Happy Birthday to You–Free at Last!

Copyright is one of those things librarians deal with all the time. People making copies of pages from books want to know if it’s legal (it is.) People check out our music CDs and make copies of them, and we worry whether that’s legal, but it’s not like there’s anything we can do about that. Librarians attend workshops and seminars about copyright, copyright in the digital age, and more.

There have been two significant court decisions in the past few weeks concerning copyright, both of them probably good news for the average person. First, a court decided that a music publisher could not force YouTube to take down videos that people post just because they contain snippets of copyrighted songs. The court case originated in a video a woman posted of her toddler dancing to a song by Prince, which got millions of hits. The court asserted that this was a clear-cut case of ‘fair use.’ Fair use covers the average person’s use of copyrighted material where no profit is sought or achieved–such as copying several pages of a book for a homework assignment, or a girl posting a video of herself riding a horse while the Eagles warble Desperado in the background.

The other decision was to remove the copyright restriction from the song Happy Birthday to You. Many people don’t know this, but whenever this simple song is sung on a TV show or in a movie, the producers of that show or movie have to pay a royalty to Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. That’s why, if you think about it, you rarely hear people singing the song on TV, even though there are many plots involving birthdays. Or you hear people singing odd birthday songs, like the one Mr. Rogers always sang on his show.

Happy Birthday to You was written by sisters Mildred and Patty Hill around 1893. Actually they patched the lyrics onto an existing song called Good Morning to You. They later sold their copyright to one music publishing company, which later sold it to Warner/Chappell. If the intent of a copyright is to protect creators of content from losing control of their property, that doesn’t seem to encompass some music publisher well over a hundred years later profiting from their creative endeavor, and the court agreed.

It’s funny that in the discussion, much was made of the lyric to the song. Since the tune already existed, it was really the lyric that was copyrighted. That’s right–all 5 words of it. Count them. Five words, with one fill in the blank. So it’s about time that particular silliness was ended. So next time you’re watching a favorite show, and a character on that show has a birthday, you will likely hear the old song sung by the whole cast. And it’s about time.

Are All Books Equal, or Merely All Readers?

A few nights ago we had author R. A. Salvatore at the library. His books are, for the most part, fantasy novels, many of which are related to the creation of characters and scenarios for Dungeons and Dragons. In other words, the kind of genre-specific work that would elicit the comment ‘not my cup of tea’ from many readers. And yet he sells an awful lot of books, and our meeting room was packed with people who came to see him, hear him, and ask him questions.

He spoke about the ‘geek culture’ aspect of his work. He doesn’t like it. Doesn’t like the label. If people want to self-identify as geeks, that’s fine, but many people who do not still enjoy his books. Then he said something I have never heard anyone else say, at least not as clearly as he said it. When you criticize a book, he said, you are criticizing the people who like that book.

Every time that someone chooses to invest time in reading a book, they do so because there is something in that book that speaks to them. Maybe it’s the story, maybe it’s just the action and the chance to escape into fantasy for a while. Maybe the person is in high school and has no friends, and the characters in the book become his friends for a while. But whatever the reason that person has for reading, we have to recognize it as valid.

This is a lesson librarians should all learn early on, or they’re going to have a hard time of it. Many of us read a lot, and we are familiar with a lot of literature, and we can become pretty picky about what we like to read. But you have to always deal with the fact that what you like is only your opinion. If you ever want to find out how much your opinions matter, try choosing a book by your favorite author for your book discussion group and see how quickly it gets torn apart by other readers.

Of course there is literature that will endure for all time, and books that will be forgotten in a few years. But none of us at present know which books those will be. We can make good surmises, but in the end, it’s never certain. For now all we can do is respect all readers and their reading choices.

In Memoriam: Oliver Sacks

When I was young, probably a freshman in high school, I happened to pick up a magazine sitting around the house and started reading an article about a doctor who had worked with patients suffering from sleeping sickness. He had used a drug called L-DOPA, considered a radical treatment at the time, to very good effect.

I graduated college years later with an English degree, and began a career working in restaurants. I spent about ten years as a cook and kitchen manager before I took my first job in a library. One day I happened to see a book with a most curious title: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. It was written by Dr. Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist, and told of a number of remarkable, even mind-boggling mental conditions he had diagnosed and treated. I soon found that he had also written the book Awakenings, which told the longer story of his work using L-DOPA on sleeping sickness. Realizing this was the basis of the article I had read years before, I backtracked and read that book too. It was later made into a movie starring Robert DeNiro, with Robin Williams as Dr. Sacks.

As an English major, I had read almost exclusively fiction in college. I had always read fiction. But Dr. Sacks’ books were so interesting and so compelling that I continued to read them. I read his Musicophilia and The Mind’s Eye. The last book of his I read was Hallucinations, in which, among other things, he described his own avid use of mind-altering drugs in his younger years. He is one of the handful of authors responsible for the fact that to this day I read as much non-fiction as fiction. I number people like David McCullough and Mark Kurlansky on that short list.

Most recently I heard an interview with Dr. Sacks on NPR, in which he talked about some of the difficulties he had experienced in life due to his homosexuality—something I hadn’t known about him, and which he spoke of with humor and pathos. Today I heard the news that Oliver Sacks has died at age 82. He was a brilliant, complex person, a compassionate doctor, and a wonderful author. If you have not read any of his books, you are missing a truly great reading experience.

The Iraq War and Fiction

For most wars in our history there has been great literature produced. We can all name one or two definitive novels of wars past, such as The Red Badge of Courage for the Civil War, All Quiet on the Western Front for World War I, War and Remembrance or The Naked and the Dead for World War II, and The Things They Carried for the Vietnam War.

For a few years now we have been seeing fiction about the Iraq War experience. The question is, have we yet found the definitive novel? What do we look for in defining a war’s experience? Stories of the war? Stories about the people who fought that war? Stories of what it is like to come home, having fought such a war? In the case of the Irag war, we are offered a variety of fiction from which to choose.

Fives and Twenty-fives, by Michael Pitre, tells the story of three soldiers from a construction battalion that spent its time filling potholes in the roads in Iraq. The title is based on the technique used to ensure you keep your distance from the bombs that may be lurking in those potholes. A New York Times notable book for 2012, it was cited for its careful character studies, especially of an Iraqi soldier working for the Americans and his somewhat divided loyalties.

Fobbit, by David Abrams, tells the story of soldiers who spend all of their time in the relative comfort and safety of a forward operating base (FOB), rather than the front lines of the war. His unusual, but likely realistic interpretation, is that not everyone in uniform is a hero. More darkly humorous than most of the current books on the Iraq war, some have compared its satire to the formidable Catch-22.

The novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, offers yet another view of the war. Fountain takes the country as a whole to task for its all-too-easy celebration of the war’s heroes (walking them out at the halftimes of football games), while having little at stake in the war. Only one half of one-percent of Americans ever served.

One of the best Iraq War novels so far has been The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. It is the  beautifully written story of two very young soldiers who become friends during their first deployment in Iraq, and the tragedies that ensue. A story that moves back and forth almost jarringly between scenes of horrifying and ill-defined battles in Iraq and moments spent back home, it leaves the reader with a deep sense of how hard it is to shake the war experience and just go on living.

Finally there is Phil Klay’s collection of short stories, Redeployment, which won the 2014 National Book Award for fiction. While the writing does not perhaps rise to the level of The Yellow Birds, the stories are nonetheless grittier, and filled with an even deeper sense of the war’s—of any war’s—horrors and effects on its participants.

Doubtless there will be much more fiction produced about the Iraq War. What have you read? What do you think are the best works so far, the ones you would recommend?

Why We Are Still Here

Yesterday I was working with a woman who needed help applying for jobs. Both of the jobs were in housekeeping, and both required an online application. The woman was not at all comfortable navigating the online environment, but the two employers allowed no other avenue for applying.
I spend most of my days doing one thing and another involving online technology, whether it’s entering book records into an online catalog, posting library events on social media, or dealing with the library’s business via e-mail. We got one application filed, but at a certain point in the next one I hit a snag I could not get past. I tried answering the questions on this page several different ways, but I kept getting the message that ‘There are errors on this page.’ It was very frustrating, and in the end the woman I was helping left to call the employer and tell them there seemed to be a problem with their application process.
But the larger point I took away from this experience—and it is certainly not the first time I have observed this—is that we are fast moving towards a digital world that disenfranchises many people. Sure, our kids have long since incorporated most technologies into their daily lives, perhaps too much. And we as adults are mostly comfortable using Websites and e-mail and smartphones. But what about all those people who, because of education, economic status or other factors, simply have not learned about these things? Do we just leave them behind?
Ever since I have worked in libraries (29 years now) I have been hearing that libraries are obsolete and on their way out. This is said mostly by people who don’t know much about libraries, but it still bothers me to hear it repeated from time to time. When I spend an afternoon working with someone like this woman yesterday, it reminds me again of one of the more important reasons we are here, and why we will need to be here for quite a few years to come.

Corporate Authors?

When my daughter was younger, she read through the entire Warriors series of books, those epic tales of tribes of feral cats and their many adventures. The books are written by Erin Hunter, and at one point during her fascination with the series I learned that Erin Hunter is not a person—it is the name used by a group of six experienced children’s book writers who share authorship of the books.

I pointed this out to a co-worker the other day, and she said, Oh, like Nancy Drew? She then informed me of something I had never known—that Carolyn Keene, author of those great old mysteries for young readers, was also not a real person, but a corporate name for a group of authors who wrote the books. They were another product in what was known as the Stratemeyer Syndicate, founded by Edward Stratemeyer early in the 20th century.

It was Stratemeyer’s idea to employ groups of authors to turn out book series for kids. All of the authors, who were originally paid $125 per book, were required to give up all rights to the books. Over the years Stratemeyer Syndicate authors produced the book series The Bobbsey Twins (Laura Lee Hope), Tom Swift  (Victor Appleton), The Hardy Boys (Franklin W. Dixon), and of course Nancy Drew, in addition to several other less well-known series. A study in 1922 found that the overwhelming majority of books that children were reading in America were produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate.

In my years I have learned to deal with the idea that the books of some authors, such as Margaret Truman or Elliott Roosevelt, were all written by ghost authors. It happens. But when I was a kid, avidly reading the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, I had distinct images of what Franklin W. Dixon or Victor Appleton looked like. They meant a lot to me. So now, at this late age, it is not easy to be so disillusioned.

What do you think? Does it matter whether the authors we loved as kids are real people or not?


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