Thursday, April 21, 2022

Copyright Is Not the Right to Copy by James W. Ziskin

Our question this week is about legal and copyright issues: “But I really want to use that quote.” Where do you go for legal / copyright advice? Do you ever use public or historical figures in stories? A song lyric?

Bombay Monsoon, copyright 2022 James W. Ziskin

Where do I go for legal/copyright advice? To the public domain, of course! No angry authors or songwriters waiting to sue (rightly so, by the way) for infringement of intellectual property. The fact that my books all take place in the past makes this strategy a little easier. But books and songs from the 1960s and 1970s—when my books are set—are still under copyright, so it’s not as if everything is free to use. How I envy authors who write about the 19th century and before. Anything goes.

In my books, I’ve occasionally cited song titles, but I’ve stayed away from quoting them directly. In Turn to Stone, which takes place in the late summer of 1963, for example, I mentioned several Italian pop songs from the late 1950s and early 1960s. I even had one of my characters singing the songs to Ellie, but no more than a couple of words appeared in the text. And I made liberal use of the lyrics from other songs that are out of copyright, including the Italian hymn of the partigiani, “Bella ciao.” No issues there.

For Turn to Stone, I borrowed from Boccaccio’s Decameron. But not only is that work out of copyright, it never was copyrighted in the first place! No such thing in the 14th century when it was written. I used the setting of that collection to frame my own novel, and inserted modified versions of a couple of the stories to provide clues to the mystery.

I had lots of fun with a couple of Beatles songs in Turn to Stone as well, but I didn’t quote the lyrics directly. I named the songs, of course: “She Loves You,” “Please Please Me,” and “From Me to You.” Mariangela, the fourteen-year-old daughter of the victim in the story, introduces Ellie to the Fab Four via those three songs. She exacts a promise from Ellie to make sure America discovers the Beatles, who in September 1963, were still a couple of months away from stardom in the US. I’ll leave it to readers (and common sense) to decide whether Ellie is responsible for the Beatles’ success in America.

In previous Ellie Stone books, I’ve included lots of classical music, though most of those pieces have no lyrics. In Heart of Stone, however, there’s an important clue revealed in Puccini’s aria “Mi chiamano Mimi,” but, again, copyright is no longer an issue.

Finally, have I ever inserted historical figures in my books? Not really. I mention famous people from the times, but I’ve never felt comfortable putting words into the mouths of real people. With one exception. In Cast the First Stone, set in 1962 Hollywood, William Hopper—he of Paul Drake fame on the Perry Mason Show—makes a quick cameo appearance. His one line to Ellie is, “Hiya, beautiful.”

Or is it two exceptions? There was the appearance of Jaipur and Ridan, the two Thoroughbreds who dueled in the 1962 Travers Stakes in Saratoga Springs. Those two champions ran to glory in A Stone’s Throw, as you can read in my last post (April 7, 2022). That thrilling contest was the greatest in the 150-year history of the race. And if we’re mentioning the two horses, I should also include Bill Shoemaker, who rode the winner and appeared in the winner circle.

So, my advice to writers is to avoid the risks of running afoul of copyright laws. Invent your own songs and poems to cite in your work. Or quote works that are already in the public domain. Copyright is not, after all, the right to copy.



Susan C Shea said...

Jim, all good advice. One question: Boccaccio's work itself mat never have been copyrighted, but if you used a bit ot it in a translation, might that translation be copyrighted? (Asking for a friend who wants to use 2 lines of a translation of the Odes of Horace...)

James W. Ziskin said...

That’s true, Susan. A copyrighted translation needs permission. In my book, I translated the stories and made changes. So that was okay.


Anonymous said...

I think the reason writers want to quote popular songs in their stories is to create a sense of community with the reader. A good idea but it should be done with respectful short quote and Use Your Words, kids!

Laurie Hernandez

Erica Miner said...

Thanks for all the great info, Jim. I was brought back by your mention of Turn to Stone and all of my young adult memories of 60s and 70s songs. And as always I'm impressed with your classical music acumen. Ah...Mimi!