Animator Nina Paley Confronts the Copyright Quandary

In addition to talking with animator Nina Paley about her newest film, Seder Masochism, FF2 talked with her about her views on copyright. Paley describes herself as a copyright abolitionist and has written for and did a series called Mimi & Eunice about copyright. Paley also did a great Ted Talk called “Copyright is Brain Damage” for TEDxMaastricht.


Elisa Shoenberger: In your Ted Talk, you talk about copyright as brain damage. Why is it such an important issue for artists and creative workers today?


Nina Paley: If you’re making something and the first thing you think is “Am I allowed to do this?”, then you’ve already lost. That’s just not how creativity works. All creative work builds on what’s come before. The division between what is legally called original and what is legally called derivative is completely arbitrary. Everything we’re doing right now is derivative. Language is derivative; sentence structures is derivative. I’m going to be using idioms and jokes and things like that. But if we really worked on it, we could figure out who first said or published such a thing. It’s usually Shakespeare, but then Shakespeare is public domain because of arbitrary date cutoffs, right? The Bible, the book of Exodus, that’s public domain because of arbitrary date cutoffs. But if my film were based on something more widely read than Exodus, for example Star Wars, I wouldn’t be legally permitted to do that because of this arbitrary date. Nothing is original.


So why is it important for artists? Why are you making art? Presumably people are making art to express something and communicate with their fellow human beings. We do that with language and metaphors that we do not originate. If we originated all this stuff, there would be no communication. We have shared language, shared culture. Using a piece of music that clearly has cultural significance and cultural resonance in this case, “Free to be You and Me” (Elisa note: used centrally in Seder Masochism) that has so much meaning attached to it that did not come from the authors. The meaning of “Free to Be You and Me” came from us. It came from a generation of children that listened to it.


The idea that that’s wrong and what I should have done was composed a new song or commissioned a new song that has no additional meaning whatsoever, that’s stupid. That’s bad art. Using a song that is a cultural touchpoint adds meaning to it.


This juxtaposition is the whole reason I used Annette Hanshaw songs in Sita Sings the Blue was not only that it was absolutely the best music for it, but the fact that you have the Ramayana that is this ancient story from South Asia being expressed through American pop music from the early 20th century. That says something about the power of the story and the profundity of it and the primalness of it, that just commissioning cute music to go along with it would not do.


Shoenberger: Sita Sings the Blues introduced a whole generation of people to Annette Hanshaw, who as you point out in your Ted Talk, was only known by collectors illegally copying her records.


Paley: You would think that these industries would realize that they made more money but they’re not interested in money. They want control. The enactment of all these copyright laws online and elsewhere is basically the foundation of a surveillance state.


Shoenberger: What do you think about the state of copyright now? Has it gotten better or gotten worse?


Paley: Well video platforms have auto takedown. They basically control the platforms. Youtube does not recognize fair use. Same thing with Facebook. Sometimes I would put clips on Facebook and Facebook would just automatically take them down. They wouldn’t even go off in the first place. It’s automated censorship.


I’d say that’s worse. The Internet is essentially broken at this point. It’s no longer a universal press that routes around censorship because we’ve all switched to social media. Censorship is built into everything and it’s gone way beyond copyrighted, it’s an incredibly repressive place where all kinds of speeches controlled.


This is the certainly the legacy of the copyright industries controlling more of the Internet and changing laws to basically break the Internet. And it’s going to get worse. On the other hand, people continue to share stuff that they like, so that’s a nice trend. Basically the laws are terrible, but you have people breaking the laws, which is nice. 10 years ago, I was really hopeful. But young people today, like people who are about 20 today, seem to really be into authoritarianism. They don’t seem to believe in free speech at all.


They kind of hate free speech because it hurts people’s feelings. The principle of free speech is like it’s been eradicated. This is the first generation I’ve ever seen actually that doesn’t cherish free speech as a principle. It’s really worrying. I got into it 10 years ago as an artist and I’m a lot more concerned about it today just as a citizen.


Shoenberger: In your talk, you have a critique of alternative licensing agreements, like Creative Commons, that it only helps to reinforce that you need to have a license.


Paley: It does contribute to reinforcing permission culture, but that’s only not the only effect. Certainly Creative Commons licenses are certainly useful and I still use them. At the end of January, I declared I was dedicating Seder Masochism to the public domain. I think what that means is that the master files on are classified with a CC0 license, which is a dedication to public domain license. It’s still a license, unfortunately. They are certainly helpful. I use them. It’s just they’re not the solution to the problems of copyright. They are a band aid.


Shoenberger: What would be your ideal?


Paley: Abolition of copyright.


Thanks to Nina Paley for taking the time to talk to us at FF2 Media!

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