Regular Techdirt contributor Nina Paley has a fascinating interview
(pdf) in the latest edition of Radical History Review
. The issue is all about "new approaches to enclosures," so a discussion on enclosures around content and ideas seems absolutely appropriate. The actual interview took place a while ago, so it's a bit out of date, but is still a worthwhile read. It has a nice summary of the process she had to go through to clear the music for her film Sita Sings the Blues
, which debunks the commonly cited fallacy that her position on copyright is because she failed to clear the music for her film. This is entirely false. In fact, she reached out to the copyright holders first, and even admits they might never have even realized that her film existed (or that they held the copyrights on the compositions of these ancient songs) if she hadn't told them.
People advise me, "Why don't you just ask
the companies for permission?" But the cost of asking for permission is extremely
high. All of the artists are dead, so I can't ask their permission. And all of the works
belong to these corporations, and the corporations won't talk to normal people. If
they don't know who you are, they don't return your calls or they just give you the
runaround. They will only talk to lawyers and music supervisors, people who are
We tried for months to contact the copyright holders directly, and they
wouldn't give us any information or respond to us, so I had to hire a lawyer to talk to
them. Before I even got an estimate of what it would cost to license this music, I had
to pay $15,000 to an intermediary. When I specified that the entire budget for the
film was less than $200,000, they came back with the bargain-basement amount of
$220,000 to use Hanshaw's music in my film. And before they would even talk to me
about anything, I had to pay them $500 per song and sign a piece of paper promising
not to make any money from it at film festivals, and that after one year, I wouldn't
even be able to show it anymore.
Paley does a nice job explaining why the idea of the "tragedy of the commons" really doesn't apply to ideas and content, even if it's one of the regular justifications for copyright, and how the more her work gets shared, the more valuable it becomes:
Calling both a grassy field and ideas a "commons" is interesting, because one of
them, the grassy field, is tangible and scarce, whereas the other one is not actually limited. A lot of the conversation that happens around imaginary property is
that people think that itís real. The "enclosure of the commons" metaphor definitely
works for both, but a grassy field is very different from culture in that there's only so
much grassy field. A grassy field is actually real; if, for example, you take a bulldozer
to your grassy field, then the grassy field is ruined. But if you take your bulldozer to a
copy of your work, then there are all these other copies. It doesn't affect the idea. It
only affects one copy. So the concept of the "tragedy of the commons" doesn't really
apply to intellectual/cultural works at all.
Real things are limited. If you don't take care of the field, or if you overgraze
it, then there's not enough grass for the other sheep. With cultural works, it's the
exact opposite. The more they're shared, the more valuable they become. People
apply these ideas about scarcity to culture, and culture is not scarce. People are
thinking of the "problem of abundance": the idea that people don't know what to do
with abundance. But there is no tragedy of the cultural commons. I've read justifications of copyright where people say that if culture is shared too much the value of
the work is diluted. Who came up with that idea? The opposite is true: works do not
become less valuable the more they're shared; they become more valuable the more
they're shared. What on earth are they talking about when they say that sharing
dilutes the value of the work?
Another key point made in the article is debunking the whole "but, but plagiarism!" response to copyright discussions, whereby people confuse copyright and plagiarism. She first covers how the two are different, and then notes that someone copying her work without crediting her isn't as big a problem as many people think it is, because (1) it doesn't actually harm her actual work and (2) the more widely her work is actually shared, the more people will realize that the plagiarist plagiarized:
I do want my work to be credited to me, but I don't
think it's important or necessary to have that legal component of it, because I really
believe that a community enforces that much better than the law does. No one
would be sued for plagiarizing Shakespeare. If I publish "Hamlet by Nina Paley," no
one is going to sue me. The freer my work is, the less plagiarized it will be, because
the more people know what it is. I think what's really cool about free culture is that
it actually protects work much better from plagiarism.
Anyway, those are just a few snippets. The full interview covers a lot more ground and is well worth reading for those interested in these topics.