I’m Concerned about Infringing on Other People’s Copyrights

Note the implied S-curve. I could be up this S-creek without a paddle if I’m not careful.


Just as I started my third, my penultimate, reread of my novel, I happened upon an article about copyright. And now I have even more to worry about.

According to the article, the music industry, especially, targets people who may or may not have infringed a copyright and who don’t have the money or the pluck to fight back. It’s often called lawyer bluff. You look at their battery of lawyers, and you just give in. You pay them what they’re asking.

And I could really easily be buffaloed, bisoned actually, by even one lawyer.

The bison's daunting eye
Could you look into that eye and say, ‘NO’? I’d probably just give him what he wants.

One example used in the article is the song “Happy Birthday to You.” The song, a simple little song, may or may not have been written in 1893 by two sisters who lived in Louisville, Kentucky.

It was published in 1912, or not, copyrighted by a company in 1935, for sure, and Warner/Chappell Music bought that company in 1988. At the time of purchase, the copyright for “Happy Birthday” was probably worth about five million USD. Since then, the song has earned Warner around fifty million USD, perhaps making it the highest grossing song in history.

Did you know all that? I didn’t. I could easily have quoted a line or two from a song in my novel and perhaps have been sued.

After a battle in the court that cost millions, “Happy Birthday” is now in the public domain.

But although Charlie, one of my main characters, doesn’t mention “Happy Birthday,” he does refer to other songs. And that, as I said, is what worries me. Or maybe paranoid would be a better word than worried.

So, I’ve read all six parts of Ottawa’s Guide to Copyrights in Canada, and their A guide to copyright, and the information on their Justice Laws Website.

And I’ve gone to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, and to the Copyright Board of Canada, and to cippic, for information about Bill C-60 and Bill C-61, and to The Canadian Encyclopedia. All online, of course.

And I’m not even going to mention all the other websites, such as legalzoom, Mapleleafweb, and copyrightlaws.com.

But in the end, all I’ve learned is that if you’re unsure about something “you should consult a lawyer with knowledge in the field.” In other words, “You should consult an intellectual property lawyer for legal advice.” (I believe I’m allowed to quote from government documents such as the Guide to Copyrights in Canada, as I’ve done here, but even doing that makes me nervous.)

I’ve also learned that you can mention real people’s names – usually. And you can quote titles of works – usually. And you can quote short phrases – usually. And you can summarize and paraphrase the content of other people’s works – usually. But if doubt, “You should consult an intellectual property lawyer for legal advice.”

However, let me be more specific. I refer to Ian Tyson. I respect him. I really like his stuff. But can I be sued for mentioning his name here and in my novel? And I refer to “Four Strong Winds.” I love that song. But can I be sued for mentioning the song title here and in my novel? I think I’m OK with his name and the title. One usually is.

But – and now I think it is likely time to see a lawyer – I play around with Tyson’s song. In my novel, Dave and Charlie had been talking . . ..

(I had a specific example here of something I thought might require legal advice, but I removed it. It had to do with an idea that’s related to Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds.” However, sharing my idea before I’ve published my book would not be wise, I’m told. You can’t copyright an idea, apparently, so including it in this post would be as good as giving it away. Sorry about the disjuncture my removing the example has caused. But at least now I’ll be able to sleep better.)

Charlie also refers to Nietzsche, Aristotle, Plato, George Lucas, Lewis Carroll, some Kristofferson songs, and more. These other references, fortunately, are more tangential. The Tyson one is the most specific.

So now what? At this point, all I can do is keep repeating Ottawa’s injunction: If in doubt, “You should consult an intellectual property lawyer for legal advice.”

I’d love to phone Tyson and buy him a beer and talk about this, but I suspect that’s a no-go. He’s a very interesting man with a very interesting history in the music industry. If you want more about that, check out Four Strong Winds; Ian & Sylvia, by John Einarson. It’s a wonderful read.

I had no idea Tyson had been friends with Bob Dylan in the early years and had had such an influence on Dylan’s career. And on a number of other people’s careers.

OK, you might ask, So how are you getting ready for your meeting with a lawyer? My answer is, I don’t know yet.

But I’m going through my novel and copying and pasting every passage I think might be problematic into a separate Word document. And then I’ll “consult a lawyer with knowledge in the field” and find out what the next step should be.

But until I know for sure, I’m not going to start revising those potentially problematic passages. Maybe most of them are fine as is. In the meantime, I can work on other stuff.

But I have learned I absolutely must see a lawyer about all this. And see her again later on to have her check out a possible contract should someone offer me one. (Oops! I didn’t mean to say should. I meant to say when.)


Copyright © Glenn E. Christianson, 2017- 2022. All Rights Reserved.



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