This is part of a roundtable on copyright and free culture issues. You can read the whole Cuckoo for Copyright roundtable here.

Caro discussed the copyright issues involved in Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues in a post a couple of weeks ago. I’ll quote her summary of the film and it’s relation to copyright issues:

Around the same time that Lethem’s article was hitting the newsstands, cartoonist Nina Paley was hitting a brick wall in the production and distribution of her blues-inflected animated full-length feature film, Sita Sings the Blues. Made by Paley single-handedly in her Manhattan apartment, Sita brings together an embarrassment of source-material richness: Paley’s own humor-filled story of breakup-by-email, the ancient Indian epic Ramayana, and the blues songs of ‘20s American songstress Annette Hanshaw.

Despite the “open source” culture of indigenous blues, it’s those Hanshaw recordings that led her to the brick wall: the recordings’ are restricted by copyrights held by large corporations like Sony and EMI. The cost of licensing the music used in Sita would have cost her more than it cost to make the entire film…

Paley’s imaginative solution to the problem has been to give the film away for free, and the result has been a firestorm of enthusiasm for all things Sita. Paley says that her new “free culture” lifestyle has eradicated her cynicism and made her even more creative than before.

I saw Sita earlier this week, and it’s well-constructed and lovely to watch. Cutting back and forth and in and out between styles and stories, Paley’s visual inventiveness is impressive. I particularly liked the scenes of bloodshed and carnage, invariably done in a slick, cartoony animation style, with Rakhasa demons whimsically disintegrating into piled-up bloodily gushing bits as Rama’s wife Sita trills along in Annette Henshaw’s gosh-gee flapper vocals. I love Paley’s housecats too; drawn in a simple, line-art style with paws that open and close like hands, they trot across the screen with adorable insouciance.

Despite the movies pleasures, though, I had some reservations. Maybe those are best expressed by
this comment from Vikas over at Roger Ebert’s blog.

I”m intrigued by the take this woman has on the story of Rama and the Ramayan.
The story is actually, 98% of the time, told regarding the main part of the Ramayana story which is about Ram who is a an incarnation of God – of brahma, the spirit, of Christ, of Krishna, or who you will — he is God, he embodies God.

His role on earth is to demonstrate dharam – duty, and how to live one’s life. He is a good husband, he loves his wife, he is humble, he turns the other cheek against those who offend him, and wins hearts with love, humility, and peace. When his hand is forced, he fights for what is right.

This is the actual story of Ram the prince, and it is a very beloved tale by all Indians. There have been countless adaptions of it. It is very important to know this aspect of the story, though this animated tale seems to concentrate on a part of the tale that is actually not considered a large part of the Ramayana epic itself, and in fact is often considered a part of the epic that comes in a “sequel” if you will.

at any rate, the epic, as we recall, is about Ram (who embodies God), and later then suspects his wife of adultery. This is meant to be God himself, demonstrating the frailty of human beings, when they lack faith in the divine, when they disrespect the feminine aspect of God. In the epic, Ram himself knowingly, in consciousness, acts out this betrayal of the feminine, as a lesson to humanity, then is punished for it.

I thought these aspects of the tale are important to consider; the epic is not just about some evil husband who betrays his wife. The main Ramayana is not this story; but this tale of doubting his wife is toward the end of the epic, after many countless tales and lessons and acts of valour, heroism, and love by Ram for his wife Sita.
This woman, who has made this enchanted film, seems to have concentrated on the betrayal aspect (is she a feminist? is she bitter???? Her choice seems to betray an extreme vision of the epic, and does not take into account the metaphor and the knowledge by Indians that Ram was God-consciousness manifested on earth, AS WAS Sita, both to enact the frailties of human beings and the cost of disrespect to the feminine divine, in the final, last act of the Ramayana.)

I just see it as unfortunate that an animated fable such as this casts Ram as a villain, and suspect it has to do with the maker’s own somewhat imbalanced view of the epic as a whole.

Parts of Vikas’ comments here seem irritating and wrong-headed (I mean, of course Paley’s a feminist! And what’s wrong with being bitter, anyway?) But I think there’s something to his overall point. The Ramayana is a religious epic central to India’s culture. Paley takes it and essentially presents it as a metaphor for her own relationship troubles. She uses Henshaw’s recordings in a similar way; the songs are taken out of context, so that they’re no longer about Henshaw, but rather about Sita, and through her about Paley. The movie is an engine for turning culture into Paley; Ramayana and 20s jazz are there to reflect Paley back to herself so she can be comforted and heal.

So…what’s wrong with that? After all, nobody owns the Ramayana — and nobody owns Henshaw either, even if her recordings are copyrighted. Why not take from culture what you want, apply it to yourself, and turn it to your own ends? Another of Ebert’s commenters, Sumana Harihareswara makes essentially this point:

To vikas’s comment, and those of others who fear that this film doesn’t respect the epic: I’m an Indian and I love this movie. If you watch the trailer you’ll see that throughout the entire thing you’ll hear Indians commenting on characters, motives, and the versions of the story they heard growing up. A list of collaborators, including many Indians.

It’s an epic, a classic. No one gets to say “This is the One True Ramayana and any retelling that focuses on a part I don’t care for is Wrong.” And that goes for Beowulf, the Iliad, and all those spinoffs of Austen and Eyre.
If you watch the film, you’ll see that it is indeed a tale of love, romance, exile, reunion, and then the episode you consider an optional sequel at the end. But if the Ramayana is a tale of hard ethical choices, then the ugly episode fits right in. Dasharatha must choose between his promise to his heir and his promise to his wife. Sita chooses between chastity and giving in to her kidnapper’s demands. And Rama chooses between his credibility as a king and his loyalty to his faithful wife.

You could see it as a testament to the epic’s continuing power, after all, that a woman from a different culture and a different era can still see herself in it. Culture is there to be used. It lives when we transform it. Right?

That’s the theory of the free culture movement that Paley promotes, in any case. And I’m fairly sympathetic. Having giant corporate conglomerates sitting on Henshaw’s recordings doesn’t benefit anyone but giant corporate conglomerates…and surely they have enough going for them as it is. And if nobody should own Henshaw, then surely, as Harihareswara says, nobody can own the Ramayana, any more than anyone can own the Bible. These texts are part of humanity’s cultural heritage; they’re riches we all share.

But…are they riches, and do we really share them? The free culture movement t presents itself often as an alternative to capitalism; a way to get culture out from corporate dominance and let it return to its free, natural state. The thing is, though, that “free” is still a price point — culture is still treated as part of the marketplace, albeit as a free sample rather than as a commodity per se. The happy jouissance of sharing and bricolage, or reinterpretation and personal healing, matters more than the original context of the Ramayana, or of anything. The freedom of culture becomes more important than culture itself — which seems to me like a classic formulation of humanistic capitalist ethics.

The fact that capitalist art is capitalist isn’t particularly shocking, or even condemnatory. And Sita and other manifestations of free culture (like, say, mashups) are fun. Irreverently taking bits from here and pieces from there and tossing them all together, regardless of context — it’s startling and exhilarating.

The downside is that it’s also glib. The 560th mashup of “Single Ladies” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” starts to feel less like high-spirited transgression than like a lack of imagination. You get that sense of lurking pedestrianism while watching Sita as well. Paley goes to India — so, hey, her love life is just like Sita’s! And Annette Henshaw singing “Mean to Me” is just like when Rama is mean to his wife! It’s amazing how those go together! By the end of the movie, the whimsical cuteness with which the Henshaw songs commented on the action had moved past entertaining and on into actively irritating. Indeed, the insistent preciousness of the film eventually becomes grating, from the oh-aren’t-they-ethnic modern-day Indians who provide adorably confused commentary to the Sita stories, to the animated Sita’s winkingly gyrating Betty Boop hips.

Watching Sita in this context, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the free culture movement isn’t so much a repudiation of modernity as it is an extension and perfection of it. We’re all consumers, we all want everything as cheap as possible — and there’s nothing cheaper than free. With culture liberated, we can all flit from distraction to distraction, stopping just long enough for a single sip before rushing off to the next taste sensation. In capitalism, we’re all tourists and all local color, performing cheerful parodies of our ancestor’s native dances for the elucidation and healing of our pathologically rootless neighbors.

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