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<nettime> Copyright, copyleft and everything in between (FN,

Copyright, copyleft and everything in between

By Frederick Noronha

Filmmaker Paromita Vohra talks about her new film Partners in Crime, which explores issues around copyright, copyleft, culture and markets, and suggests that we might need a hybrid notion of copyright in which many forms coexist, just as we may need many markets based on many different ideas of exchange

From urban Indian streets where young men furtively sell porn to folk musicians who find their ideas stolen, from corporate boardrooms to students who seek new ways of sharing music… Paromita Vohra covers these and more in her latest film Partners in Crime.

She describes it as “a rollicking trip through the grey worlds of copyright, art, and the market in a story about love, money and crime”.

Mumbai-based Vohra has earned praise for her interesting documentaries and her innovative ways of distribution.

Her earlier works include an audio documentary (On Being Cool), and touches on a range of themes, including sexual harassment (Do You Know How We Feel? Aaaaaaargh!), life in the city as a young woman (A Short Film About Time), a women’s cooperative (Annapurna/Goddess of Food), gender equality(A Woman’s Place), the World Social Forum (Work in Progress: At the WSF 2004), feminism in contemporary urban India (Unlimited Girls), divisions of language, class, memory and food in Mumbai (Cosmopolis: Two Tales of a City), the minority Christian girl in Mumbai (Where’s Sandra), toilets and the lack of facilities in the city (Q2P), and the complex dynamics reflected in breaking news (Morality TV Aur Loving Jehad: Ek Manohar Kahani).

Excerpts from an interview.

What prompted you to make this film?

Magic Lantern Foundation asked me to make the film a while ago. But I declined because I thought it was kind of a boring subject -- and also a lot of the stuff around copyleft discussion, vis-à-vis art, was not very compelling.

I mean obviously the free software and open source movement and the like are inspiring, but there didn’t seem to be anything new I could say about that and I didn’t want to rehash some politically correct line.

Around that time, however, I went to Punjab to do research on another film and discovered this very interesting music world there. Also, I had begun doing some work in a more mainstream space -- let’s say the edges of Bollywood and such like. And I began coming up against the unfair ideas of copyright and, more than that, the feudal sense of power that underlies how copyright is used in various ways.

And so, perhaps having a more ground-level political engagement with the idea instead of a sort of theoretical one, I felt this was something I did want to talk about -- in fact it’s at the heart of a lot of things in our times. So I asked Magic Lantern Foundation whether they still wanted to make the film. Luckily, they did. And so here I am with Partners in Crime.

I know it touches on a lot of cities and subjects -- the mainstream debate on ‘copyright’ and ‘piracy’, how young people see it, traditional artists and how they are affected… How would you describe what the film is about?

I think a discussion about copyright is eventually a discussion about culture and the market. For me, this is a film about art, its importance and value in our society, and via that, some questions about how we decide the value of anything.

At this point we live in a time where the value of everything is measured by money. In general, increasingly, there are no other means by which we commonly value something or feel it is worthwhile. This eventually strips everything of value and makes it very difficult to create beauty and meaning, especially in popular art.

Copyright is a prism through which to see these ideas.

Do you think this is an important debate for countries like India? Why?

I think it’s an important debate for all countries, but yes it’s very interesting and important for India.

At this point, millions of people are denied access to knowledge and cultural things because they’re priced too high (for instance, cinema tickets). Piracy becomes a way for people to access all this. We have a very large population that cannot afford cultural goods any other way.

If you say therefore that piracy is a criminal activity, without making any nuanced difference between illegality and criminality, and in fact you have corporations, especially multinationals, lobbying the government to put it under the same laws as terrorism, you are effectively saying that the entire country needs to be in jail!

There’s a contradiction here -- you are compelling people into so-called criminal activity because of your market model, then wanting to punish them instead of looking at new market models.

But this does raise a very important problem: how are artists supposed to live? How are resources going to be generated to make more art?

I strongly believe that there is a growing culture of independent art not having any value. That’s because between the corporate model where all cultural artefacts are just fast-moving consumer goods, and piracy, no one wants to pay for anything and, in fact, considers it not worth much. I don’t believe this is a sustainable way to live, for artists and also consumers of art. It is not good for the soul!

It seems to me that there is too little discussion around copyright from the artist’s point of view. And in a country like India, where independent art as also older art forms like folk music really struggle, I think it is important to start talking about it.

The copyleft debate emerged from the open source/free software discussion. Obviously it has been an important moment in the so-called ‘dialectics’ around copyright.

But it cannot be applied blindly to art. Using it as a springboard, there has to be a parallel debate emerging from the practice of artists to create new paradigms that will protect the artist without impeding the free flow of art.

What has the response to the film been so far?

We’ve only had a couple of screenings so it’s hard to say what the response has been.

I’m very keen that films be enjoyable, that people love the film and don’t fall into this sort of earnest, pious mode when they watch a documentary because that really interferes with a genuine engagement with the ideas and experience of the film. So yes, people seem to have really enjoyed the film. That said, it is a complex film so we will know only with time and more shows how people respond.

Eventually, you sort of nurture the film up to a point and organise screenings, etc. After that it really depends on whether the film is going to resonate with people; if they feel it is at all relevant to their feelings and half-articulated thoughts; and takes on a life and journey of its own.

Most of us are brainwashed into accepting ‘copyright’ as the norm. How tough is it for you to convince people otherwise?

Are we? I don’t know about that. I think most people are brainwashed into not really thinking, or knowing about things, or asking questions in general!

I think people don’t realise one thing: that copyright is an evolving idea; it has arisen because of a certain technology and now technology itself is throwing it into tremendous flux. So we really have to come up with new approaches to the idea of copyright and I imagine, as do most people, that we will eventually have a hybrid notion of copyright in which many forms co-exist.

The greatest fuzziness is about what’s actually going on with copyright on the ground. Copyright is meant to protect the artist -- to acknowledge authorship, to protect his/her right to earn a livelihood from talent and labour, and to be able to share art as the artist likes.

However, at this point, most copyright lies not with the artist but with corporate bodies. Copyright, or IPR as it is called, becomes a way for corporations to own everything and share nothing. There are artists who cannot access their own art, sing their own songs, screen their own films. And the truth is, even if the law changes, beyond a point IPR is a symbol of the power relations of these industries in which artists have no bargaining power and so are routinely underpaid and stripped of all rights.

Capitalism and feudalism is a toxic mix that decimates any justice and fairness -- and eventually any genuine creativity one can exercise in one’s work. They replace creativity with anxiety and abjectness.

I think all of these things need to be and are laid out in the film along with presenting the fluidity and associativeness of the creative process and the need for a nuanced understanding of these concepts while framing copyright practice. I think people do go on that journey with the film and come to various understandings or at least to a place where they have many questions. The idea of the film is not to insist on one ‘correct’ or definitive conclusion but rather to make a conceptual exploration that prevents anything being unquestioned.

I think the one thing people are really brainwashed into is the idea that there is only one kind of market. The puritanism of those who say “the market is bad” is a kind of silliness because there are many, many markets and they are based on many different ideas of exchange -- some of these you see in the movie. On the other hand, there is the religiosity of those who believe in the current mainstream market economy which makes them refuse to accept when the model fails.

In the end we have to engage with all this. To say that technology is the democracy is a kind of fascism. Technology is obviously a valuable tool that could allow for democratic access, and the shape of much technology now is democratic in tendency. But democracy depends on people and political choices/processes, not machines.

What were the two or three most surprising aspects you came across while researching or shooting the film?

There were so many things! But I think definitely the Munni Badnaam Huistory.

As you know, Munni Badnaam Hui was the big hit song of 2010. Along the way I read about how it was ‘copied’ from a song sung by a duo called Rani Bala and Rampat Harami. I heard the song on the Internet and I really liked it and then I began this huge search for them -- it was quite a little detective adventure and we succeeded with the kindness of friends like the filmmaker Saba Dewan who has made The Other Song, who asked some of the performers who were in her film to help.

Two things emerged -- one, that there are dozens of versions of the Munni song, emerging from the original folk song Launda Badnaam Hua, including a Pakistani film version. The existence of one version does not seem to harm the other -- because there are several parallel markets, and different versions work for those various markets. There is a certain creative richness which emerges from this logic of the market.

But the increasingly monopolistic capitalist market we see right now is not only monopolistic, it’s monotheistic, mono-cultural and eventually monotonous. It swamps everything with its version and declares all others illegal, so much so that art forms end up dying as the markets that sustain them falter. Instead, one needs to nurture different scales of market for different types of work.

What I also understood is that this market takes from every other market -- but then influences law and cultural perception in its favour, presenting itself as profitable and non-value-loaded, and then desires to shut down every other market saying that what they do is illegal. It’s similar to the way people take from the environment without replenishing the environment. It impoverishes the world.

These were not precisely discoveries but renewed understandings that came from working on the film.

The third discovery that was interesting was this big push going on to link piracy to terrorism, influenced by the Rand report, and the degree of lobbying that’s going on with the government by multinational media conglomerates in this regard. On the other hand though, they are making deals and alliances with the very Indian film companies that have pirated and violated their IPR through wholesale plagiarism. So the big guys with money are your friends and their crimes are permitted, but the small guys are the ones you’ll go after. It’s a weird ideology.

Last of all I discovered a term -- vertical integration. To know what it means you must see the film! Of course you can also Google it, but it’s more fun to see it in the film!

Given that your views on copyright are a bit sceptical, are you using alternative models to promote your own films?

I agree with Lawrence Liang in the film: It’s not about property, it’s about propriety. I would not like someone to take a part of my film or writing without acknowledging me. If they have some money, then it would be nice if they gave me a little. If they don’t, then they could ask me and I don’t think I’d say no. Although, what if I disagree with them? Can I prevent them? No I can’t really. But could there be a conversation about it? These are not questions with clear answers, but they do require each of us to respect the other and to live according to that respect and propriety.

Being an independent filmmaker, that too in the most marginal and maligned of forms -- documentary -- it is alternative models alone that have worked. Mainstream models probably would not work for this, at least not right now.

So far, in most of my films I share ownership with the producers and we both work separately to promote and sell the film.

Also, all distribution arrangements that I make are non-exclusive. This helps support more initiatives and expand the space, I think. The sale price of films that I sell is discretionary; sort of each according to their ability. But I do expect that people will pay something at least for the film as this is what makes it possible to keep doing what we are doing and make an alternative space. I find it very violent when people insist that I give my films to others for free. When food and housing are free, so will my films be! There is a way that should be mutually non-exploitative. For instance, I always buy other filmmakers’ films as far as possible and don’t ask for free copies.

There are also all sorts of methods of barter and exchange -- filmmakers buy each other’s film, but we also exchange films. There are people who work for very little in our films. There are friends for whom you try to do some work in return for theirs. And, obviously, the Internet allows for a lot of possibilities and creative ways of promoting your film and reaching the scattered but strong audience that loves this kind of work.

I think there is a lot of collective energy that helps us do what we do -- collectives that screen each others’ films, like Vikalp or the Delhi Film Archive. It is, as one of the metal musicians, Sahil Makhija aka ‘The Demon-Stealer’, says in the film -- if the scene does not exist, you do not exist. So you have to nurture and protect the ecosystem you are part of.

Would you suggest the some-rights-reserved or no-rights-reserved approach to other documentary filmmakers to promote their work? Why, or why not?

I don’t know. For me personally I am very uncomfortable with anyone having exclusive ownership of my work. Some-rights-reserved is a good model I think. I’ve found greatest freedom in these joint models because they help increase audiences and create documentary cinema for Indian audiences. I would recommend them. On the other hand, all these models belong to spaces which have little money even in the world of documentary. I work with rather small budgets and have to do a lot of different things to survive. So who am I to tell any filmmaker that he/she should not work with a big or bigger budget that requires all-rights-reserved by the producers? I suppose it’s both a personal and political choice. And there are people who work with both models.

But one should try to take the long view and build a space and do what’s needed to build that space.

Who, in your view, are the people doing the most impressive work in India, in questioning copyright?

It’s a vast area and by no means do I know all the work that’s happening. Obviously, in the software and legal areas there are strong groups with a long history. But that’s not the focus of Partners in Crime, and there are too many to name here.

Within the arts, I think, independent bands are doing impressive work in creating alternative market models and keeping their art independent.

I think the people in the Right to Read Campaign, who are working to change copyright law to make the conversion of books for reading-disabled people possible, are doing very important fundamental kind of work.

Lastly, how would you see yourself?

I'm a filmmaker and writer. A teacher and curator. I work on themes of politics, popular culture, sexuality, desire and gender. I've grown up in many places and lived in Bombay half my life. I like living in Andheri East. I like acting, cooking and traveling. I'm a neatnik and workaholic. All other serious information is on the website,

(Frederick Noronha is a Goa-based writer who focuses on technology and development)

 Contact for filmmaker: Paromita Vohra <>

Infochange News & Features, July 2011
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