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Excerpt: Nina Paley and Free Culture

In the lead up to the book release, we will be posting all sorts of information on this blog site. Some directly related to film distribution, some related to audience building, some to crowdfunding, which is both an audience gathering and financial exercise and some to using the internet as a free distribution mechanism in order to accomplish your goals as an artist. Also, one full chapter from the book will be published in this month’s Filmmaker Magazine, both the print version and online. This is the only time that a full chapter will be available ahead of the book’s release.

In the chapter on using file sharing networks to distribute work, Sheri talked with Nina Paley who released her animated film Sita Sings the Blues for free on the internet. Releasing her film for free wasn’t Paley’s initial intention and it took about 9 months to go from believing that copyright was a good thing that protected artists to believing it was an extortionate racket designed to lock content away and rarely benefited the artists it was supposed to protect.

Here is more from her interview:

“Right now the sad truth seems to be that people don’t come to this [free culture idea] without having a really traumatic experience with copyright. And I did, I had the whole thing with trying to follow the rules, do everything by the book in trying to clear the songs I used in Sita Sings The Blues and then being confronted with this insane, Kafka-esque nightmare.  Basically I was told you have to get $220,000 together [to clear the rights] or nobody gets to see your film. Told this by a group of faceless corporations who don’t give a shit about me or anything really.  I was like ‘wow, I have to not let anybody see this film, even for free, unless I can get $220,000?’

The difficulty of resolving that, even the time it took, and all the while people saying ‘oh, but remember this system protects you,’ that’s what lead me to begin questioning the system.  Initially, I agreed. It’s the copyright system, it protects me. But as all of this was happening I thought ‘I wonder if it really does protect me?’ I looked at my whole career, all of my work and I am sitting on years of comic strips I made. Nobody knows about them, they were originally syndicated by Universal Press Syndicate and King Features Syndicate. The copyrights have reverted to me but nobody is seeing them. What good have these copyrights been to me? Nobody else can reproduce these comics I have done, therefore everyone has forgotten about them as soon as they stopped running in newspapers. How is this benefiting me? It’s not.

I thought about where my money comes from and how much came from copyright royalties? Not much, most of it comes from direct commissions, teaching, every once in a while a grant. This is the same for many artists, very few artists I know get significant income from copyright royalties. Then I just woke up one day and thought ‘wait a minute, I could free this movie and what would happen if I did?’ I didn’t know everything that was going to happen. But the thought that it was possible seemed like this exciting and subversive thing to do and I had nothing to lose. And then it worked so well, that I just went back to all my old copyrighted work and have been doing everything I can to rerelease it free, but it has been a lot of work.”

Find out why giving Sita Sings the Blues away for free turned out to be a successful strategy by reading Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul Presented by PreScreen, coming in September 2011. Also, like us on Facebook.