Adventures in Copyright

As a longtime editor and writer I knew the basics about copyright:

  • I own the copyright in any original work that’s fixed in some tangible medium. IOW, if I print out copies of a novel chapter for my writers’ group, it’s copyrighted. I don’t have to put “© 2018 by Susanna J. Sturgis” on it. However . . .
  • If I want to defend my copyright against possible infringement, it needs to be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.
  • You can’t copyright an idea.

Then things got complicated. I was offered an honorarium to develop a script from 1854 . . . a folk opera, a concept left behind by one Jack Schimmelman when he died in 2015. This concept included some inspired ideas but few distinctive characters, no story, and no usable dialogue. It was a stretch for me: I’m basically a nonfiction writer with a minor in fiction, but I’ve also got some theater background, my three one-act plays have all been staged, and I’m good at dialogue. As a longtime editor, I’m also pretty good at recognizing the potential threads in a big pile of carded wool.

Aside: For some background on the work, see “Fundraiser for 1854,” written by me for another blog I manage.

I took the gig. I read and reread works about and written in the 1850s.  The project absorbed most of my writing energies through last fall and into the winter.

After a few writer friends read it and an informal read-through was held in April, I knew I had something. I cut some characters (it’s still got a big cast) and did some trimming. It was still a work in progress, but it was ready for further testing.

By then, however, my alarm bells were starting to ring. An advisory committee had been formed to produce something stageworthy from this concept. It was led by the principal in the one-man nonprofit that owned the copyright on the original concept — the person who hired me to develop the script. Its members had even less theater experience than I did.  It was seriously suggested that, since resources were lacking to produce the whole work in 2018, half of it be produced this year and half of it next. I suggested instead that a staged reading be held this year, to refine the script and create some buzz, and a full production in 2019. This suggestion was adopted.

The alarm bells, however, were ringing louder and louder. At fundraisers and in PR, the work was identified as 1854 . . . a folk opera, by Jack Schimmelman. My play wasn’t an opera — the original concept wasn’t either; at most it was a blueprint from which an opera could be developed — and Jack Schimmelman didn’t write it.

I could see the day coming when I might have to defend my rights in this script. In other words, I had to register the copyright. First, though, I had to find out what my rights were. I wanted to give Jack Schimmelman credit for his work, but I didn’t want him getting credit for mine.

I engaged an attorney who specializes in copyright, including theater and performing arts law. In a series of emails I explained the situation and he walked me through it. At the outset, he confirmed my belief that my script wasn’t a “work made for hire.” It wasn’t “a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment.” The fact that I’d been hired and paid to do it made it a commissioned work, but it fulfilled none of the conditions that might have made it work for hire. Even if it had, we had never “expressly agree[d] in a written instrument signed by [the parties] that the
work shall be considered a work made for hire.”

The next question was whether it was a “derivative work” —  one “based on or derived from one or more already existing works.” In many instances, this is obvious: a movie is based on a novel, a work is translated from one language into another, a drawing is made from a photograph, and so on. Since ideas can’t be copyrighted, my case was trickier. The lawyer suggested at first that my script might not be derivative at all. I went through Schimmelman’s concept again, page by page. I’d used none of his original text, but I had borrowed his basic structure and some of his characters, one in particular. I pointed this out to the lawyer. He agreed — and reminded me that  the copyright owner of a derivative work holds all the rights to her original contribution.

Apart from two passages from Frederick Douglass, which are in the public domain, that meant the entire script. I had emails and a payment record to show that I’d had permission to develop a script from the copyrighted concept. Earlier this month, I registered my script electronically with the U.S. Copyright Office, forked over $55, and uploaded the most current copy of the work.

So last night 1854 had an unstaged reading. It was planned before I knew what my rights were, so (other than singing in the chorus) I had no hand in it. The good news is that we had a good audience, the audience was enthusiastic, and at the end the co-director announced that I had written the script. The not-so-good news is that the cover of the program identified the work as “1854 . . . a folk opera,” by Jack Schimmelman, my credit as playwright was buried on the back cover, and my annotated notes about the characters were included in the program with no attribution whatsoever.

I am, in other words, very glad that I engaged a lawyer, ascertained my rights, and registered my copyright. Now 1854 cannot be produced or recorded without my permission, which I’ll be happy to give as long as the title of the work is 1854 (no more “folk opera”) and I’m identified as the playwright.

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Of Older Styles

Editors, writers, and other word people sometimes get into battling about style as if their lives, or at least the fate of the English language, depended on it.

“The Chicago Manual of Style says . . .”

“But according to the Associated Press . . .”

“That’s not true of British English . . .”

And so on and on and on.

Lately, for a writing project, I’ve been reading works published in the U.S. in the 1840s and 1850s. For the record, so far they include Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, (1845); Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853), as well Escape to Freedom, a young adult adaptation of Douglass’s Narrative, and Douglass’s very famous Fourth of July speech from 1852, which I’ve had the honor of reading parts of aloud at an annual performance.

The contemporary editions of all the full-length works retain the style, spelling, and punctuation of the original. While my writer-reader self takes in the content, my copyeditorial self is noting especially the style choices that contemporary U.S. editors might take issue with.

Perhaps my most important takeaway is that I’ve found all of these works, published between 164 and 172 years ago, readily comprehensible. The words I didn’t recognize are still found in English-language dictionaries. With the works of Shakespeare and others of his time — the late 16th century and early 17th — my eyes often drop to the footnotes. Footnotes were neither provided for nor required by this 21st-century reader of these mid-19th-century works.

To be sure, my 21st-century sensibility sometimes got impatient with the flowery style and digressions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not to mention some plot implausibilities toward the end, but Stowe’s interwoven stories, her attention to detail, and her acute insight into human nature more than made up for it. Twelve Years a Slave is a page-turner from beginning to end, and the main reason Douglass takes me longer to get through is that I often pause to read passages aloud — a practice I highly recommend, and not just with the Fourth of July speech.

If you’ve read my recent and not-so-recent posts on the subject, you won’t be surprised that my copyeditorial eye paid particular attention to hyphenation. All these works use considerably more hyphens than either Chicago or AP allows, or even the more hyphen-friendly online Oxford (UK version).

Opening Twelve Years a Slave at random, I find work-bench, blood-hound, and half-way on facing pages. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (MW) and the UK Oxford have them all solid, one word, no hyphen.

A single page of Uncle Tom’s Cabin offers store-room, linen-presses, and china-closet all in the same sentence. Current English style would make storeroom one word and both linen presses and china closet two.

Aside: For storeroomMerriam-Webster’s notes the first usage as 1685. It does not note whether that first usage was one word, two, or hyphenated, leaving one to believe that it’s been one word all along. I tend to doubt it. This is one of my pet peeves with MW and one reason I prefer the American Heritage Dictionary. AHD is more likely to offer the hyphenated alternative for words that are indeed styled both ways in good English-language writing.

In Twelve Years a Slave some two-word proper nouns are hyphenated, notably New-York and New-Orleans. The styles I’m familiar with all dispense with the hyphen, probably on the theory that it’s obvious the two words constitute one name. The older style survives in the official name of the New-York Historical Society.

As noted in my earlier “Dash Away, All” post, Chicago style advises an en dash when such an “open compound” is joined to another word, as in New York–Boston train. It’s unlikely that, if only a hyphen were used, anyone familiar with U.S. geography and/or capitalization style would ever read that as a “new York-Boston train,” but I’ve been en-dashing such constructions for almost 40 years so the hyphen just doesn’t look like enough.

Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin I noticed almost immediately the unusual — to me — styling of contractions.  In most cases Stowe and/or the typographer inserted a space between the two words being fused together: I ‘ve, I ‘ll, it ‘s, is n’t, did n’t, there ‘s, and so on. However, in a few cases the contractions are set solid, the way we’d style them today: can’t and an’t. An’t, which we would write ain’t (but never, ever use except in the most colloquial dialogue), contracts either am not or are not; thus it might have been rendered a’ n’t. Quite possibly that failed Stowe’s “it looks funny” test, as it fails mine. And since cannot appears as one word, it makes sense that the contraction can’t would do likewise.

For a semicolon-lover like me, these 19th-century works are a feast. Douglass, Stowe, and Northup were not afraid of long sentences, and for writers of long sentences semicolons are indispensable. Stowe sometimes strings as many as four independent clauses together with semicolons, a practice that would send most U.S. copyeditors screaming for their red pencils (or, more likely, their Track Changes). And Northup writes, of Mistress Epps:

She had been well educated at some institution this side the Mississippi; was beautiful, accomplished, and usually good-humored.

(Are you itching to insert an of after “side”?)

Stowe is very fond of dashes, though not as fond as Emily Dickinson, and often, though by no means always, her dashes are preceded by a comma: “Topsy only thought Eva’s speech something funny and inexplicable,—she did not believe it.” Northup’s aren’t, and neither are Dickinson’s. In the later The Minister’s Wooing (1859) and Oldtown Folks (1869), Stowe was still preceding dashes with commas and even semicolons. Clearly no editor was telling her that this just wasn’t done,—or if they did, she was having none of it.

Anxiety and Public Reading

An insightful piece about giving a reading and (of course) other things. I recognize what Lupita Nyong’o calls “the seduction of inadequacy” — boy, do I ever. There’s a big payoff for feeling unworthy: you don’t have to try, don’t have to risk, don’t have to make mistakes. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only writer who sometimes falls for the seduction!

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Profile_KOBy Katrina Otuonye

I took part in a reading with The Porch Writers’ Collective in Nashville last week, and I read for about 10 minutes from a collection of nonfiction I’m working on. I think it went well, even though I was a little nervous, though a bit less than usual. Practice does actually make perfect. But the first couple paragraphs, getting over the dry mouth, mentally smoothing over the shakiness in my voice, my little animal brain kicked in, the one that always says, “What are you doing?”

The voice comes from a little preppy version of me, in a pleated skirt and my hair up, in a bow. She sits cross-legged on my shoulder, filing her nails. I’ve been meditating and going to therapy to help with my anxiety and latent feelings of not-good-enough-ness that have followed me around for nearly 20 years now (thanks, middle school). Before…

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The Poetics of Resistance

Like many other word people I’m looking for new ways to put my abilities to work in these trying times. The photos of poets in this blog post give me ideas and courage and faith.

Visitant

On Friday, January 20, 2017, I witnessed what will from here on out be known as a National Day of Patriotic Resistance, or, a poetry reading.

All throughout last Friday, I would peek at social media (I have to be on the Twitter and the Facebook for my job), observe the juxtaposition of the incoming/outgoing administrations, and then jump off again. Luckily, in the afternoon I was required to journey to the Bronx for work, which thoroughly distracted me for the afternoon. Then, when 5:00 rolled around, I traveled to Lower Manhattan to be among the poets.

When my friend, poet Jen Fitzgerald and other New York poet Terence Degnan announced a Day 1 poetry reading for the night of the inauguration, I knew that I would definitely be there. Poetry is the most honest of writing forms: Poets, I think, leave less of a barrier between themselves and the…

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Beyond the Written Word

Words flow through my fingers and onto the paper, onto the keyboard. I take them for granted, even when they’re lumpy or reluctant or stuck. They flow out of my mouth as reliably as tap water (I’m lucky that way). Sometimes I sing them. I’m not a real singer, but I sing regularly, in a pick-up group — all comers welcome — that gets together monthly to sing and also in the Spirituals Choir. The choir is part of the U.S. Slave Song Project. We sing the folk songs sung by African slaves in America between 1619 and 1865.

For more than a decade, between the mid-1980s and the very late 1990s, I was very involved in local theater, first as a reviewer for one of the local papers, then mainly as a stage manager and actor. I even wrote several one-act plays.

Mostly these days, though, my creative life is words on paper and words on screen, writing them and editing them.

A couple of weeks ago, Roberta Kirn, the leader of the pick-up group I sing with and also a dancer, drummer, and teacher, sent round an email to all the singers, drummers, and musically inclined people on her list. An upcoming production at The Yard was looking for singers to form a sort of flash mob in the audience during the performance. Contact information was provided.

Of course I was tempted — but I’m not a real singer: was I a good enough singer to do this, whatever it was? And The Yard is a summer dance colony in the next town over. Of all the creative arts, dance is the one I have the least affinity for. Dance is a language I don’t speak. It’s spoken mostly by skinny people who can contort their bodies in impossible ways. I’m not skinny now, and for a couple of decades I was downright fat. My contortions are all mental. I do them with words.

Poster for "The Queue" at The Yard

Poster for “The Queue” at The Yard

Still, it sounded fun, and a little risky, and an excuse to get out of my head. I signed up. I had to miss the rehearsal; the director said come anyway. Our song was a three-part arrangement of the chorus of Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.” Before Friday night’s performance, we did a run-through with the cast of The Queuedeveloped and performed by the Lucky Plush dance theater company from Chicago. The company began the song onstage, then the half dozen or so of us singers joined in from our scattered seats in the audience. I managed to pick up my note, hold my part, and remember the song even with no one around me to lean on — always a worry of mine.

The big reward was getting to see The Queue twice through. It’s set in an airport. At the beginning, apart from a gay couple setting out on their honeymoon, the seven players don’t know each other. Gradually connections develop and emerge among them. The piece is theater as well as dance. I do speak theater, and I totally forgot that I don’t speak dance. In theater, how the actors use space and their own bodies can be at least as important as what they do with their voices and the words of the script. The Queue draws on slapstick, vaudeville, and the great choral production numbers of yesteryear, among other things, and since the players are trained dancers who can do astonishing things with their bodies, I forgot that dance, music, and theater are supposed to be separate arts involving separate skills.

Well, OK, I already knew that. Thanks to my theater experience, writing often feels like directing or stage-managing to me. My characters are my actors. I watch them, coach them, and sometimes become them. Singing probably makes me even more attentive to sounds, rhythm, and silences than I would be otherwise. But lately I’ve been so exclusively engaged with the written word it’s like I’ve had blinkers on. Or as if I’ve been riding on an escalator focused entirely on the straight-ahead, screening out all the distractions to left and right.

And dance. I was totally ignoring dance. It’s not just for skinny people, and it’s not just a foreign language spoken in places I’ll never visit. I was just part of a dance production, even if all I did was stand up and sing.

Writers are scavengers. We’re the ultimate recyclers and repurposers. Our minds may seem crammed to capacity, but they aren’t. There’s always room for more.