Question Copyright's "Minute Memes" challenge copyright rhetoric

Question Copyright's "Minute Memes" challenge copyright rhetoric


How do you deal with an entrenched content industry that tries to pump its twisted values down your throat with ludicrously illogical emotional appeals? Well, one way is to fight fire with fire by making your own emotional appeals, and trust to the viral amplification of free culture distribution to get the message out. This is the essence of the "minute meme" idea from Question Copyright, and animator Nina Paley has fired the first volley with her one-minute animation "Copying Is Not Theft."

Copying Is Not Theft

Paley's animation is intended to be just the first of several one-minute videos meant to communicate some of the basic ideas of free culture in small bite-sized chunks, to compete with anti-sharing messages promoted by the commercial proprietary content industry (like the now infamous "Piracy is Theft" videos placed on many commercial DVDs, which uses legally incorrect claims and gritty video style to equate making a copy of a DVD to carjacking and shoplifting).

Paley's animation is intended to be just the first of several one-minute videos meant to communicate some of the basic ideas of free culture in small bite-sized chunks

It's also a good example of free-culture collaboration since Paley created only the animation and a "scratch track" of her singing the words to her song "Copying Is Not Theft" a capella. She left the production of music and sound up to contributors after posting the video on YouTube and the Internet Archive. The Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license makes sure the remixes will also be free to distribute, and the idea will carry on.

So far, there have been two stand-out variations, both by Norman Szabo. My favorite is the simpler "Jazzy" one:

(YouTube: Copying Is Not Theft -- remixed (jazz)).

But there is also this much more in-your-face take on the idea with a punk soundtrack:

(YouTube: Copying Is Not Theft -- Re-Mashed (punk)).

The song has also been revised and repeated. Jonathon Mann sang a cover of the song. I liked this version enough to spend a little time with Audacity and Kino to match Paley's animation to it myself:

(YouTube: Copying Isn't Theft, also see Jonathan Mann's Blog).

If you're looking to make your own remix, you'll probably want to download the original high-definition video hosted by the Internet Archive.

Of course, many people have already pointed out the detrimental impact that copying may have on producers -- and they may be right. But calling copying "theft" is a bit like calling smoking "murder" (because second hand smoke, if breathed enough, can kill you): there may be some logic behind the comparison, but it goes way too far.

Calling copying "theft" is a bit like calling smoking "murder"

Nevertheless, the MPAA and organizations like them, have been pushing their "copying=theft" agenda very, very hard with their own advertising (like this ridiculous ad), which has already spawned a number of parodies for its blatant misrepresentation of the legal and ethical facts around copying media.

But while parodies can point out the flaws in this propaganda, it doesn't make a strong case for the alternative mental model that free culture and free software subsists on. It may show where "the system" is bad, but it doesn't help to define a new system. That's where videos like Paley's "Copying Is Not Theft" fit in -- they compete with the corporatist, copyright-maximalist worldview of the MPAA by showing an alternative.

Nina Paley

Ever since she made the plunge and released her film "Sita Sings the Blues", Nina Paley has become the darling of Question Copyright, and the relationship appears reciprocal -- Paley has become a staunch supporter of the ideas behind free culture and Creative Commons licensing (particularly the Attribution-ShareAlike license, which she has championed over non-free "non-commercial" or "non-derivative" licenses).

Paley has become a staunch supporter of the ideas behind free culture

Her conversion started with her disgust at the proprietary licensing system that she had to deal with when licensing the music for Sita. The film uses a substantial body of (now public domain) recordings of 1920s singer Annette Hanshaw. But unfortunately, while Hanshaw herself was long dead and her recordings had passed into the public domain a long time ago, the publishing house licenses on the music and songs themselves had not.

And the pricing on these licenses is precisely what you'd expect from a monopoly -- absolutely ridiculous price gouging. So, after borrowing $50,000 to legalize her work for release (after some tough negotiations to get the licensing cost down to a "mere" $50,000), she decided not to inflict the same pain on others, and try the path of releasing her work under a free license.

Completing her transition is the money she's made back through voluntary donations, special edition "creator endorsed" sales, and ancillary merchandising -- all moderated by the Sita Merchandising Empire set up by Question Copyright (here's their version of the story, by the way).

All this commercialism may seem a little crass. After all, this is supposed to be art, not just an opportunity to hawk stuff. But proprietary media works just like this, and free media has a serious mindset problem to overcome: most people think you just can't do it commercially.

Paley, has made quite a show of her financial rewards from Sita, precisely because it's necessary to topple this myth that free culture is necessarily non-commercial culture

So, Paley, has made quite a show of her financial rewards from Sita ("I want to make money -- I like money!" she's said in interviews), precisely because it's necessary to topple this myth that free culture is necessarily non-commercial culture.

Nina Paley proudly standing in front of the marquee topped by her movie Nina Paley proudly standing in front of the marquee topped by her movie "Sita Sings the Blues" (Photo Credit: Nina Paley / CC By-SA 3.0)

I think that's a good thing, because "Sita" has the potential to be a watershed event for free culture production: it's been given rave reviews by papers all around the United States, distributed internationally, given a "thumbs up" by Roger Ebert, called the "best animated feature film of the decade" (by Toon Zone), and was recently screened for four weeks at an art theater in New York. This is not a bad showing for any indie film, but what it really shows is that Sita, despite being a free-licensed Creative Commons work, is really just as commercially viable as any other independent film. And that's something the world needs to notice.

Question Copyright and the Minute Memes

QuestionCopyright.org has been challenging copyright maximalist rhetoric and promoting alternatives to copyright for a long time, but now, with a star animator on tap, the organization is in a position to make a much more visible bid for the public consciousness on copyright.

The minute meme campaign, Question Copyright will fight fire with fire -- directly challenging maximalist ideas with free culture alternative viewpoints. The idea is to make clear, in a collection of one-minute snippets how it is that culture can exist and thrive without the copyright restrictions that proprietary publishers keep insisting we need.

Many of these ideas have become second-nature to free software users, producers, and advocates -- but they remain new ideas in the mainstream. Question Copyright and Nina Paley plan to change that perception.

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Comments

kfogel's picture
Submitted by kfogel on

That last paragraph is as succinct an explanation of what we're trying to do as I've ever seen -- we may just have to copy it :-). Nice to see such a spot-on writeup. (And kudos on re-syncing the Jonathan Mann music track!)

-Karl Fogel
Editor, QuestionCopyright.org

Author information

Terry Hancock's picture

Biography

Terry Hancock is co-owner and technical officer of Anansi Spaceworks. Currently he is working on a free-culture animated series project about space development, called Lunatics as well helping out with the Morevna Project.