Copyright is often dumb

As I will tell you if I ever have the opportunity to spend more than 15 seconds in conversation with you, I have a book coming out next March.  But I’ve had a book coming out for a very, very long time, because it apparently takes a very long time to get something published.  In a state of cheerful denial, I have persisted in believing my book’s release to be a perpetual six months away, always receding; a discontinuity I could approach but never reach.  I’ve scrambled on the publishing hamsterwheel, convinced that eventually my frantic little paws would shake the thing from its axel and send it flying through the glass to fame and fortune.

But yeah, it takes a long time to get something published, and all sorts of terrible things can happen to a manuscript on its journey.  I’m very grateful, for instance, that my memoir TRIGGERED was not abducted en route by entrepreneurial editors and reedited into a supernatural romance about sexy, mentally ill teen UFOs.  I’m not sure if that happens but I am still grateful it didn’t.

Apparently the biggest bullet I dodged was legal.  Memoirs are especially vulnerable to this kind of thing.  It’s standard procedure to change minor details to protect the innocent and the potentially litigious; brown hair becomes blonde, Steve becomes Evets, everyone is rewritten as a sexy teenage alien.

But thankfully my editors requested only two changes that I objected to, both involving song lyrics I’d used as introductions to two of the chapters.  Apparently, although neither of these was more than a line (and neither was more than 10% of the work, so my borrowing should have been permitted under fair use), I could not quote without risking a lawsuit.  Apparently I could offer to pay the rightsholders in advance (anywhere from a hundred to a thousand dollars), but this was not recommended, because it would invite further legal scrutiny of the work which we were already slipping though the gates under the cover of darkness.  If I refused to pay I would be sued, and if I agreed to pay I would be sued by someone else.

This is stupid.  This is stupid in a staggering number of ways that I will now elaborate for you.

First, this is all in spite of the fact that, in the glorious age of the internet, I can find the not only the complete unauthorized lyrics to both of these songs but also pirated music concert videos, mp3s, and Youtube music vids with spliced-together footage of Troy and Abed from Community exchanging sexy glances.  If people want your song, there isn’t a thing you or I can do to prevent them from taking it and doing what they like with it.  Denying an author access to lyrics does nothing to change this.

And aside from its fundamental uselessness, this legal barricade me as an absurd perversion of the intent of copyright.  It’s generally accepted that the purpose of copyright is to prevent bootlegs from being produced, so that no one buys an illegal copy instead of the original and cheats the artist out of a buck.  That’s an admirable and just notion.  But in what insane parallel universe is someone going to skip buying a song because I quote part of the chorus?  Who is going to read a memoir, glance over a dozen words, and decide they’ve somehow illicitly derived the essence of a rock song they no longer need to purchase?  Does my quoting lyrics in some way decrease the value of the music?

Fer chrissakes, if anything, I’m recommending your song.  I’m telling my reader that I loved this music, that it meant so much to me that I used it to encapsulate a chapter of my life.  If it was Diet Coke or something instead of music, you’d pay me to mention your product.

And this all ignores that the current rightsholders were probably, at best, only tangentially involved in the creation of the original work.  Mark Bolan is dead, son.  If I flip EMI two hundo, that still isn’t going to him, unless they tear up and scatter the bills like roses petals over his grave.[1]  Maybe it will go to his producers or bandmates, or maybe it will go to his record label.  In any case, I cannot fathom a legitimate moral justification that bars me from sharing even a line of a song, to protect the rights of a man who is dead, and to ensure his corpse continues to profit from it until (by my calculations) 2047.

Instead, I’d like to posit an alternate explanation for this series of events: the RIAA are creative vampires, not sexy sparkly vampires but old-school widow’s peak and overbite-style vampires, who feed on the liquid assets of the young and vital.  They are enemies of art.  They are madmen indiscriminately wielding a sawed-off shotgun that shoots lawsuits, and although you may have a legitimate grievance with a shotgun-wielding madman, it is not necessarily in your best interest to address him directly.  Because as the madman tells you, one of his veiny eyes bulging and the other squinted shut, a thin trickle of drool and malt liquor winding through his thatchlike beard: he has no problem lawsuiting small children and little old Irish grandmothers, so don’t think yer snobby hipster ass will get treated any different, boy.

Look, I know it’s not a big deal.  I found other quotes to use instead, and they work fine.  I’m getting a book published at 25 and that’s incredible, and I’m unbelievably grateful to my publisher for all the guidance and publicity they’ve given me.  But still: this is my memoir, this is my attempt to tell the reader the story of my life as wholly and honestly as I can.  And when someone tells you no, you can’t do that, you need to change this little bit for utterly stupid reasons so someone doesn’t use the courts to steal money from us: that’s really frustrating.  Isn’t the purpose of art to reflect life?  In our media-saturated age, when we spend every day flooded by songs and shows and memes and games, how are we supposed to make art that cannot acknowledge these experiences?

So, yeah, sometimes I think the world would be a better place if we were all just pirating streaming bitfiles from the cloud, or whatever you kids do.[2]


[1] This is what I want done with any and all royalties for my work after I die.

[2] Please do not pirate Fletcher Wortmann’s memoir TRIGGERED, and also buy multiple copies and tell friends to do the same, so that he can eat food.


2 Comments on “Copyright is often dumb”

  1. Brendan Work says:

    Cracking wise and making a point is an advanced double move, Fletch. I like this one a lot.

  2. [...] faced with a memoir he has that’s coming out next year, where the publisher freaked out about the inclusion of two song lyrics as intros to various chapters: But thankfully my editors requested only two changes that I [...]


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