Freedom Economics: An Artist Goes Open Source

Karl Fogel (Open Tech Strategies, LLC)
Location: D138
Tags: copyright, arts
Average rating: ****.
(4.67, 6 ratings)

In late 2008, acclaimed animator Nina Paley had a copyright problem. She’d completed a brilliant, feature-length animated film, “Sita Sings the Blues”, and it was a huge hit at festival screenings — but she couldn’t distribute it, because it used recordings of jazz songs from the late 1920s. Although the recordings were in the public domain, the compositions (the songs themselves) were not, and the corporations that held the copyrights to these 80-year-old songs wanted $220,000.00 USD in licensing fees to allow Paley to distribute the film.

She negotiated them down to $50,000.00 and paid it, but the experience caused her to question the wisdom of monopolies in the arts. She decided that having made her film legal for her to distribute, she’d make it legal for everyone to distribute. She released it under a Creative Commons ShareAlike license, and then, working with the non-profit (where she is now Artist-in-Residence), she developed an economic model that allows the audience to support her:

  • Encourage people to share the film freely;
  • Sell endorsed DVDs and other merchandise, showing how much money goes to the author;
  • Make it easy to get involved (e.g., the subtitles on the endorsed DVD were done by fans)
  • Make it easy to donate too;
  • Allow commercial use (e.g., screenings) without requiring anyone to ask permission first;
  • Use non-exclusive distributor arrangements to get the film into theaters;
  • Encourage remixes and creative re-use.

All of these have direct parallels in open source software, and that’s no accident: Paley consciously adopted the methods of the free software / open source movement to distribute the film. This talk will explain in depth how and why, and discuss what Paley and are doing next to encourage more artists to go open source.

Meanwhile, “Sita Sings the Blues” continues to spread over the Internet and in theaters. By the end of 2009 it had not only become the best reviewed new release in the country, it had brought in more money for Paley than any distributor had offered for a traditional, monopoly-based arrangement. Unlike in a “burst-and-fade” distribution model, it keeps going for as long as audiences want, because they own it too.

Photo of Karl Fogel

Karl Fogel

Open Tech Strategies, LLC

Karl Fogel is an open source developer, author, and copyright reform activist. After working on CVS and writing “Open Source Development With CVS” (Coriolis, 1999,, he went to CollabNet, Inc as a founding developer in the Subversion project. Based on his experiences there, he wrote “Producing Open Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software Project” (O’Reilly, 2005, After a brief stint as an Open Source Specialist at Google, he left to found the non-profit He now works at Canonical, Ltd on the Launchpad collaboration platform and continues to run He writes and speaks regularly on copyright reform and on the application of open source principles to areas outside software.

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  • Linux Pro Magazine

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