder if a compromise like this might have worked: Netflix gets to add it to their streaming library with DRM, but the movie description at netflix would also say “Want to recommend this to a friend who doesn’t have Netflix? This movie stream is also available for free to non-netflix subscribers at http://www.—-.com

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