Thinking about Copyright

A trip to New York always stimulates my brain to go off in many directions. Last week I found myself thinking – and wondering – about slavery, prodigies, Henrik Ibsen, immigration, Broadway, pianos…and (of all things) copyright. So today you’re going to get a tutorial on copyright, but it will be disguised as a travelogue.

I was delighted to discover a brand-new miniature display only two blocks away from my hotel. I have always loved miniatures – there’s a furnished dollhouse in our bedroom – and Gulliver’s Gate enchanted me. I ended up spending almost two hours looking at Lilliput-sized replicas of famous sites from all over the world. (How wonderful to see my beloved New York Public Library in miniature!) Buses move, traffic signals change from green to yellow to red, chickens peck the ground – I had fun looking at everything.

But I also detected a possible copyright violation. The British display includes an outdoor concert venue where you can see the Beatles perform. (I am not making this up.) Now perhaps the owners of Gulliver’s Gate sought permission to include a filmed performance by the Beatles. But I didn’t see a licensing notice (“used by permission”) anywhere, and it seems unlikely that a brand-new business venture on incredibly expensive Manhattan real estate could afford to pay what would surely be a hefty fee.

When I dropped by the by the New York Historical Society for the Eloise exhibit, my thoughts took a different direction. Licensing notices were posted everywhere – but (as I learned) there’s a problem with Eloise herself. Author Kay Thompson held the rights to the Eloise character (Thompson died in 1998). Therefore artist Hilary Knight, who created the wonderful drawings, is legally prohibited from creating new pictures of Eloise. After the publication of the last Eloise book, Knight embarked on a new career doing artwork for Broadway posters.

My third encounter with copyright happened in a theater on West 45th Street where I watched A Doll’s House, Part 2.  Playwright Lucas Hnath has written a sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s famous play about a woman who leaves her husband and children to find herself. In this case Hnath did what Hilary Knight is forbidden to do: make money off characters created by someone else. What’s different in this case is that Ibsen’s original play is out of copyright because it was created back in 1879.

When a work of art goes into “public domain” because of its age, anyone can do anything with it. That’s why I’ve seen vampire-themed rewrites of classic books by Louisa May Alcott and Jane Austen for sale in New York bookstores.

Every writer needs to be informed about copyright and terms like “fair use” and “public domain.” You can learn more at this link. (And if you want to read about one of my own adventures with copyright – a phone conversation with actor Sidney Poitier – click here.)

Brooklyn Bridge in Miniature

                      Brooklyn Bridge in Miniature

 

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