I'm an Abolitionist, Not a Reformer: An Interview with Nina Paley

Paley speaking to a group of students about media art and copyright for artists

Nina Paley is an animator and free culture activist whose work includes the feature film Sita Sings the Blues and the short Copying Is Not Theft. She recently visited the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly) where she discussed copyright law and its effects on society with Integrated Digital Media graduate student Phil Wedo.

What did you feel were the strengths of copyright law before you made Sita Sings the Blues?

I believe "intellectual property" is such a nice phrase. Especially when you're a poor artist and people are like, "it's your intellectual property." I had no property and no money, but I was told by lawyers that I had and was creating intellectual property. It made lawyers interested, so it had to be worth something and I just was attached to that idea. I mean, I never really questioned it. It was just: this is my intellectual property and I'm going to protect my property with copyright. And it was not well thought out. 

Did you experience a "last straw" that led to the creation of Copying Is Not Theft?

No, that wasn't a last straw. Copying Is Not Theft was something I made when I was starting to work with QuestionCopyright.org, who was instrumental in the free release of [Sita Sings the Blues], so that was really a godsend and great collaboration.

The film was out and it was like, what are we going to do now? We had this idea that I would start making short little PSAs trying to explain these concepts, because we could see that every time we talked to people about copyright, there were these certain concepts that kept hindering the conversation. We wanted to get them out of the way. People would say, "Copying is stealing. It's stealing, it's stealing, it's stealing!" 

I thought, okay, let's start with this little concept. You know, it might be copyright infringement, but it's not theft. So copying is not theft—have a little song for it, and maybe people will realize that.

What is your advice for young artists? Would you encourage them to openly flaunt copyright law knowing they don't have the legal protection that you secure for your work?

Well like I say, what legal protection do I really have? The only legal protection I got for Sita Sings the Blues was to make it legal for other people to share it. I mean, I could still be sued, but I made it much, much less likely. I made it as legal as I could. But none of these laws are protecting me, there's no legal protection here. Actually, in my own mind I've taken a vow of legal nonaggression. I've thought about it and was like, would I ever sue anybody over IP? No, I wouldn't. 

I might support an organization that does. Free Software Foundation actually sues people when they violate free software licenses. What would I do if somebody took my ShareAlike license to work and then rereleased it under copyright restrictions, which is the one violation of the license? Would I sue them? The answer is no. If somebody else wants to sue them I wouldn't fight that, but I myself don't want to do that. That's a real waste of my time and that's just not how I want to live my life.

I thought you had more legal protection, because you said you paid for the rights to the Annette Hanshaw songs, and you're talking to lawyers now about your other projects.

They're not protecting me. I wouldn't need any of this protection if we didn't have these horrible laws. This isn't even protection. You're talking about other artists that maybe wouldn't have access to lawyers?

Yeah, to pro bono lawyers, that would warn them of the risks. I mean obviously, yeah, you could go to prison with the new project (Seder Masochism) especially, or you know, the gaps in Sita that you didn't pay for.

Right, so should other people take those risks? I mean, other people are taking those risks! That's the thing, people are doing file sharing. People are risking so much when they share files because there are these people that are made examples of, like Jammie Thomas, and they lose everything. So the fact that people keep doing it is really inspiring to me. Maybe they're not aware of these risks, but they're taking them, and that's why we have any sort of cultural preservation at all. 

But, if you're an artist, if you want to do civil disobedience, I do recommend being aware of what civil disobedience is, even just reading the essay "Civil Disobedience." When you do civil disobedience it's helpful to know what your legal options are and to have support in place. Because if I do get dragged off to jail... 

I think a lot of people are taking these risks they're not aware of, and then when they get in trouble, they're terrified, and the fact that they're terrified gives the aggressors more power. Whereas, you know, when they come after me—if they come after me—this is going to give me more power, because I'm prepared.

Given the financial concerns of traditional media companies, how would you suggest that they transition to behavior more in line with your philosophy while maintaining their interests?

Well, I suggest that they read a blog called TechDirt, that really addresses much, much more of this. TechDirt writes a lot about open business models that are actually working; they have a lot of case studies, they have success stories, and then they also write a lot about failures.

What do you feel will be the next frontier in the copyright vs. theft debate?

Gosh, I don't know. I mean, I think more people are catching on that it's not theft. That's really heartening. And now I see other people arguing this stuff, and they will make a distinction between infringement and theft. The legislators and the lobbyists don't make that distinction, but I just think more and more people are catching on. I don't know, though. I don't know what’s going to happen.