Singin’ ‘Bout the Open Access Blues

Christmas is coming, and with the weather indulging in brittle convulsions of cold for many of us here in the northern hemisphere, it seems like a good time to write something to bring a little warmth to our hearts.

As you have probably gathered by now, at InTech we are doing our best to play a useful part in a campaign to open up scientific knowledge for everyone who needs it, regardless of the financial resources at their disposal. Apart from anything else, not only do the fruits of this research have the potential to save lives and make a better world for us all, they are often fascinating and beautiful too. There are many arguments for bringing scientific research findings to the widest possible audience.

Access All Areas

The open access movement is not one that excludes any other manner of publishing, as David Crotty suggested in his recent article for the Scholarly Kitchen, “The Future is Not a Zero-Sum Game“. Nor does open access exclude subjects other than science, although there are several reasons why the majority of OA material does at present lie in the scientific domain.

In the spirit of celebrating a year when the balance seems to be tipping in favour of transparency and openness, I would like to share with anyone who might not yet have come across it something which is definitely not science but which embodies the values of the open access movement to its core.

A Film Made in the Spirit of Sharing

This is something that shows what can happen when we take ideas which inspire us, from wherever in the world they may be, and create something new from our own unique perspective. Something that shows how life opens up new avenues when you strike up conversations with the people around you, collaborate and learn from others. This is an open access film called “Sita Sings the Blues” by Nina Paley, a an artist and self-taught animator from Illinois, USA.


Nina Paley had, over the years, built up modest success as a cartoonist. In 2002, her husband was awarded a job in Trivandrum, India, and although Nina moved to join him she soon found her marriage disintegrating. Nina moved back to the States, and, nursing her broken heart, she found her thoughts leading her back to her time in India.


Seeking solace in the written word, Paley turned to a volume on her bookshelf, the Sanskrit epic of the Ramayana, which together with the Mahabharata forms the core of Hindu teaching and Indian cultural consciousness, as well as informing religious thought and culture in other countries. Among the many stories of demigods and demons that unwind through its 50,000 lines, the tale of Sita, the gentle and eternally devoted wife who suffers terrible rejection by her husband, Rama, spoke immediately to Paley.

At the same time, Paley was discovering, through a friend, the recordings of 1920s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw. Says Paley:

“Her voice is so sweet and vulnerable and without bitterness, even as she sings of heartbreak… it comes from a completely different era, separate from both today and ancient India. Those old songs really show how the story of heartbreak in the Ramayana transcends time and culture.”

Nina had first experimented with animation aged 12 or 13, when she borrowed a neighbour’s Super 8 camera. She dabbled again aged 30, and when she met her (now ex-) husband, also an animator, from whom she learned some more up-to-date techniques. “Sita” is a combination of hand-drawn watercolours and videotaped dance animated in After Effects and Flash on Paley’s computer. It is simple, but dazzling.

A Labour of Love

The film represents diverse interpretations of the Ramayana as recounted by collaborators from many regions of India. Visually, it draws on traditional shadow-puppet plays, Rajput painting, Bollywood-esque interludes, scenes from the animator’s own life, hallucinatory excursions into Beatles-like territory and more. Colourful it is, boring it ain’t.

Nina’s Gift

Paley, with a little help from her friends and massive support from her mother (a retired university administrator who ably handles the distribution and promotion of her daughter’s work) let her carefully-crafted work float free on the waters of global culture:

“I hereby give “Sita Sings the Blues” to you. Like all culture, it belongs to you already, but I am making it explicit with a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License. Please distribute, copy, share, archive, and show “Sita Sings the Blues”. From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes.”

Trouble on the Horizon

“Sita Sings the Blues”, and likewise the film’s creator, have not been without their critics, from left-wing academics who claim that a white American has no business enjoying Indian culture to religious fundamentalists who say pretty much the same. Most problematically for Nina, large media corporations still (after more than 80 years) control the rights to the Annette Hanshaw songs used in the film – not the recordings themselves, but the underlying compositions. Bizarrely, the goodwill of the companies themselves is not the issue, but the system which makes it too expensive for them to negotiate a special deal for this no-budget production.

Right now, “Sita Sings the Blues” could be the cause of a hefty lawsuit for its creator due to the stalemate in copyright issues. Meanwhile, how does Paley live, when she receives no income from the distribution of her work?

The Economics

“In the case οf “Sita,” the free release іѕ getting mе significantly more money than a conventional proprietary release would. That’s nοt saying much, because the mοѕt conventional distributors told mе I сοulԁ expect wаѕ $25,000 – maybe іf I wеrе incredibly lucky I’d see $50,000 (ѕο far I’ve gotten over $70,000 with the free release, and іt’s far frοm over). The more public share the film freely, the more they buу DVDs and other ancillary merchandise. Also the more they see “Sita” online, the more they buу tickets tο see іt in cinemas. It’s gοrgеοuѕ tο see. I’ve spoken with many artists who аrе worried tο share their works, believing the audience will exploit them and harm them. Mу experience іѕ the opposite: the audience іѕ more supportive than I еνеr dreamed.”*

Since its release in 2008, “Sita” is being enjoyed by people all over the world, many of whom are probably hearing about the Ramayana or Annette Hanshaw for the first time. Critical acclaim is almost universal, as today’s Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic reviews show. It would be interesting to know how sales of printed editions of the Ramayana or Annette Hanshaw recordings have fared since the release of the film.

Out of Step

Nina Paley - writer, director, producer and animator of "Sita Sings the Blues"

Of the difficult legal position she finds herself in regarding the Hanshaw recordings, Paley says.

“I don’t think any of this is conscious, or that it’s a conspiracy theory. All these rules were developed before we had the internet. The times are just changing so fast, business law isn’t coping very well.

However, awestruck by the magnitude and absurdity of the problems she had in bringing Sita to her audience free of charge, Paley became a free culture activist, announcing her intent to release all of her work to date under a copyleft licence, free to be reproduced, shared, remixed and distributed all over the world under the same copyleft terms.

Please do go online and enjoy the film – a gift in every sense to bring colour and warmth to the holiday period. You can find links to the film on the Sita Sings the Blues website, or by searching YouTube. Who else would enjoy it, and how else could you use it? Paley’s invitation is wide open:

“You don’t need my permission to copy, share, publish, archive, show, sell, broadcast, or remix Sita Sings the Blues. Conventional wisdom urges me to demand payment for every use of the film, but then how would people without money get to see it? How widely would the film be disseminated if it were limited by permission and fees? Control offers a false sense of security. The only real security I have is trusting you, trusting culture, and trusting freedom.”

Quotes from Nina Paley from and an *article by Alex Remington: “Interview with Nina Paley, Animator and Director of Sita Sings the Blues, a Fantastic Jazz Musical Retelling of the Ramayana”. Stills from the animations are © Nina Paley 2008. Photo by Ian Akin published under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 – you may copy and share without permission.

This entry was posted in Creative Commons, InTech, Open Access, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Singin’ ‘Bout the Open Access Blues

  1. Pingback: A Christmas List of Open Access Gifts – No Money Necessary | InTechWeb Blog

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