December 17, 2009

The Revolution Will Be Animated by Marine Lormant Sebag.

Historians, bloggers and critics can “reuse” bits of culture under “fair use.” But creative artists must secure the rights to any work they “sample.” Why is that?

This is a question not so easily answered.

The documentary linked above features Nina Paley, writer, animator and director of the movie Sita Sings the Blues. Paley has adopted a novel approach to distribution of her film, in part to challenge current copyright practices. The story generated a bit of “comment controversy” on Cartoon Brew. Paley offered this interesting link. My two cents as posted on CB below.

Copyright Law

Copyright law always (or from 1909 to Bono anyway) attempted to split the difference between the artist’s right to profit and the public’s right to participate.

No longer. And though the new laws benefit Disney, its heirs and its stockholders, they may not benefit our society as a whole.

Long story: as a grad student I had access to a wealth of cultural information via document databases like JSTOR. My institution paid dearly for the service, and I in turn paid dearly through tuition. Since graduation, I have attempted to pursue research as what is too generously known as an ‘independent scholar.’ Almost impossible to do, even with “Google Scholar.” But there is good news. The whole of history isn’t shut off.

My main area of interest is textbooks published from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. The date 1923 resonates. Why? Because books published prior are in the public domain, while books published since never will be, assuming current laws remain unchanged. The weird thing is, I can compensate. I can, and have, purchased many used textbooks from Amazon and elsewhere (and I don’t believe the copyright holder is getting any of that action). I am then able to extract content, quote freely, publish my work and even profit from it (assuming anybody would buy a book devoted to the history of old biology textbooks) thanks to a fuzzy but generally agreed upon “fair use” policy.

Why are we okay with “academic” fair use, but not “artistic” fair use? I don’t know. Further, why should I (or Google) never be allowed to copy a textbook (or a movie or a song), in part or in whole, published in 1924? Surely, no teacher is assigning such a book to his or her Bio 101 class today. Here’s a crazy idea: if a corporation or individual wants to keep a work out of the public domain after it has aged reasonably, why don’t we ask them to cut a check to the Treasury? At some point, it could be argued, that corporation is profiting off of something that belongs to somebody else. Us. All of us.

This whole thing relative to Sita sounds a bit like an accidental mission. Nina used the 1928 recordings, got in trouble, found a cause.

But the questions she is raising are important. Naive or not, Nina is to be admired for at least challenging the “new” assumptions regarding our blind consent to the perpetual private ownership of the sights, sounds and symbols of our culture.

Related links: “The Nervous Icon” Part I | Part II


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