The Problem of Permissions and Copyright
Have any of you seen Nina Paley’s animated film (for adults, not kids) Sita Sings the Blues? Here is a trailer, www.youtube.com/watch and here is a website www.sitasingstheblues.com/ I mention it here because Ms. Paley is involved in an intense and protracted fight over the rights to some of the music she used in the film. In particular, to get a 1920s period feel, she used recordings by Annette Hanshaw even though she had not cleared the rights to them. In fact, since the film came out, and garnered very high praise (from Roger Ebert to the festival circuit) the fight over rights has grown more pointed and more intense. As you can see in this interview, Ms. Paley is now arguing that artists should ignore or defy "illegal and unconsitutional laws." blog.ninapaley.com/2008/10/03/lessons-wrong-and-right/
Here’s the problem from my POV — and how this contretemps relates to nonfiction for younger readers. As an author, editor, packager I cannot agree with her. I want my rights protected and so I need to respect the rights held by others. And I need to do so even if the entity now demanding payment is not the original artist, or his or her family, but some soulless corporation that merely charges extortionate rates. And yet I also agree with her that copyright and permission structures as they now exist serve to stiffle creativity — not to promote it, which is the explicit and legal justification for copyright. Copyright is meant to reward creativity with ownership, and thus stimulate new creation. But just the opposite is taking place now.
Here is what I mean: when we use archival art to illustrate nonfiction we often have very limited choices. If you want to do a book on space flight you are in luck, NASA’s images are great and free. But if you want to do a book on early space flight, Life Magazine images — which are also great and precisely relate to your subject, are not in the least free. And while there is a bit of a sliding scale for the kind of book you intend to do, basically rights holders can, and do, hold you to over $100 per quarter or perhaps half page. And, by the way, museums in England are worse.
So in this age where our readers expect and demand many eye-catching visuals, and reviewers are alert to accuracy in images as well as text, the cost structure for getting those images is entirely out of whack with the realistic sales of the book. And so we either lose money, or are less creative, making inferior books. And so to return to Nina Paley, I do think we need a different copyright structure. The goal should be creating the best book to engage and inform readers. I am not sure how to get there, but I know we must. Books represent labor — the work of the author, editor, designer to craft the very best way of presenting information. But when the permission budget goes through the roof, all of that labor is undermined. As we head into a new year, this is a crucial issue for all of us.