Since the subject of copyright and the conversion of music into an ownable commodity is very relevant to the story of “SJI” — having come up most recently in one of the entries in the ongoing Q&A with I Went Down To St. James Infirmary author Robert W. Harwood — I thought it was worth mentioning this:
Soup Greens points out the travails of indie movie Sita Sings The Blues. Apparently the filmmaker used some 1920s recordings on the soundtrack. While the recordings are in the public domain, the compositions are not.
Filmmaker/cartoonist Nina Paley laid out the basics on her blog back in August:
Sita Sings the Blues includes 11 songs recorded by Annette Hanshaw in 1927-1929. The recordings themselves are not protected by Federal Copyright. The underlying compositions are. So we (my sales rep’s law firm, to whom I now owe additional thousands of dollars) approached the so-called music publishers to negotiate rights. After all demanded $500 per song to permit the film to play at festivals (for which I make no money and am in debt), here’s what they “estimate” for me to legally sell DVDs:
$15,000 to $26,000 per song.
Her working estimate of the total cost is about $220,000 — which she says exceeds the entire cost of the film itself.
Not being familiar with any of this until now, I’ve had to work backward a bit and may have some things wrong. But one interesting development seems to be that she has worked with Hanshaw fan record collectors to make available a free soundtrack of sorts — the 11 Hanshaw performances used in the film.
I’m not totally clear on the status of the film, I gather it is still on the festival circuit, where it has certainly been well-received. And Paley’s most recent post (as of this moment) is about Roger Ebert giving the film the proverbial thumbs-up.
Meanwhile, Paley has been radicalized on the subject of copyright law. October 3:
I don’t want the lesson others take from Sita to be “don’t do that!” My hope is that Sita shows that yes, you CAN do this. The film violates some immoral and unconstitutional laws, but it EXISTS. If I’d followed all the rules, the film would not exist. If you take a lesson from Sita, let it not be to fear creative expression; let it be that US copyright laws are broken.