April 28, 2009
Open source movies
Posted by Usha Rodrigues

Last week I attended an enjoyable and thought-provoking Illinois Business Law and Policy roundtable on the portrayal of business in film.  I was admittedly skeptical about our host Larry Ribstein's thesis, that business is portrayed negatively in American film because of "film artists’ resentment of the constraint that capitalists put on their self-expression."  

After a day of prawf theorizing on the motives of filmmakers and their relationship with corporations, the roundtable had a visit from a "real specimen": independent filmmaker Nina Paley, whose movie, Sita Sings the Blues, was a part of Ebertfest and is available free for download.  Right now.  Seriously, if you want to see it, just go here, and it's yours.

Nina convinced me that Larry may be on to something, although I'm not sure how representative she was as an American filmmaker--for one thing, she was excited to talk to a group of law professors!  She certainly resents the constraints that certain capitalists--copyright-holders--put on her ability to use America's culture.  And she's putting her money where her mouth is, literally giving her work away.  Here's more on her philosophy.

I don't do much with intellectual property, but I remember as an associate having to learn the ins and outs of open source licenses and being enchanted by the idea of copyleft.  Basically it allows anyone to access, use, and modify programming code--the catch is, you can't exclude others from doing the same to your improvements and additions.  What you get free stays free.  But you can (and companies like Red Hat do) still try to make money by providing services to help customers use open source software.  Open source made my job (figuring out who had what rights to a target company's software, for example) harder, but also a lot more interesting.  

Translated into the movies, open source means that you can take Nina's movie and make it into anything you want--Sita as punk rocker, for example--as long as you attribute the original work to her.  But then you have to make it available for free online, too.  Nina says she's making more money now that her movie is available online: she can sell DVDs, T-shirts, and her film is in demand.  It's a radical rethinking of property rights and what makes value, and Nina is up against the entertainment-industrial complex.  I hope she wins.

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