One of the first posts on my blog was Copyright Law Not the Problem for Indy Film. The film was Sita Sings the Blues and is centered around a song that the film maker, Nina Paley, could not get licensed after she already made the movie around the song.
The American Bar Association Journal contained an article about the film in its May 2010 edition which is called No Longer Singing the Blues.
While the ABA article highlights some of Ms. Paley’s crusade regarding copyright alternatives, what I thought was particularly interesting was the report that Ms. Paley did eventually obtain a license. Originally, the demand was for more than $200,000; however, she was able to negotiate a deal for $50,000 per 5000 units sold. Since then, she has been able to do some distribution of the film and, if you follow the link above, you can apparently view the film for free on Google videos.
The point is that Ms. Paley has obtained a workable license under the current copyright regime. While the argument remains that some copyright owners can use their rights to prevent the creation of artistic works, it is debatable whether that is necessarily a bad thing.
If the song is so valuable that someone wants to create a film centered around the song, it is hard to argue that the song has no value, or that the author of the song should not be able to obtain the benefit of the value they have created. The copyright laws are focused on trying to encourage the creation of such works by giving authors the ability to capture this value. And one has to wonder whether the song on which the film is based would have been created, or made available to others, if the copyright law incentives had not existed. In many ways, the film, and its value, are dependent on the song and would never have existed without the song.
This raises the relational issues on which I like to focus. Songs and other works are often more than just an independent work. They are created and tied to their creator in intangible ways, they have a context. Some don’t want their work used for purposes that are antithetical to their views, values, or goals. An example is when a politician uses a song by an artist that is diametrically opposed to the politician. From the author’s perspective the use of the song twists and perverts their creation. It’s like taking a quote out of context.
While we want to promote the creation of works for the public’s use, I am not sure that it is good to completely severe works from the authors intent, desires, dreams, and hopes. Some things may never be created or said, but that is the necessary corollary of actually being able to say or create something of meaning or value. It is the necessary corollary of expression.
Furthermore, it should be noted that often times it is the limits which force the creation of the best works. Boundaries are not in and of themselves a bad thing. They simply establish the scope of the work. A painting has to have edges, and a novel has to use words. In fact, it is those limits which create the medium in which one operates. Likewise, access to a limited world of possibilities is often what forces us to do better with what we have, instead of relying on others.
Regardless, Ms. Paley got a license and the world keeps turning.