Home » Copyright is Brain Damage: Nina Paley at TEDxMaastricht (Full Transcript)

Copyright is Brain Damage: Nina Paley at TEDxMaastricht (Full Transcript)

Sharing is Kindness in Action!


In 2008 I finished a feature film called “Sita Sings the Blues”. “Sita Sings the Blues” used music by a singer from the 1920s named Anette Hanshaw. And those songs should have been in the public domain by 1980s but they weren’t because of retroactive copyright extensions. I knew this when I was making the film and I used those songs anyway because they were essential. At the time I didn’t know that much about copyright or intellectual property. I did know the copyright terms for too long. I thought retroactive copyright extensions were insane. but I never fundamentally doubted the concept of intellectual property.

I’m an artist and so that was probably the only kind of property I would ever have. And the idea that I could just think of something and make that property was really intoxicating. In 2008 while movie distributors were going bankrupt right and left. it fell on me to clear the licences for “Sita Sings the Blues”. So I entered the kafkaesque copyright system trying to do that. Every step of the way, people told me this system might be annoying.

But the same kafkaesque nightmare is protecting your intellectual property. It’s annoying but don’t you want your intellectual property protected? It took a lot of Kafka for me to questioning about the whole thing. One of the things I noticed after a few months is that the rights holders weren’t actually getting more money because of copyright. What they were getting was the power to suppress art, to suppress communication. This is because you can offer the money that you have but they don’t have to take it. They arbitrarily set how much they want and they don’t have to licence it anyway. You can offer millions of dollars, and if they don’t feel like it they under no obligation to licence works.

If you don’t get the permission then what they do is they legally can censor a movie, and this happens all the time. That actually doesn’t make the money. I also realized there wasn’t making artists’ money. The artists that made up the music in “Sitas Makes the Blues” copyright music they were all dead. But before they were dead they had signed their copyrights to the companies that were making the songs. They’re down to like five global mediate conglomerates that control all music. And, these rights are basically abstract financial tools that are traded between corporations. So, a single song by Annette Hanshaw from the 20s is broken into percentages. Those percentages are owned by multiple corporations. This does not actually benefit artists. It doesn’t benefit the works in question and it doesn’t benefit the public. So I had to ask myself how much was copyrighting actually benefiting me I took a look at my carer which had been in comics up to that point. I realized I wasn’t really making money from copyright.

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What copyright was doing was blocking the circulation of my comics, which is probably why most of you haven’t seen my comics. By the time I was making “Sita Sings the Blues”, Annete Hanshaw’s music was basically unheard. The only copies of Anette Hanshaw’s music that were in circulation were by old record collectors who were sharing copies illegally. Beyond that, you could not hear Annette Hanshaw song anymore.

So, at this point, I could talk about copyright reform. We could shorten copyright terms we could add responsibilities to monopoly rights. If intellectual property is really property we could tax it, like property. And there are plenty of copyright reformers who focus on these issues. But my life is too short to focus on legislation when I could be making art. I am not a copyright reformer. I am a copyright abolitionist. Now, you might be wondering if life is too short to reform copyright, isn’t it too short by abolish copyright? What I mean to abolish copyright is my own mind. I can do that right now, and so can you. We are information transmitters. Information enters through our senses like our eyes and our ears. It exits through our expressions, like our voices, our writings, or drawings. And all this information going through us creates a living phenomenon called Culture.

In order for Culture to stay alive we have to be open transmitting and receiving information. I depicted a culture movie on a line here. But really it’s a network, like a neural network. And we are neurons in a great mind. In an individual mind information flows from neuron to neuron and that creates a bigger phenomenon called Thought. And that creates a bigger phenomenon called Mind. In the Great Mind, information moves from human to human. And that creates a greater phenomenon called Art. And that creates a greater phenomenon called Culture. There are single artists that work alone. In fact I’m one of therm.

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But the Art that these individual artists transmit contains all sorts of information that they first received from Culture. This might be language, symbols, aesthetics, references of all kinds. This information has to flow between humans for Art to exist. Just like information has to flow between neurons for Thought to exist. It’s through this flow that culture stays alive and we stay connected to each other.

Ideas can flow in and out, and they change little as they go along and that’s called innovation or progress. But thanks to copyright we live in a regime where some information can go in but it can’t come out. I often hear people engaged in creator pursuits ask “am I allowed to use this?, I don’t want to get in trouble.” Trouble may include lawsuits, fines and even jail. And it’s the threat of trouble that is dictating our choices about what we express. Copyright activates our internal censors. Internal censorship is the enemy of creativity because it halts expression before it can even begin. If you’re asking “am I allowed to use this?” you may have surrendered your internal authority to lawyers, legislators and corporations. Whenever we censor our expression we close a little more and information flows a little less. The less information flows, the more it stagnates. Evolution, progress and innovation stall. And this is what we call “permission culture”.

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