Sunday, January 22, 2012

A cautionary fairy tale for the writers of this world…

Once Upon a Time there was a writer of thriller novels who liked to do things right. He is also a fan of westerns. His latest book is set in a small town in Southwest Texas in the present day. He thought it would be a nice tribute to one of his favourite films, “High Noon”, to name the town after the one that featured in the film. Incidentally, the town is never named in the film; its identity is revealed just after the opening credits (minute 4:39”) in a sign on the railway depot. Furthermore, the action in the film takes place in New Mexico Territory.

Now this innocent also likes to include what he calls ‘Winks’ into his novels. These are Inside Secrets hidden within the tales he weaves, but highlighted on his webpage. As part of the tribute, he was going to explain the town name reference and illustrate it with a still (one image from the 122,400 that go to make up the complete film), explaining how he thought the town was an unaccredited character in this classic western. So he wrote to MGM seeking permission to use the image in this context. MGM quickly responded indicating they no longer have the copyright to that film. Much digging later, this misguided soul wrote to Stanley Kramer’s production people, who still hold the copyright.
The rapid response consisted of an e-mail from Kramer’s Hollywood lawyers, where, in menacing tones, they indicate their belief that the novel must be in breach of Kramer’s copyright, as it is a “derived” work – note: the Big, Bad Wolf has not read the novel, and was given a two-line synopsis where it clearly stated that the use of the town name was the only reference. Of course, they also indicated that the use of the still and the “derived” storyline could be licensed, that is to say, in exchange for money. They needed to see the work to decide if it was “derived” and how much they needed to charge.

After walking round the woods for several days, he was not lost, just angry, the writer responded indicating that the town name had been changed and there would be no reference to the film in any shape or form in the novel. End of Story.

They all lived happily ever after?  Why does the writer have the sensation that the Big Bad Wolf is waiting for publication to see if he can blow the house down?

Now just a few more breadcrumbs… (I know I’m mixing fairy tales)

1)      ---There are at least 2 other towns in the US with that name, neither in New Mexico or Texas.

2)     ... The film’s scriptwriter, Carl Foreman had to buy the rights to a novel (‘The Tin Star’ by John W. Cunningham) when it was pointed out his screenplay was too similar, and looked “derived”.

3)     ... Mr. Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) wrote a short story, published in 1899, called “The Man that corrupted Hadleyburg” – I wonder if the Hadleyville of the aforementioned film (1952) was “derived” from this? Just A thought.

4)      ...The US Copyright legislation, in its section on ‘Fair Use’ would have allowed the reproduction of the still without prior consultation or permission-seeking, as long as it was correctly attributed. Anyone visiting the writer’s website will see at a glance how any references to other people’s Intellectual Property is not only attributed, but where possible links are provided so interested readers may purchase their works or read more.

5)     ... Incidentally, the Big Bad Wolf says that this incident is covered by “attorney-client privilege” and thus cannot be discussed. They’ve obviously never heard of the First Amendment, either, nor the definition of attorney-client privilege under US law. But, maybe things are different in Hollywood Fairy Tale Land.

Fairy tales usually have a moral, and this is no exception. In this case our moral is provided by a third party:

"No good deed goes unpunished"
-          Clare Boothe Luce, dramatist.

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