Sita Sings the Blues: Copyright Jail is No Fun

08 January 2009

An unscheduled post: This isn't really a breaking news story, it's more of an ongoing plight, but Ip's What's Up would like to help draw attention to Nina Paley's struggle to free her award winning feature length film, Sita Sings the Blues from Copyright Jail.

sita in copyright jail

The (Very Brief) Low-Down

Sita Sings the Blues is a critically acclaimed animated film that brings together a classic Indian epic, Ramayana, Nina's own life and the 1920's jazz music of Annette Hanshaw.  (Movie Trailer, Awards List, Roger Ebert's Review, Film Clip.)

That last part is the rub.  Because the underlying compositions of the music used in the film is still under copyright protection, the film can not be legally distributed.

So what's the big deal?  Just pay the copyright owners and get on with it, right?  Well, it turns out that "just paying the copyright owners" is cost prohibitive.  (Nina's step-agreement with the copyright owners and her plans to get film distributed here.)  Nina has taken on a lot of monetary debt, not to mention the time spent, trying to get her art out there for people to appreciate.  She needs help.

What Can I Do?

Regular Ol' Joes

 Donate: has set up a donation system to help free Sita.  Donations are tax deductible.  Spread the Word: help tell others about the Sita saga, put it in your status message, tweet it, blog about it, tell your friends and neighbors.


Nina is looking for some good pro bono legal help.  You won't be alone.  She's working to assemble a team, and there's at least one volunteer to assist with legal research.  It appears most of the legal help she's found is more experienced in software matters than entertainment law issues.  From her blog:

Is there a lawyer in the house?
I mean a good, progressive, Free-Culture-oriented lawyer. Right now we’s legal counsel, whose experience lies in Free Software. The California-based Electronic Frontier Foundation hasn’t yet agreed to help directly (maybe they’ll change their minds!) but is looking for additional pro bono legal help for me here in New York. The coolest legal work seems to be in Software; I haven’t yet found anyone in Entertainment Law who really gets it. But if you’re out there, please get in touch! Let’s make a Sita Legal Defense team.

Where Can I See Sita Sings the Blues?

The film is being included in a number of film festivals around the world.  You can check for a location near you at the screening schedule.



 yellow line


More Detailed Information About Sita

The Step Deal

The original quote given to Nina for licenses for the 11 songs at issue in the movie was $220,000.  Nina provides a spreadsheet of the quotes here.  By the end of last month, Nina was able to get this reduced to a step-deal that starts at $50,000 (which she's taking out a loan to pay) and goes up from there depending on how successful the film is.  If the film were to be shown in theaters and made a million dollars at the box office, Nina would get between $30,000 and $80,000 (by her estimate, per her blog) and for every million at the box office she would have to pay another $38,500 for the licenses.  That means that if the film makes a million dollars at the box office, the publishing companies that own the rights to the compositions sung by Annette and used by Nina make more collectively than Nina makes.  Annette's heirs get nothing anyway; the sound recordings themselves are in the public domain (see below).

The Issue with the Music

As Nina nicely explains at comment #8 and comment #13 here, the actual recordings used in the film are in the public domain.  It's the underlying compositions that are still protected.  In US copyright law, sound recordings and musical works are protected separately and have different rights attached to them.  The recordings sung by Annette Hanshaw that Nina used in the film were protected as sound recordings.  They have since fallen into the public domain.  The underlying compositions, the words and written music for the songs, are protected as musical works and are still under copyright protection thanks to the Sony Bono Copyright Term Extension Act.  This act retroactively extended the copyright life of works made under the 1909 Copyright Act and still under protection in 1998 to a total of 95 years of protection, counted from the date of publication.

Several different entities own the rights to the compositions, some of them sharing the rights to a single composition with others.

The rights owners include:

Nina says in her blog that there are 11 Hanshaw recordings used in the film.  The spreadsheet of offers from the rights holders only lists ten.  Here are those ten:

  1. Am I Blue?  (1929, Harry Akst(d.1963) and Grant Clarke (d. 1931))
  2. Daddy Won't You Please Come Home?
  3. Here We Are
  4. I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling (1929, Fats Waller (d.1943), Harry Link (d.1956), Billy Rose (d.1966))
  5. Lover Come Back to Me (1928, Sigmund Romberg (d.1951), Oscar Hamerstein II (d.1960))
  6. Moanin' Low
  7. Mean to Me (1929, Fred E. Ahlert (d.1953), Roy Turk (1934))
  8. What I Wouldn't Do for That Man
  9. If You Want the Rainbow (You Must Have the Rain)
  10. Who's That Knockin' At My Door

I couldn't find information on the rest of the songs.  If anyone has any suggestions or information, let me know.

Some Other Articles on the Sita Saga

Copyright Owners Contributing to the Destruction of Their Own Property at Copyfight

Sita Sings the Copyright Blues at Copyright & Campaigns

Sita Sings the Blues at Soup Greens

Owning Music at No Notes

Distribution Blues at

Diversions - Sita Sings the Blues at The Obenson Report

The Best of 2008 at Duck Blog


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