James Joyce & Dr. Seuss: Prisoners of Copyright Law

Kevin Ryan, a Houston music producer, came up with a brilliantly creative idea: What if you set the words of Dr. Seuss’ classic children’s book Green Eggs and Ham to the music and singing of Bob Dylan? Fantastic idea! So he went into his home studio and put together a clever mashup that mimics Dylan’s nasal singing style and electric band. Check out the mp3 of the song (if it remains online) and you’ll wonder if this is a long-lost cut that Dylan never released.

Would you eat them in a box?

Ryan posted several Dylan/Seuss mashups on his website, Dylan Hears a Who. Instant acclaim and hundreds of thousands of downloads ensued followed by a cease-and-desist letter from the estate of Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) demanding that he remove the songs because they violate the copyrights now owned by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. (For more read Dan Brekke's account, “ Tangled Up in Seuss,” at Salon.com.)

The case is disturbing because it shows just how limited our creative freedoms really are, thanks to copyright law. While your first instinct may be, “But surely parody counts as fair use!”, you would only be half-right. Yes, parody has been recognized as a legitimate exception to absolute copyright control, but that requires that you comment and “transform” the original work by giving it new meanings and messages. Needless to say, this is a highly ambiguous aesthetic judgment. Do we really trust judges to decide what a rapper or rocker is doing creatively? Your right to make a parody is not a well-defined right, in other words; it is simply an affirmative defense that you can use if you can afford to hire a lawyer and are willing litigate in court.

In this case, Kevin Ryan used the works of Dylan and Dr. Seuss, and arguably didn’t transform anything. Thus, while parody may be protected, a satire that merely uses a copyrighted work without “transforming it” may not necessarily be protected. Dr. Seuss’ heirs might also argue that Ryan didn’t use just a part of the original work (perhaps permissible); he used all of it (not permissible).

Ryan — perhaps worried about potential legal liability of $150,000 in statutory penalties for each copyright violation -- quickly yanked the mashups from his site. A notice there now reads: “At the request of Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. this site has been retired. Thanks for your interest.”

There is a sad irony that copyright law is being invoked in Dr. Seuss' name to stifle new creativity. Seuss was one of the great cultural subversives of children's literature. (Re-read The Cat in the Hat and see how it tempts children to have fun breaking the rules and not tell their mother!) As for Bob Dylan, another of our great cultural subversives and a prolific appropriator of other people's works, no word from his camp on the copyright issues. You gotta think that Bob is grooving on Ryan's inspired mashups.

This episode brings to mind a sweet victory against James Joyce’s literary estate, which is notorious for its aggressive campaigns to prevent scholars from quoting from family documents. The New Yorker described (June 16, 2006) how Stephen James Joyce, a grandson of the author, has virtually stymied serious scholarship about Joyce by preventing biographers and others from quoting from his writings.

Stanford Professor Carol Shloss wanted to use unpublished letters written by Lucia Joyce -- James’ daughter -- in her new book, Lucia Joyce: To Dance in The Wake. She wanted to discuss Lucia’s unacknowledged artistic talent, her life in mental institutions, and her influence on James Joyce’s writings. But Stephen James Joyce and the Estate spent ten years intimidating Shloss with copyright threats should she use any of the writings.

In June 2006, Professor Lawrence Lessig launched an important lawsuit against the Estate, challenging its right to prohibit her quoting from anything that James or Lucia Joyce ever wrote for any purpose. On March 22, the Fair Use Project and Cyberlaw Clinic at Stanford Law School prevailed, and entered into a settlement agreement with the Estate. It’s a great victory for fair use -- although the Fair Use Project plans to launch additional lawsuits to further clarify and extend the fair use rights of scholars and other creators.

One can only hope that this victory will open the gates for a flood of new Joyce scholarship. As one commenter wrote at the Fair Use Project’s website: “James Joyce’s books cry out to be footnoted in an orgy of wikilinks. When will the world be free to gloss the glossolalia?”