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Sita Sings the Blues: A Free Culture Success Story

Sita Sings the Blues

Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues–now a film that everybody can (and should) watch–continues to make an impact in surprising and unexpected ways. Last week, the above Reuters photo by Krishnendu Halder appeared online with the following caption: “Members of laughter clubs attend a session during ‘World Laughter Day’ celebrations in Hyderabad, India.” The celebration in India included a huge sculpture of the mythical figure Ravana based on Nina’s design from the film.

Consider for a second the amazing nature of this photo’s contents. Nina Paley made Sita Sings the Blues in her apartment–all by her lone self, on a shoestring budget, using a desktop computer. One short year after its debut, with absolutely no promotional budget, no theatrical distribution and little mainstream media coverage, the film has traveled around the globe and fans are creating sculptures based on her work.

Nina has made it possible for everybody to see her film by placing her film into Creative Commons and allowing it to be shared without copyright restrictions. Conventional thinking leads us to believe that this type of distribution is impossible and that global visibility is only possible through millions of dollars worth of marketing and advertising. Paley, however, has entrusted the distribution to her audience and (surprise, surprise) people are watching her film and building a community around it. The success of her experiment proves that independent artists with limited means can indeed compete on a world-wide playing field, not by trying to mimic strategies of entertainment conglomerates, but by taking advantage of ideas like Creative Commons licensing and employing comprehensive online distribution strategies.

  • I’ve recently seen “Sita” at Vancouver’s Vancity Theatre on the big screen. I loved the Annette Hanshaw segments, but other than that, it’s basically three different movies in one. But it is amazing that Nina had to go through this journey to get her film into this current state. That ‘World Laughter Day’ explains it all for me.

  • Downloading it now…can’t believe Nina parked it online for free, but man I do appreciate it. Love to see indy success stories like Nina’s. Can’t wait to see it tonight. Cheers to Nina on her great accomplishment, and to Amid and Jerry for continuing to be the voice of the indy animator as well as the whole industry. Nice!

  • Epic WIN.

  • Vvek

    hats off to nina – to just let her film out to the world…

    i hope in the future years to come, this film makes a mark as a cult classic, among animation enthusiasts, if not the world.

    and for those, who want to help nina recover her production costs – her website is taking donations & selling ‘sita sings the blues’ merchandise.

    go ahead, help a fellow animator, i already did…


  • Cameron

    This is terrific for independent animation. I wish Nina Paley congratulations, and it is a great piece of work.

    However, I did personally slightly prefer Idiots & Angels from Bill Plympton last year. I also preferred WALL-E (sorry, Michael Sporn). I am however, very interested to see where Paley goes from here. She’s proven that all the flash shows on television have no excuse for their awfulness. Good show!

  • TStevens

    I appreciate the effort that Nina took. However, you have to remember that most people will probably not donate a single cent to the cause. Giving the film away for free is very novel but it does not solve the problem of making a return on your investment. Unfortunately this shows the lack of business skill that most artists have and points to the much more serious issue of how to make a profit on the internet. I would like to think that Nina has some sort of grand plan with this but every interview I have read with her seems to point to this being an easy way to avoid dealing with the powers that be. That is fine if she is able to make enough money on her day to job to survive. However, the reality is that you need money to live and make the next film.

    Being a legend is no fun if you can’t afford to eat!

  • Johanna

    It’s wonderful that Paley made her film and that her movie is available, but can you figure out how to make this “free for everybody” actually profitable for the animator? Or are the artists all supposed to make their art for free and starve for their art?

  • Michael

    Sita rocks. What a great picture this is, and what a great achievement Nina’s had. I promote this flick to everyone I know.

  • TStevens & Johanna: Nina’s original plan wasn’t to give the movie away, but when copyright law and the corporate rights holders made it seem as if the film would be un-releasable, it became less about profit and more about freedom of art and the state of current copyright law. She chose to put it out for free just so that it could be seen.

  • The Prelinger Internet Archive (better known as, has been a desperate option for YouTube people to post Paramount cartoons and such. If an average user really wanted to post PD or illegal stuff, they might want to have the guts to go through their video collection or a flea market.

    Alongside from that, Paley must have decided what makes a value that builds our country strong- captialism, does not always work for some. Because a site like YouTube is stupid for its users’ “Boycott Viacom” campaign. Come on.

    Let the flames begin about the “Circle C” law! A whole wildfire/forest fire of it!

  • I love Sita Sings The Blues.

    It’s funny, touching and looks wonderful. Nina Paley has achieved something amazing. Not just by making such a great film, not just by doing it herself but also by challenging accepted ways of doing things, ways of distribution and questions of copyright.

    But I suspect Nina Paley will be an exception. And, at the risk of being (to use the Hindu term) a pariah here, right now, I hope she will be the exception.

    Rarely will a one-man (or woman) film come as close to being as good, for starters. But, beyond that, getting a film seen is one thing. Like Johanna questions, I think living while doing it or living from it is an entirely different thing. Sure, we can donate. I have. But Ms.Paley had a hefty clearance bill. I have no idea if she is in the red or in the black.

    But I know few of us could live, pay rent, eat while attempting something like this. And, while this post rightly celebrates the achievements of Ms.Paley, it also echoes a comment made by Amid on having to support a family not being an excuse for producing some great artistic film. Whereas I would see being able to live and support a family not an excuse, but an essential.

    Even if Ms.Paley could live and make money from this, that’s one person for one film.

    Compete on a world-wide playing field? I don’t know. Yes, it is seen. Could it pay the wages of an entire crew? Could it stand head to head financially with a studio film? Does that matter? Well, when some of us (including directors) have a hard enough time living on actual funded projects, yes, I’d say it matters.

    I must apologise to Ms.Paley. I don’t wish to rain on her absolutely well-deserved and fantastic parade and I actually feel terrible for going here in a post celebrating her achievement. I guess I’ve just heard the ‘just make it yourself and get it up on YouTube’ thing quite a lot recently and, given the amount of animators employed in studio systems, both in film and television, that actually intend to have a creative career for most of their life, beyond the single or student years, it seems rather shortsighted to me.

    So I’m torn on this post.

    But not the film.

    Sita Sings The Blues is something all of its own. I do think it will stand as an exception simply because of its quality and I feel lucky I had the opportunity to see it.

  • Being a legend is no fun if you can’t afford to eat!

    It’s great fun, and I get to eat too! There’s lots of money to be made outside of donations. Please see

    DVDs are at the manufacturer now, e-store is going live any day now, and we should have other merch by the end of the month. Then, a year to collect sales data so I’ll have real numbers to counter the “you can’t make any money this way” arguments.

  • It’ll be interesting to watch. I haven’t seen it yet.

  • Nina Paley – “DVDs are at the manufacturer now, e-store is going live any day now, and we should have other merch by the end of the month.”

    I’d buy a DVD to help you out.

  • Travis Jiorle

    Do Ravana’s teeth spell the word “RECESSION” in that Reuters photo? That’s a funny thing for a World Laughter Day event.

  • Chuck R.


    I truly hope you are right. I Haven’t seen Sita yet, only because I want to see it for the first time on something better than YouTube. (I’m signed up on the DVD alert list, and I can’t wait to get the news) I agree with previous posters that getting your work “seen” isn’t quite enough when you have kids to feed, but for those of you who are willing to make tremendous sacrifices for your art, I absolutely applaud you for keeping the faith in yourself and your vision.

    If it’s okay, I’ll keep my stance on copyright law. It’s the only thing giving artists leverage to control his art or sell it at a fair price if he chooses. Maybe it’s not perfect, but I wouldn’t be quick to throw the baby out with the bath water.

    Best of luck to you!

    Oh and BTW, I love your Sita posters! Nice work!

  • Jason

    Nina!!!! So nice of you to visit us. I’m glad to hear you’re getting a rightful return for your delightful film. I respect copyright laws in general, but the one holding back your film sounded weird as hell to me (the recordings by Hanshaw are public domain but the sheet music isn’t???). It’s great you found a way around your dilemma. Thanks for the great entertainment. May the Karma be with you!

  • Thanks y’all.

    Just because I’m using a Creative Commons Share Alike License doesn’t mean anyone else has to. Some of my best friends are copyright proponents. So far relationships with friends and family have remained intact, even while I use the left-facing C and they use the right-facing one. One great thing about Copyleft is it works no matter how many, or few, approve of it.

  • pappy d

    Congratulations to Nina Paley on a wonderful film.

    She deserves to make scads of money. I’ll buy a DVD. Whether she makes money or how she makes money is Nina’s own proprietary information & offering to share it with the world makes her a true philanthropist.

    That said, all the moral arguments over copyright, both pro- & con- seem silly & beside the point. Consumers have siezed the means of reproduction. Unless the FBI confiscates every computer on earth, things won’t go back to the way they were. If you believe in property at all, helping oneself to copyrighted digital data may be morally problematic, but a crime that’s unenforceable hardly qualifies as a crime.

    I wonder what happens if, under a Creative Commons Licence, some energetic entrepreneur gets to market first with a DVD release or produces pornographic t-shirts based on the characters, including an attribution to Nina Paley.

    There is a guy in Florida who has been stealing from small-time artists for years, reselling it from his large mailorder t-shirt business & as easel paintings in galleries. When someone busts him online as a copycat, he threatens a lawsuit for libel & gets the information taken down. I’d mention his name, but I’m scared.

  • John

    An important question has to be raised here: Would “Sita Sings the Blues” have received a fraction of all the press and praise its enjoying if it’d been released with no copyright controversy at all?

    Would Roger Ebert have breathlessly reviewed it, let alone even watched it? Probably not. He didn’t bother reviewing Bill Plympton’s “Angels and Idiots”, or any of “Sita’s” other independent peers. But Nina’s story makes good press.

    Even in limited DVD release, “Sita” will probably still outsell all the other independent animated features of 2008 now. Yet it probably would not have found a regular distributor anyway – the market is in terrible shape and nobody’s buying any titles right now – Plympton was unable to find US distribution for “Angels” and he’s almost a household name. In all likelihood “Sita” would have made a little festival splash as a pleasant confection and faded away, like 99% of all indie films.

    Ms Paley deserves credit for single-handedly finishing her movie, but she deserves way more credit for cleverly milking this non-controversy for all it’s worth! Suddenly her cartoon is a “cause” for people to rally behind. You really can’t buy this kind of publicity.

  • Saturnome

    I had the great luck to have Sita playing in my somewhat quiet town (cinema speaking) and loved it. I’ll get the DVD.

    I’d love so much to see Idiots & Angels tough, it’s on my most wanted list. I can’t afford trips to distant festivals! And we’re living in a age where we can access things so easily at home.

  • How can DVDs of this movie be sold when the rights to the music in the movie have not been obtained?

    Or maybe they have? What was the final agreed upon price?

  • Esn

    I may be wrong, goodness knows I’ve been wrong before, but I do think that Nina’s film has more mainstream appeal than the vast majority of indie films, including animated films such as Plympton’s “Idiots and Angels”. There are a few reasons for this, but the most important one is that it is very, very funny, and people like to laugh. I’ve shown it to people who aren’t fans of animation or indie films, and they got it immediately.

    Nina’s also doing some very interesting and complex things within the CC license. We shall see if it pays off, of course. But for example, the CC license made it possible for fans to make subtitles for her film to over a dozen languages (which will be included on the DVD):

  • ZAR

    I love that movie! Especially the final gag (“wink”) makes me laugh every time – it just doesn’t get old! :)

    I’d also love to have a Blu-Ray of it (including an audio commentary by Nina) and would most certainly pay for that pleasure!

  • Maya

    “Sita” is truly an amazing feat!
    in addition to inspiring anyone who’s ever been dumped ;) it’s an amazing inspiration to any visual artist on personal, artistic and business-strategy levels.
    i did pay to download the HD version, because sometimes you just feel this appreciation and obligation, and this is one important way to express your gratitude to the artist. The movie also came out in good timing for me to write about it in an essay for school :D

    i watch it again and again and screen it to friends and family and it never stops “wowing” me.

    Thank you, Nina! looking forward to seeing and hearing about further successes!

  • G. Melissa Graziano

    I absolutely ADORE Sita Sings the Blues. It became an instant favorite ten minutes into the first viewing. I’ve watched it twice on a friend’s borrowed DVD and even more times online (I’m just waiting to clear the red myself before purchasing my own copy, plus as much merch as I can get my hands on!) and constantly find myself coming back for more.

    Yes, it is rare that a single individual or very small team of independents can make it through the slush of the entertainment biz, but if the Brothers Chaps (the guys behind Homestar Runner) can do it, so can Nina…and so can the rest of us. :)

  • Nina’s film premiered here in Berlin on an A-festival – this alone wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t an exceptionally good film. It won the biggest possible price in Annecy, and they don’t give that away for nothing. This bit about “if it weren’t for the copyright debate, nobody would watch it” is just not true.

    And having seen “Idiots and Angels” now I can say that “Sita” is a much more dense film, more story, more eye fodder, much more to think about it. I was a tad bit disappointed by I&A, although it still was a visual and aural delight. It just does not have enough story to fill 78 minutes, IMO.

    Bill Plympton explained that his film found a distributor in France, but not in Germany yet. He also pointed out that his feature films weren’t as profitable as his short films, but still he makes a living from independent animation.

  • How can DVDs of this movie be sold when the rights to the music in the movie have not been obtained?

    Rights were obtained months ago. That’s why I’m in in debt; but the audience is helping me out. (Thanks, audience! I love you!) As I just wrote in an interview elsewhere:

    Even though we made it explicitly clear the entire budget for the film was under $200,000, the licensors came back with the “bargain” estimate of about $220,000. It was simply not possible for me to acquire that kind of money. So legally, my only option was to not show the film, or commit civil disobedience.

    I hired another intermediary, a “rights clearance house” which is less expensive than a lawyer, and they negotiated the “step deal” I eventually signed. This brought the price tag of the licenses down to $50,000, but with many restrictions. If more than 5,000 DVDs (or downloads) are sold, I must pay the licensors more. See

    I borrowed $50,000 to pay these licenses for several reasons. First, to reduce my liability. I may still be sued for releasing the film freely online – after all, the licensors may interpret free sharing as “selling” for zero dollars – but I’ll only be sued for breach of contract, not copyright infringement. Copyright infringement carries much harsher penalties, including possible jail time. I also wanted to make free sharing of “Sita” as legal, and therefore legitimate, as possible. Sharing shouldn’t be the exclusive purview of lawbreakers. Sharing should – and can – be wholesome fun for the whole family. I paid up to indemnify the audience, because the audience is “Sita”‘s main distributor.

    So it’s now legal to copy and share “Sita Sings the Blues.” The files went up on in early March 2009 and have spread far and wide since. Having paid off the licensors, I could have chosen conventional distribution. But I chose a CC SA license to allow the film to reach a much wider audience; to prohibit the copyrighting – “locking up” – of my art; to give back to the greater culture which gave to me; to exploit the power of the audience to promote and distribute more efficiently than a conventional distributor; and to educate about the dangers of copy restrictions, and the beauty and benefits of sharing.

  • The licensing and distribution issues would be moot if this weren’t a remarkable piece of work.

    Too much is made of the business behind this film. Without the creative genius behind it -there would be no business story.

    Copyright, distribution, audience outreach only come into discussion because of the essential brilliance of the film -not because of the production technique or the crusades of the director.

  • First, many hurrahs for Nina Paley, as always.

    I think the real trouble here, in terms of the complaints about whether anyone can make a living off giving things away for free, is that nearly everything digital (or digitizable) is moving in that direction. As the author Bruce Sterling has said, “Information wanted to be free, and now it’s worthless.”

    The internet has crippled traditional journalism, traditional television, and traditional cinema. Those old forms aren’t going to come back, so we need to work on building something new. Obviously the way the economy is structured now is in a great deal of tension – but monetizable media as we know it is going extinct (I say this even though I, too, have donated to Paley – thereby monetizing her media). We’re in the middle of a revolution of sorts, but whether media turns into something truly open (like what Nina’s doing) or something closed (like the big media companies and the various anti-net neutrality advocates are after) is going to depend on us.

    There are radically different ways of living and creating art – fulfilling and healthy ones – but very few people know what those are yet, and very few can make them work. The experiments continue.

  • John

    Richard misses the point, it’s not about whether “Sita” is good or bad. It’s a question of whether under regular, non controversial circumstances it would’ve ever enjoyed articles in the NY Times, been highlighted by Ebert in his “Overlooked Film Festival” and given tremendous support, and been endlessly, endlessly blogged about by people who’d have otherwise never heard of it. Heck, everyone loves to rally against a big evil corporation. If only Ebert was aware that practically all of the indie animated films of 2008 have been “Overlooked” by middle America.

    This is a major point to make – because yes, maybe “giving it away” really works, but maybe it only works under very special circumstances after your movie’s already been turned into a “cause” by many people who might not have even seen it yet.

    The fact is, no other independent animated feature in recent years has received this kind of press and attention, and the majority of it isn’t about how good or bad the film is, but because of the music rights issues. Ms Paley may have a jumble of legal nuisances on her hands but she also may want to thank her lucky stars all of this happened to her movie. In the end, she will end up better off. Nobody else has been able to sell their movies either, even without rights problems. Maybe she even quietly engineered the whole thing and played us all like violins :)

  • amid

    John: I had to be dragged in by a friend to see the film because I didn’t think I could sit through a Flash animated feature that looked like this. And it turned out to be one of the greatest animated films I’ve ever seen. That was when the copyright problems became an issue for me because I wanted others to see this film too.

    I can’t speak for Ebert, but I seriously doubt that he would be promoting this if it wasn’t such an amazing artistic accomplishment. The backstory of Nina’s struggle to get her film seen is only relevant because the film itself is so incredible. At least that was the case for me.

  • John

    I totally understand Amid, but this is a very important point to bear in mind — especially considering there are going to be a lot of independent filmmakers attempting to follow Ms Paley’s “just give it away” business model now. It’s not really that easy. We can’t forget that her title enjoyed a ton of free national press and publicity from the overblown copyright thing that most independent films will never receive.

    Again, regardless of the film’s quality, it probably would not have found a distributor here anyway. Simply put, nobody is buying. I don’t think Plympton has ever sold an animated feature in the United States. A ton of Sundance titles with A-list movie stars went unpurchased this year, straight to DVD if they’re lucky. Financially, it’s been a lousy time for indie filmmaking everywhere. By selling her 5,000 DVDs for $100 each (is that correct?), Ms Paley will be much better off from all this.

  • she also may want to thank her lucky stars all of this happened to her movie.

    I do, believe me. Like the circumstances that inspired the film in the first place – a painful breakup – so too the legal mess became something I’m grateful for. It pointed the way toward Free Culture, and I’m obviously benefiting.

    Nobody else has been able to sell their movies either, even without rights problems.

    Exactly! The current distribution/copyright system is broken. It’s not serving artists nor audiences. I’m very fortunate that “Sita” had no investors to prevent me from freeing it. It’s VERY true that many outstanding and excellent movies are languishing in obscurity; most have conventional distribution deals and are now very hard to find, because they can only be obtained through a single distributor. The exact same thing could have happened to “Sita,” regardless of the film’s merit.

    You’re also correct that not every work can “go viral”, even if it’s legally freed to do so. I thank my lucky stars every day that I was free to free “Sita,” and that the film seems to contain “spreadable” qualities, which not all films do.

  • John

    Yeah, I grew frustrated of reading blog after blog about how your movie was being beaten down by the “man”, when realistically all the buzz was giving it a much brighter future. Publicity like that is every director’s best friend — especially the “you’re not allowed to see this movie” variety!

  • orson

    First, this movie is visually quite impressive. The content? Are the people who made this movie coming from the ever crumbling cultural Western hemisphere? The blasphemy at any attempt towards any religious Truth is pretty obvious. The generic tells it all.
    The subject is treated, recuperated and delivered by the same SOME people with the same agenda who claimed a bit less than 2,000 years ago that His Son was from a certain region of this earth.
    But then again, very visually charming and appealing like only the Great Deceiver can produce. Curse lifted.

  • Ben Finney

    > The blasphemy at any attempt towards any religious Truth is pretty obvious.

    If there’s any blasphemy in Sita Sings the Blues, that’s all the better. Doctrines of blasphemy are entirely incompatible with freedom of expression, and this work celebrates free expression.

    I especially like that the three Indian storytellers in the movie have constant disagreements and contradictions, depending on which version of the “religious truth” they were told. That’s far better as a truth about religion, and it makes the status of such cultural works very clear.

    Culture belongs to us all. Anyone who claims to have the One True Version of a myth needs to be confronted with the evidence of all the contradictory mythologies with exactly equal evidential support.

    Yay for Nina Paley showing us the diverse tapestry of even a single story in a culture!