Why you should care

Because information wants to be free. 

Nina Paley’s breakout came when her animated rendition of the classic Indian epic Ramayana, called Sita Sings the Blues, racked up nearly a million views on YouTube. Roger Ebert, the famed film critic, gave the “whimsical” film a resounding four stars, while others dubbed the movie a cultural “tour de force” and the “Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told.” Yet rather than collecting her bounty of advertising revenue and relishing her overnight fame, Paley waived all copyrights to her masterpiece — and instead copylefted, all wrongs reserved. “The law is an ass I don’t want to ride,” says Paley.

Apparently neither do a growing number of other artists, from cartoonists like Paley to authors like David Shields, who have enlisted a tech-nerd weapon in their battle for control over their work: the open-source doctrine of “copyleft.” Copyleft is a label that gives anyone else the right to use, modify and build upon an artist’s work, making the original belong to no one and to everyone. Sharing, collaborating and remixing becomes as easy as a retweet — unencumbered by the letter of the law and free of copyright-infringement issues that would otherwise strangle the widespread distribution of the work. Indeed, the idea of disclaiming ownership rights has an easy logic: If no one can “own” your work, greedy corporations can’t either. “Culture isn’t property,” says Paley.

There’s more to this nascent movement than anarchic sentiment, largely because of a provision that gives copyleft teeth: Any additions or changes to the original work must also be copyleft-licensed, known as the “share-alike” rule. Proponents hope the share-alike rule will help the copyleft movement bleed into every corner of the art scene and prevent copylefted works of art from being converted into copyrighted material by others.

Copyleft originally came from the open-source software movement…in the spirit of internet collaboration.

The move is out of left field for many artists, starving and otherwise, who typically hold on tight to their work with iron grips. Think of Taylor Swift’s showdown with Spotify and her lengthy 4 a.m. letter to Apple Music over “artist royalties.” In the art world, traditionally obsessed with originality and individuality, “stealing” is a mortal sin. Although T-Swift didn’t respond to requests for comment, she probably wouldn’t approve of copylefting “Shake It Off.”

Then again, the pop star, whose wealth is estimated at a quarter of a billion dollars, probably has different priorities at stake than, say, Kris Bergstrom, a leading North American taiko drummer who writes his pieces under copyleft law. Bergstrom aims to build a “vibrant repertoire” of taiko, a drumming style that is sprouting beyond its Japanese roots. “Exciting, organic things happen when people can create freely,” he says. Meanwhile, 59-year-old writer David Shields published a book that truly draws from a well of knowledge: About half of its pages are composed of quotes lifted from other people’s works. Some might cry foul and call it plagiarism, but in his mind, all art is derivative, with people who have remade, paraphrased and repurposed others’ work since the dawn of time: “Only now in this incredibly litigious Google era does everyone play this endless game of gotcha.”

Copyleft originally came from the open-source software movement, which gained steam in the ’90s and led tech giants like Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft’s Linux to make all their source code publicly available and modifiable by anyone, in the spirit of internet collaboration. In the same way, Sita Sings the Blues spawned an entire high-fashion line in Bangkok and inspired a massive Ramayana sculpture in India. In the age of high-speed information access and an entire universe of material at our fingertips, copyleft advocates aren’t just pouting at the constraints of intellectual property law, but are also offering up a way to rethink creativity in the modern age. “All great works of art either dissolve the genre or invent a new genre. Otherwise, it’s completely dead. It’s simply a commercial product, something to sell,” says Shields.

That’s easier for a tenured professor with a steady income to say than an actual starving artist. For many artists, their work is their livelihood, and while forgoing ownership rights is nice in theory, it can look like hand-to-mouth in practice. Even Shields admits he might be losing a few thousand dollars a year, and there will likely always be “a few charlatans trying to make a quick dollar” by selling other people’s works in a free-rider scheme.

Still, for copylefters like Shields, Paley and Bergstrom, getting food on the table is secondary to turbocharging creativity and collaboration for future generations. They point out that over the long term, copyleft can bolster one’s reputation, because sharing work becomes much easier and faster. Meanwhile, the costs of copyright are hidden but steep, argues Lawrence Lessig, Harvard Law professor and co-founder of Creative Commons. The regime quashes inspiration in a world where no one can build off another’s work without paying them an arm and a leg in licensing fees.

But sometimes the best of intentions is not enough, and copyleft, with its share-alike provision, can be hard to explain, let alone get distributors to agree to. Paley, for instance, says that when television stations learned they already had the “rights” to Sita Sings the Blues, they didn’t broadcast it, and that for publishers, the share-alike license proved to be a deal-breaker. A couple of years ago, she removed the share-alike license from her movie and put the whole thing in the public domain. “You have no excuse for suppressing it now,” she wrote on her blog.

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