Free culture to beat the copyright blues

After a copyright nightmare, the woman behind Sita Sings the Blues set out to prove that free distribution can profit the artist

Nina Paley

Creator, animator and director Nina Paley

By Rosie Lavan


SHORT STORY SYNOPSIS: Billed as “the greatest break-up story ever told”, this animated film blends events from the ancient Indian legend the Ramayana with modern commentary on the myth, scenes from the filmmaker’s own life, and the heartbreak hits of 20s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw. The beautiful Sita follows her beloved husband Rama into exile but is beset by various challenges. Eventually Rama abandons Sita, doubting her fidelity until her death many years later.

FORMAT: 82’ animated feature

PRODUCTION COMPANIES: None – written, animated, directed and produced by Nina Paley

STATUS: Completed

RELEASE DATE: February 28 2009

AWARDS: Thirty-five awards at international film festivals including Berlin, Montreal, Philadelphia and Buenos Aires with prizes for the script, animation and direction


Sita Sings the Blues was an ambitious one-woman operation: Paley wrote, animated, directed and produced the feature by herself. After a contentious legal struggle over copyright, the film’s unusual distribution turned Paley into a crusader for free culture and Sita into the cartoon ambassador for the campaign.

The central plot is lifted from the Ramayana sequence of Indian legends and further enlivened by the overlaid chatty musings of contemporary Indians. Paley began the project after the collapse of her own marriage, which also forms another plot strand. The film is entirely 2-D, primarily using computer graphics and Flash animation. Several different animation styles distinguish the narratives.

The use of Annette Hanshaw’s recordings became a source of major problems which almost prevented the film being screened. Paley had checked that the music was no longer under US copyright law, but on completion she was told that the film was illegal as the recordings were still covered by older state legislation.

Unable to meet the initial charge of $220,000, she was ultimately forced to take a loan to cover the re-negotiated fees of $50,000. She devised an innovative distribution strategy – essentially giving the film away for free, either via download or a limited run of “promotional” DVDs – which released it from copyright restrictions. Through her experience Paley has become closely involved in the Question Copyright campaign.


Paley believes that audiences want to support artists, and her relationship with her own audience relies on a degree of trust. She has made her work available for free to anyone who wants to see it, a controversial action underpinned by the principle that it is through being honest with the audience and giving them the freedom to enjoy and proliferate a work of art that the artist truly profits.

Sita Sings the Blues is covered by a form of copyleft, the Creative Commons Share-Alike Licence. This means, essentially, that anyone can do anything with the film – including copy it or produce derivative works and products – except copyright it. In opting for this licence, it was always her intention that the audience would shape the film’s future. In December 2008, two months before the film’s release, she wrote: “I’m betting that you, audience, can find me more money – and certainly wider distribution – than a commercial distributor could.”

Paley had no budget for advertising or promotion; she did not even set up her own site to host the film. Instead, she put it up for free download on, the American digital library site. Online sharing was key to promotion. Paley was convinced that making the film free would stimulate demand for purchasable associated products like DVDs and other merchandise; the principle was to use the unlimited resource – the film – to sell the limited resources. In partnership with she set up a Sita e-store on their website. Given the nature of Sita’s release, it is impossible to know how many people have seen the film but Paley is confident that it has reached more than a million people.

Under the Creative Commons licence, anybody is entitled to screen the film: the Sita website expressly states that there is no need to ask permission to host a community screening. Indeed, fundraising screenings were suggested by early audience members and Sita followers. Volunteers provided subtitles for the DVD. Paley maintains her opposition to the traditional copyright model as much for its impact on her audience as on her. Freeing the film is about freeing the audience, too, and that cannot happen via ordinary distribution.

Together with, Paley has developed the Creator Endorsed mark, a logo which can be applied to products or displayed at screenings to indicate that the artist endorses this associated activity and will receive a proportion of the profit it makes. Paley believes that this seal of approval from the artist adds value to an event or product. In March 2010 launched the Sita Distribution Project, a scheme to free the film from “copyright jail” by raising the $50,000 Paley had to pay to satisfy copyright restrictions on the music she used.


Sita’s home onlinethe film is available to download here

Nina Paley’s blog


Sita trailer on

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