Bill Bryson Might Legally Own Every Word He Says Out Loud

Thursday, October 17, 2013 - 01:54 PM

(Bill Bryson)

Lawyers for humorist Bill Bryson are claiming that Bryson is entitled to copyright protection for quotes he gave to an interviewer twenty years ago.

The story starts in 1994, when freelance writer Mike Gerard interviewed Bryson for a travel magazine. Gerard recently looked back at the interview and decided that there was enough excised material to justify publishing the entire interview as a standalone eBook. Bryson's publisher, Transworld, objected. Transworld argued that readers would be confused and think the book was written by Bryson. 

What makes this story unusual is Transworld's lawyers' logic. Transworld argues that one reason the book shouldn't be published is because the quotes in Gerard's article belong to Bryson. Bryson said these words, the logic goes, so he can decide where they're allowed to be republished.

Obviously, if you follow this logic, journalism becomes very difficult. Any source could prevent a journalist from quoting them, or from their quotes appearing in more than one approved venue.

Transworld's argument is being met with general incredulity, but they're being taken seriously in the one place that matters: Amazon. Amazon published Gerard's eBook originally, and they've taken it down in response to Transworld's complaint. Now, it's up to Gerard, a freelance writer, to wage a court battle to get his book back up on Amazon. 

Sites whose business relies on keeping large rights-holders happy, be they Amazon or YouTube, will often side reflexively with the big guy. You'd rather keep Bill Bryson and Random House happy than worry about a million angry Mike Gerards. But stories like this one give you pause about our increasingly Amazon-dominated future.

I've reached out to Transworld and I'll update if I hear back. 

 

 

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Comments [8]

John Karabaic from Cincinnati OH

The copyright on a photograph belongs to the photographer, not the subject. It would seem, by analogy, that the words uttered by a subject during an interview likewise belong to the interviewer and not the subject.

Oct. 21 2013 01:10 PM
Mike DeLong from Arlington, VA

I have read several of Bryson's books. I cannot think of a more suitable punishment for Bryson than being forced to own his own words.

Oct. 21 2013 10:14 AM
Terry Fletcher from UK

I disagree Debbie. A profile/personality interview is frequently largely drawn just from that person themselves and makes extensive use of their words. I've met Bill both socially and professionally, including interviewing him twice, and found him probably the most friendly, affable guy I've ever met so I'm both amazed and appalled by this in more or less equal measure. The publishers have much deeper pockets that Mike Gerrard and can bully him out of publishing the work because a court fight could bankrupt him. As a former newspaper man and the son of a newspaper man Bill must know this is a ridiculous situation but one which could be capitalised on by unscrupulous people. As people have pointed out on facebook and elsewhere, Bill quotes others in his books which, on the face of it at least, makes this copyright claim seem a bit hypocritical. Perhaps this is an action taken by the publisher rather than Bill. I certainly hope so and that they will back off sharpish. I write this as a huge BB fan - I've just counted 14 of his books on my shelf.

Oct. 19 2013 05:09 AM
Terry Fletcher from UK

I disagree Debbie. A profile/personality interview is frequently largely drawn just from that person themselves and makes extensive use of their words. I've met Bill both socially and professionally, including interviewing him twice, and found him probably the most friendly, affable guy I've ever met so I'm both amazed and appalled by this in more or less equal measure. The publishers have much deeper pockets that Mike Gerrard and can bully him out of publishing the work because a court fight could bankrupt him. As a former newspaper man and the son of a newspaper man Bill must know this is a ridiculous situation but one which could be capitalised on by unscrupulous people. As people have pointed out on facebook and elsewhere, Bill quotes others in his books which, on the face of it at least, makes this copyright claim seem a bit hypocritical. Perhaps this is an action taken by the publisher rather than Bill. I certainly hope so and that they will back off sharpish. I write this as a huge BB fan - I've just counted 14 of his books on my shelf.

Oct. 19 2013 05:09 AM
Debbie Galant from NJ

I kind of agree with Bryson on this. If you're creating an entire book from one source's words, you're cashing in on somebody else's intellect. Journalism involves quoting from multiple sources, and weaving this into a story -- not repurposing a long interview from one famous person into a book.

Oct. 18 2013 05:48 PM
Durant Imboden

If you want Bryson's opinion, you'll need to negotiate a rate with his lawyers. :-)

Oct. 18 2013 11:10 AM
Mike Gerrard from UK

Thanks for this excellent piece.

I'd like to clarify two things - as well as correcting the spelling of my name: Gerrard.

Passport (which I also published) was a literary magazine not a travel magazine. Each issue had a theme, and this one's was travel.

There was no excised material. The interview I published on the Kindle was exactly the interview as it had already appeared in Passport, with an introduction added explaining the background.

Thanks again for raising what is an important issue for all journalists.

Oct. 18 2013 02:53 AM
Sid

What's Bryson's opinion on the matter? Since he is the one who said the words and all.

Oct. 17 2013 11:16 PM

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