Sita Sings The Blues

Is There A Business Model For A Movie Without Copyright?

Sita Sings the Blues is an 82-minute animated film that combines autobiography with a retelling of the classic Indian myth the Ramayana. The film is written, directed, edited, produced and animated by a single woman, Nina Paley, who spent three years on the making. It also put her more than $20,000 in debt.

The film is extraordinary in many different ways, including the motivation behind its creation, the way it has been funded, and the way it is currently marketed and distributed.

In 2002 Ms. Paley followed her husband from their home in San Francisco to western India. There she became acquainted with the Ramayana’s tragic saga of the Hindu goddess Sita, who is exiled by her husband, Rama, who fears she has been unfaithful after she is abducted by a demon king.

While she went on a business trip to New York, her husband sent her an e-mail message telling her not to come back. In “grief, agony and shock,” she stayed in Manhattan, camping out on friends’ sofas. At one of her hosts, a collector of vintage records, she became familiar with Annette Hanshaw’s music. One of her songs was a perfect match together with Rama’s rejection of Sita. Ms. Paley being an animator herself, the idea of producing a film out of these elements came naturally to her, however, she didn’t have the money, or the emotional resources, to make more than a short film.

That film, “Trial by Fire,” turned out to be such a success that Ms. Paley started to expand it. “It sounds dumb, but the movie wanted to be made,” she said. “There was this music and this story. It was like: ‘Someone’s got to make this movie. I guess it’s going to be me.’” (Rochlin, 2009)

In 2008 November, “Sita Sings the Blues” opened the San Francisco International Animation Festival, along with the Museum of Modern Art’s annual series ‘Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You in New York’, where it won a Gotham Award. After the San Francisco premiere, Ms. Paley stepped onstage and announced, “You’ve all just participated in an illegal act.” Those who own the rights to the songs of Ms. Hanshaw’s recordings charged tens of thousands of dollars for Ms. Paley to use them — which Ms. Paley did not have, and was more than what independent distributors offered for a theatrical release. However, Ms. Paley did not give up. “My thing,” she said then, “is that I just want people to see it.” (Rochlin, 2009)

A little later, the licensing fee was negotiated down to approximately $50,000, and “Sita” escaped from what Ms. Paley calls “copyright jail.” Ms. Paley decided to use the free software movement as her model: the film was released under a Creative Commons licence, without any copyright restrictions, and made available to watch for free on the film’s official website, YouTube, and Hulu and the public became its distributor.

On the film’s website, centrally located is the following message:

“Dear Audience,

I hereby give Sita Sings the Blues to you. Like all culture, it belongs to you already, but I am making it explicit… Please distribute, copy, share, archive, and show Sita Sings the Blues. From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes.

You don’t need my permission to copy, share, publish, archive, show, sell, broadcast, or remix Sita Sings the Blues. Conventional wisdom urges me to demand payment for every use of the film, but then how would people without money get to see it? … Control offers a false sense of security. The only real security I have is trusting you, trusting culture, and trusting freedom.

I’m not going to use our broken legal system to enforce anything. … I still don’t want you to restrict derivatives or attach DRM or misattribute, but I’m not going to sue over it.

Some of the songs in Sita Sings the Blues are not free, and may never be; copyright law requires you to obey their respective licenses. This is not by my choice; please see our restrictions page for more.

There is the question of how I’ll get money from all this. My personal experience confirms audiences are generous and want to support artists. Surely there’s a way for this to happen without centrally controlling every transaction. The old business model of coercion and extortion is failing. New models are emerging, and I’m happy to be part of that. But we’re still making this up as we go along. You are free to make money with the free content of Sita Sings the Blues, and you are free to share money with me. People have been making money in Free Software for years; it’s time for Free Culture to follow. I look forward to your innovations.

If you have questions, please ask each other. If you have ideas, please implement them – you don’t need my permission or anyone else’s (except for the copyright-restricted songs, of course).  If you see abuses, please address them, but don’t get bogged down in arcane details of copyright law.  The copyright system wants you to think in terms of asking permission; I want you to think in terms of freedom. We’ve set up this Wiki to get things started. Feel free to improve it!

… Thanks for your support! This film wouldn’t exist without you.


–Nina Paley” (

According to Anderson’s taxonomy of free products (2008), Sita Sings the Blues, along with open source software, represent the gift economy, which, together with altruism, has always existed, it only became more visible now as the internet and what it allows for: zero-cost distribution gives it a platform where the actions of individuals can have global impact. Once the film is made – for whatever reason – NOW, in this age, it costs nothing for Ms. Paley to give it away.

Further, as Ms. Paley mentioned in her message, the internet gives rise to new business models.  Although she does not control and charge after each transaction related to Sita Sings the Blues, she is very much open to being supported by her audience. Besides a transaction-like accepting of donations for the download, a less well-known example is the activity of, a nonprofit organization that promotes the development of non-restrictive distribution methods. On, profits coming from the distribution of products related to Sita Sings the Blues (such as DVDs, shirts, stickers, etc.) are shared with Ms. Paley. Another typical means to which arts are much attracted is crowdfunding. Sita Sings the Blues is extraordinary in the sense that in this case, the film was produced first and donations came only afterwards. And finally, as Ms. Paley pointed out: the best ideas that can make the free culture movement sustainable might be to come. And crowdsourcing the generation of new solutions might have been the best idea from Ms. Paley. Maybe such an idea will come to light which not only makes Sita Sings the Blues a Hollywood-size success, but also which will transform industries.

Ms. Paley’s business model to create and distribute Sita Signs the Blues can be, and is often, appraised for creating value out of nothing; or it can be frowned upon for not being rational and deliberately planned. Someone has made a film out of their personal tragedy and now wants to have everyone to see it. Is it ridiculous? Is it heroic? Everyone can decide. Is it something radically different than what we have seen so far? Most certainly. Is it a forerunner of a completely new business model, which, though certainly won’t crowd out, but will probably exist next to, traditional moviemaking? It’s exciting to see in the next couple of years.


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