Obscurity is a greater threat to authors than piracy,” Nina Paley quotes free speech champion and publisher Tim O’Reilly to explain what she considers to be the best decision of her life. In 2008, the writer, director and producer of Sita Sings the Blues decided to put up her animated film on Creative Commons, making it available to the public for free and legal sharing, use, repurposing, and remixing.
For Paley, who retold the Ramayan from Sita’s point of view, and in turn told the story of her own heartbreak from a broken marriage, a free licence was the only path to take for a work that she made to liberate herself. The decision paid off.
The decentralized distribution saw her film getting more than a million hits and downloads on YouTube.com and Arkive.org— and these are just the clicks she has been able to track. “Ever since it was made public, Sita Sings the Blues has been as spoken about as any film which is backed by a producer and a legal copyright,” says Paley, who also fought a frustrating and expensive copyright battle for having set the film to the music of 1920s’ jazz musician Annette Hanshaw.
At the time, India wasn’t far behind in its understanding of the power of open licensing. Just a year before, in 2007, Lawrence Liang a 35-year-old lawyer based in Bangalore, and Shishir Jha, associate professor at the Shailesh J Mehta School of Management, IIT Bombay, had launched Creative Commons India to popularize the concept. They started the “copy-left” movement, quite literally the antithesis of the restrictive copyright law.
Free for all: (above) Musician Ish S. uploads his music on the Internet so listeners can have easy and free access (Priyanka Parashar/Mint); copy-lefters Shishir Jha (left) and Sridhar Iyer, professors at IIT Bombay (Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint).
CC, as it has come to be known, is a non-profit founded in the US in 2001. It has six kinds of licences, all of which come with a need for attribution to the creator and permission to share. Some allow remix and commercial use, some don’t.
Liang points out that breaking away from the copyright law allows artists to truly own their works. “Only successful artists ever make money out of royalty and more often than not, the copyright is held by a producer, record company or distributor. Where in this is the creator?” asks Liang, who works as legal lead for Creative Commons India. Liang believes little has been done to promote and execute the concept, though it has been taken up for study by several organizations. “CC became critical in the US because an increasing number of artists began to think that their creativity was actually threatened by a thick notion of copyright (which makes the creative process restrictive),” he says.
Does that mean copyright licence gives Indian artists, professionals and academics a false sense of security?
“It’s a matter of perception and depends on what the owner of rights wants in benefit,” says Delhi-based lawyer Saikrishna Rajagopal, emphasizing that what matters is the ability of an owner to exercise his right, be it through free or traditional licensing. Rajagopal explains that under the current Copyright Act, 1957, the concept of CC fits right in. “There is a mention that a copyright without a monetary consideration is acceptable, which in turn only means a licence with a necessary attribution to the creator,” he says, agreeing that open licensing and free distribution enable high visibility and often allow artistes to kick-start their careers.
Rajagopal says the changes proposed to the current Act, which might make monetary specifications necessary for copyright licensing, will break all the bridges between CC and the Act. “But we’ll know that when it happens” he adds.
The copy-left concept has been best understood and put to use by engineers and coders in the IT domain. “Techies who are not bound by company policies share and borrow freely,” says Liang, indicating that this is yet to happen outside the world of IT. Jha, his associate and project lead of Creative Commons India, agrees: “Just in the world of academics, there is a lot of good content. One’s first instinct should be to share the work as opposed to bind it. With this project, I hope that over a period of time we can create an ecosystem that is more agreeable to sharing.”
Sridhar Iyer, associate professor at the department of computer science and engineering, IIT Bombay, is spearheading Project OSCAR, which stands for Open Source Courseware Animations Repository. The project has around 300 Web-based interactive animations that can be downloaded and used by students and animators across the world. Licensed under CC with an allowance for both distribution and derivation, OSCAR allows anyone to download an animation and tweak it according to their personal requirement.
“A higher education student can play around with the mechanics of, say, a robotics arm, work with how it moves, etc. That way the learning is practical and efficient,” says Iyer. The site has received at least 6,000 hits from more than 90 countries every year since its inception in 2004. But that is all Iyer knows about the popularity of the site. “The aim of the project is for it to be viral in its reach,” he says, speculating that animations are probably being posted by other individuals, making the distribution non-linear and impossible to track.
Ish S., a composer and sound artiste based in Delhi, found that he was trapped by the copyright law. After a few restrictive experiences with record companies, Ish began to study free licensing in 2006. Working primarily with electronic music, the musician found the use of CC liberating. “I find that an open licence comes with the right understanding of a musician, as opposed to the traditional copyright which, more often than not, aids the benefit of the record company,” says Ish, who adds that over a period of time, “copy-left” has the potential to be used in commercial products as well.
An album compilation featuring artistes from around the world called t0 and produced at the Sarai Media Lab, has been released by Sound Reasons Records under a no-derivatives CC licence. So the end user can share the works at a personal level but not for commercial purposes or as a base or contributory element for another work.
Ish is more liberal with his individual compositions. “If anyone wants to use my music, they are free to do so. They just have to get in touch with me,” he says. He wishes more musicians would come out of the sterile environment of the Indian copyright law and “let the inspiration flow”.
But there are those who argue that open licensing is not limited to CC. Prayas Abhinav, an artist who also teaches at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, says free licensing is philosophy more than mere legality.
Abhinav first used the CC licence in his blog journal, his poetry, and his magazine Crimson Feet.Intrigued by the concept, in 2006-07 he volunteered to work with the CC cell incubated in IIT Bombay in 2004. “While CC is a great start, we have to go a step forward and understand that free licensing is about the flow of ideas,” he says.
As an art school teacher, Abhinav points out that licensing is something students think about even when in art school. “Many of them take calls on the kind of ownership they want of their work in the future,” he says, adding that this is an indication of growing awareness.
Ish’s music, which streams freely on the Internet, is a combination of ambient sounds and digitally mastered tones. Esoteric as his music is, he says, “The listening of music is an essential part of the whole music creation process.” His audience defines his work.