Copyright Once Again Being Used To Hinder Culture, Not Enable It

from the so-many-sad-stories dept

I'm still working my way through James Boyle's excellent The Public Domain, but it's chock full of examples of ways that copyright holds back cultural expression -- and that comes to mind in reading the saga of a movie called Sita Sings the Blues. It was brought to my attention by Rich W, who saw the film at a film festival a while back and loved it. After that, the film disappeared off the radar, but was brought back to some attention right before Christmas, when Roger Ebert wrote a glowing review of it. He, like Rich, didn't expect to like it, and didn't even plan to watch it -- but after being convinced to check it out, he loved it. But, what he discovered is that the film was unlikely to get any distribution because, despite being an animated reimagining of a classic Indian love story, it uses the songs of popular jazz singer Annette Hanshaw, recorded in the 1920s.

To clear the rights for the music, apparently more money than the entire movie cost was required. As Ebert noted:
"Don't the copyright owners realize they are contributing to the destruction of their property by removing it from knowledge?"
Exactly. Meanwhile, the creator of the film, Nina Paley, has been actively blogging about the ordeal. The attention brought about by Ebert's endorsement has resulted in the copyright holders lowering their demands, but including some pretty onerous strings that will make it nearly impossible for her to ever profit from the movie (from which she's already in debt). Basically, if she actually sells copies of the movie, she'll owe a lot more -- but that doesn't apply to promotional copies of the movie. In response, she's worked out a convoluted plan, whereby she'll pay the awful initial fees, but, knowing she'll never get direct profits from it, she's working hard to free the film up as much as possible -- by putting the entire movie up as a "promotion" on the Internet Archive, while putting it under some sort of open and free license.

From there, she goes on to list out a whole bunch of ways that she hopes to still make money, indirectly, from the success of the movie -- even as she's going into further debt to pay off the music copyright holders. Many of her suggestions for business models will sound quite familiar to folks around here (ancillary products, special limited edition signed products, sponsorships, etc.). It's a shame she needs to go to these levels just to pay off the copyright holders on these compositions from nearly a century ago -- who would only be helped by the success of this movie. Hopefully the other business models she's testing out will be able to cover those costs, but she's already in a deep hole, which is a huge shame. Of course, at the same time, this experience appears to have turned her into something of a convert when it comes to understanding the damages brought about by copyright. Separate from the movie, she's decided to copyleft an old comic she created years ago (though, she's asking for help to get them online).


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    RD, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 10:33am

    Infinite copyright

    Just like the founding fathers intended...

    At least Nina understands. On the subject of putting all her comics up online for free, she says:

    “But Nina, how will you make money?” Hopefully by selling originals. The more freely the images circulate, the more valuable the originals will become.

    Bingo, use the INFINITE resource to sell the SCARCE and valuable one. That last sentence is key, and should be pasted on the forehead of every music, movie and media exec in the world.

     

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  2.  
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    Skeptical Cynic (profile), Jan 5th, 2009 @ 10:40am

    Re: Infinite copyright

    RD, very good post! I agree.

     

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  3.  
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    Skeptical Cynic (profile), Jan 5th, 2009 @ 10:40am

    Re: Re: Infinite copyright

    Oh, Mike good post also!

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 10:53am

    ALL LAWS HINDER CULTURE.

     

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  5.  
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    DS78, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 11:14am

    But...

    On the other side of the coin, you'd expect a film maker to license any music planned for a film before the filing started. Even in this case, lots of this might have been avoided if the film maker had talked to the music copyright holder before going into so much debt.

    Honestly, in this day and age are people really naive enough to think that any music used anywhere without permission is concidered ok in the eyes of the MPAA?

    Has this lady been living under a rock?

    Sincerely,
    The Devils Advocate

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 11:15am

    Re: But...

    or the RIAA even...

     

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  7.  
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    PaulT (profile), Jan 5th, 2009 @ 11:16am

    Donate!

    I would like to see this movie now. I hadn't heard of the movie before this, but the website looks good, and I'm always interested in helping artists who are trying to create, you know, art rather than a "product". It looks absolutely beautiful and I hope I do get the chance to see it (and not because she's paid the ransom).

    I'll download it if/when it's on archive.org but I'll do one better. I just donated $20 through the Paypal link on her blog site - roughly what a new DVD would cost me. Hopefully, others will do so as well, and this will at least ease her debt burden.

    Now, to bookmark the links when the usual idiots try arguing that a life+whatever copyright extension is necessary to "protect" artists...

     

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  8.  
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    Jess, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 11:16am

    well, copyrights being as expensive as they are, why did the creator of the film have to use and keep Annette Hanshaw's songs in her new film? she could have used other music. Whether it helps the original copyright holders or not to have their music publicized, that's their decision since they created the music. The film's creator was free to use other music in her film.

     

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  9.  
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    Parker, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 11:22am

    Donate...

    Paul that is great that you donated, but I don't think that sort of model is something everyone will be able to survive on.

    I agree with Jess about using the songs. How integral are they to film? Could the creator of the movie just as easily have hired some up-and-coming jazz musicians that might like to see their music included for free? This would have been beneficial to both the film and the musicians.

     

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  10.  
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    PaulT (profile), Jan 5th, 2009 @ 11:25am

    Re: But...

    On the other hand: most people would reasonably expect that songs 80-90 years old, that should by all rights (i.e. without the Bono act) already be out of copyright, would not cost nearly a quarter of a million dollars to licence.

    In fact, given the rather shady nature of copyright, orphaned works and the like, it may not even have been clear that this music was not public domain before she started and expected the filing to be a mere formality.

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Poster, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 11:38am

    The copyright holders should feel ashamed of themselves -- using a welfare system to bankrupt an innocent person.

     

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  12.  
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    RichW (profile), Jan 5th, 2009 @ 11:43am

    Yes - true - but...

    Jess/Parker - The songs are pretty integral to the film. The thing works on several different levels - and one of them is the very authentic sound of the songs and how they fit into the retelling of the Sita story. Interestingly enough I think pretty much all of them are on a single mp3 album you can download from Amazon for $7.99. Something I've been meaning to do - but never would have without having seen the film.

    When I first heard about the story I had a pretty similar reaction to the earlier posts - wouldn't you want to work out the licensing issues first and make the film second? I think that's a fair point. In a purely pragmatic world that likely would have been the path followed - but then we probably wouldn't have this movie around. It's not the approach I'd suggest if I met someone working on a film. But once you have a great piece of very enjoyable art completed it's a shame that more people can't see it.

    To me the part that sucks most is that everyone seems likely to lose out given the upfront cost structure to license the music in this case. Nina Paley, potential fans of the film, potential new fans of the music and the "rights" owners.

     

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  13.  
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    PaulT (profile), Jan 5th, 2009 @ 12:11pm

    Re: Donate...

    According to her blog, Ms. Paley considers the music to tell a vital story within the framework of the movie. I suspect that she's simply too emotionally attached to the version of the movie that she took to film festivals (containing this music under licence) to see it objectively with a different soundtrack. Maybe she should be more objective, but she came this far without corporate interference and I can see why she's resist it.

    However, that's hardly the point. the issue is that all the claims we hear about copyright and how it always needs to be extended to protect artists. If this music we in the public domain, or were to be licensed for $20,000 instead of $200,000, we wouldn't be reading this story. Instead, a few corporations (3 of the major RIAA labels, what a surprise) are profiteering from music that gets no exposure while another work of art rots outside of the public view while potentially preventing a living artist from continuing her work.

    The these labels were smart, they'd reduce the upfront licensing fees and take a cut of the DVD sales, maybe release a soundtrack album as well (digitally this costs them almost nothing). There's no reason why these songs should cost so much money. Besides, if a collection of 80 year old jazz recording cost this much can you image someone making, say, a 60s period piece and what songs would cost them? Greed, pure and simple.

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 12:44pm

    Re: But...

    Yeah, she certainly seems a bit naive. On the other hand, it is ridiculous to attempt to make money on content created 80+ years ago. I doubt anyone involved in the original recordings are even alive yet someone still stands to earn money for the work of their father/grandfathers. That's the real shame.

     

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  15.  
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    Twinrova, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 12:48pm

    2009 is certainly starting off great! /sarcasm.

    Stories like this bum me out. Now, my night's ruined.

    This isn't a story about copyright as much as it is about greed. Copyright's just being used as a shield to extort money.

    Let's hope the Obama administration fixes crap like this. I have a ton of stolen downloaded art I'd like to throw into a book.

     

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  16.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 1:52pm

    Re: Re: But...

    No, the decedents aren't profiting, the records are.

     

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  17.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 1:53pm

    Instead of licensing it for "promotional" use, she should "bury" it, and somehow allow a "leaked" copy to get out onto bit torrent.

     

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  18.  
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    opencast, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 2:13pm

    Copyright damages a free society it is a great loss for our culture if things are copyrighted for centuries.

    To forbid copying reminds me to the prohibition of the 1920s, alcohol was forbidden but nobody had cared abouth it.

     

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  19.  
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    racerabbit (profile), Jan 5th, 2009 @ 2:41pm

    Not as Simple as Using Different Songs

    To those wondering if other music could be used, yeah - probably not. I've seen several clips of the movie and the songs aren't simply there in the background; Sita is actually singing them as a form of narration for what is going on. Thus simply using different songs would require completely reanimating much of the movie.

     

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  20.  
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    Esahc (profile), Jan 5th, 2009 @ 4:51pm

    It's actually Ironic

    I've been following this story for a while, and I believe that the recordings are actually in the public domain but it's the sheet music & lyrics that are causing the problem with copyright.

     

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  21.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 6:06pm

    Re: It's actually Ironic

    I believe you are right in your assessment, though it is a bit difficult to follow what is said on the linked blog because it uses "compositions" without explaining what the term means.

     

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  22.  
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    Peter Blaise Monahon (profile), Jan 6th, 2009 @ 7:12am

    Why do you think private property owners shouldn't have the right to decide what to do with their own private property?

    .

    You got it backwards. It's not the copyright laws that are stoopid here, it's the copyright property owners who seem averse to their own informed financial interests. And since it's their property, it's their right to be stoopid with it.

    Same with someone holding an valuable car in a garage against all bidders, letting it rust. It's their's. Should we have a law that says, "If someone values your property but is not willing to pay for it, you must turn it over anyway."?

    You're suggesting that "public good" and "right of conversion to public domain" are superior to personal property ownership rights, as if their songs were some land and we NEEDED to make a public highway out of it.

    Capitalism depends on ownership. Sometimes owners act against the interest of others. Fine. The alternative ... socialism? Cool. Show me a socialist society where contemporaneous authored intellectual property is forcibly made freely available with no control by the author. Really. I wanna see some of THAT culture.

    ... waiting ...

    .

     

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  23.  
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    Peter Blaise Monahon (profile), Jan 6th, 2009 @ 7:34am

    How about annual value assesment and tax bill on intellectual property, just like on our houses?

    .

    Earlier: "... The copyright holders should feel ashamed of themselves -- using a welfare system to bankrupt an innocent person ..."

    Hahahahah. Very funny ... if you meant it to be funny. Very scary if you did not mean it to be funny!

    Earlier: "... Let's hope the Obama administration fixes crap like this. I have a ton of stolen downloaded art I'd like to throw into a book ..."

    Hahahah ... wait a minute. I'm sensing a theme here. Are we being serious, or have we taken a turn towards parody ... very scary otherwise!

    Earlier: "... To forbid copying reminds me of the prohibition of the 1920s when alcohol was forbidden ..."

    Um ... brewing your own alcohol isn't stealing someone else's recognized property. Copying is.

    Earlier: "... If this music were in the public domain, or were to be licensed for $20,000 instead of $200,000, we wouldn't be reading this story ..."

    Perhaps there's a middle ground.

    Once something is released into the public, even if under copyright, what if there were an independent review board assessing value, like a tax value assessment on our homes, for instance?

    Then you'd pay property taxes at that rate, and it's up to you to market your property to stay profitable, or release it to the public domain where you'd no longer own it and no longer be liable for taxes.

    Any thoughts on this type of an idea?

    - Something to recognize the "property" status of intellectual property as having value, and once public, taxable value.

    And something to incentivize keeping it in the commercial marketplace, in publication, in the public, in the "culture", either by owners and profitable for them, or public and benefiting all?

    Your thoughts?

    .

     

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  24.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2009 @ 10:08am

    Re: How about annual value assesment and tax bill on intellectual property, just like on our houses?

    Without going into any detail re copyright law, it is useful to note that patent law does incorporate a "tax scheme" in the form of maintenance fees that are due at various times (on an escalating scale) in order for a patent to remain in force.

     

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  25.  
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    Big Bizniss, Jan 6th, 2009 @ 12:14pm

    Hey Handjob: quit crying. Litigation won't go away, even if you close your eyes.

    This piece of crap website amazes me. Too much frivolous litigation? According to whom?

    You?

    As if you fucking matter. You and you're ill-informed libertarian nitwit friends should go back to editing comic books, and leave the litigation to those who went beyond community college.

    A bunch of self-righteous hand jobs, you are!

     

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  26.  
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    Mike (profile), Jan 6th, 2009 @ 11:03pm

    Re: Why do you think private property owners shouldn't have the right to decide what to do with their own private property?

    You got it backwards. It's not the copyright laws that are stoopid here, it's the copyright property owners who seem averse to their own informed financial interests. And since it's their property, it's their right to be stoopid with it.

    You are the one who has it backwards. Copyright is a privilege, not property. To call it property is to show your own ignorance.

    Same with someone holding an valuable car in a garage against all bidders, letting it rust. It's their's. Should we have a law that says, "If someone values your property but is not willing to pay for it, you must turn it over anyway."?

    Must we *really* explain the difference between scarce goods and infinite goods *again*?

    You're suggesting that "public good" and "right of conversion to public domain" are superior to personal property ownership rights, as if their songs were some land and we NEEDED to make a public highway out of it.

    No, we're saying that copyright is not property.

    I'm a huge supporter of property rights. This has nothing to do with property rights.

    Capitalism depends on ownership. Sometimes owners act against the interest of others. Fine. The alternative ... socialism? Cool. Show me a socialist society where contemporaneous authored intellectual property is forcibly made freely available with no control by the author. Really. I wanna see some of THAT culture.

    No. Wrong again. Capitalism depends on ownership of *scarce resources*.

    We're all for that.

    But, tell me, how is it possible that you consider a gov't granted monopoly more capitalist than a totally free market capitalist solution (no copyright) that we're talking about?

    Seriously.

    ... waiting ...

    Stop waiting. Start learning.

     

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  27.  
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    Mike (profile), Jan 6th, 2009 @ 11:05pm

    Re: How about annual value assesment and tax bill on intellectual property, just like on our houses?

    Um ... brewing your own alcohol isn't stealing someone else's recognized property. Copying is.

    Uh, no. Copying is copying. It's not stealing anything, let alone property.

     

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  28.  
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    Miss Ellaneous, Jan 7th, 2009 @ 3:49pm

    copy RIGHT is just that

    Copyright is not a "privilege" it is a recognized right which is codified into law in the vast majority of nations on this planet. The owner of a copyright in intellectual PROPERTY has certain exclusive rights over what happens to their creation. If the owner of these songs decides, for any reason whatsoever, that they do not wish to have their music used in this film then they have the right to say "no". Perhaps greed entered into their decision, but chances are they were just asking for monetary recognition of the value of the music based on what the market is paying these days. Since the filmmaker did not seek permission in advance she took a big risk that she would be turned down flat. The copyright holders to the compositions (not the sound recordings, the songs themselves) might have said no based on many factors, not just money. (it is very likely that the sound recordings themselves are not covered by current copyright.)
    It seems that many of the people who complain about copyright restrictions are not the creators of original art themselves--they want to use others' creations either as-is or in some mash-up they put together. Art has value, which is always subjective. But if someone values another person's creation (in this case, the music) then they should not be surprised to hear that the original creator would like to be paid for use of their creation.

     

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  29.  
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    Alan, Jan 12th, 2009 @ 6:59pm

    re:copy RIGHT is just that

    I don't think you quite grasp the argument here. I and the majority of people involved in this discussion, are not against the idea of copyright. In its original form copyright was a great idea, in that if you came up with an original composition, be it art or literature, you had a limited time to do with it as you would (originally, I believe, 15 years) after which it became part of the national/global heritage so that others could build upon it, alter it, reference it in any way they chose and, in general, have unfettered use so that further creations could occur - that was the second part of the copyright idea, that it would promote further creation down the track. Now, however, due to successful lobbying by corporate interests, this second part of copyright has been effectively quashed by virtue of the draconian extensions (90 years after the creator's death) that have been applied. This obviously has no benefit for the creator of the work - after they are dead they don't really need any royalties any more. It only benefits whoever has obtained the copyright - the corporations or the non-creative descendents parasiting from another's hard work. This is the real issue here. Oh and I do have my own copyrighted material - it's just that I prefer to allow it into the public domain or release it under a creative commons license after I believe that I have made enough from it.

     

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  30.  
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    Johan, Jan 12th, 2009 @ 9:29pm

    Re:

    "Whether it helps the original copyright holders or not to have their music publicized, that's their decision since they created the music."
    You're joking! The creator of the music is long dead. The "copyright holders" are making money hand over fist for doing *nothing*!

     

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  31.  
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    DJ Velveteen, Jan 14th, 2009 @ 1:58pm

    Re: Re:

    You're joking! The creator of the music is long dead. The "copyright holders" are making money hand over fist for doing *nothing*! ...except taking artists to court. Hey, why don't we just start paying *everyone* for work they did last century? We'll pay pavers for roads they built in 1950, machinists for planes they built for World War II. Then everyone would be taken care of for the effort they put into their jobs! Wait, you think that people shouldn't get paid if they're not working? ...but that's... SOCIALISM!

     

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  32.  
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    Tom, Jan 14th, 2009 @ 8:34pm

    Re: Copyright Once Again Being Used To Hinder Culture, Not Enable It

    While I agree that any author or creator of the arts should know the basics of the law especially when it comes to copyright, did she think that her work could be copied for whatever reason someone wanted?

    However, the copyright laws have gotten out of control. They no longer just protect the creator but have been morphed into laws for corporations.

    From the US Constitution:
    "the Congress shall have power … to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

    It wasn't until 1976 that the terms were increased beyond the life of the author. Laws have got to be brought back to the benefit of the country, which is what copyright law was intended, and not just corporations.

     

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  33.  
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    Ruth, Jan 16th, 2009 @ 6:58pm

    It always amazes me that given how convoluted the lawmakers have managed to make copyright issues, any independent films manage to get made at all. It seems to me that you need a good guide like Clearance and Copyright: Everything You Need to know for Film and Television by Michael C. Donaldson before you even start planning projects. It's a great book that explains the issues in clear language so that even a novice like me can understand it.

     

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  34.  
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    Robert Scott Lawrence (profile), Mar 29th, 2012 @ 2:35pm

    Sita Sang The Blues -- Then Got Laryngitis

    I saw this short film a few years ago and somehow managed to miss the whole brouhaha about licensing the songs.

    Oddly enough, Spider Robinson presciently wrote about never-ending copyright in the 80s in his Hugo Award-winning short story about the death of creation, "Melancholy Elephants." Funny how life parrots fiction.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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