Churchill's Heirs Seek To Lose The Future By Charging Biographer To Quote His Words

from the who-owns-your-words dept

“If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future.” — Winston Churchill

We’ve talked in the past about how the heirs of Martin Luther King Jr. and James Joyce have a long and unfortunate history of being ridiculous about letting anyone quote their dead ancestors. Both families have abused copyright law to demand excessive payments, even for researchers and memorials and the like. Now we can add the heirs of Winston Churchill to the bunch. The Freakonomics podcast recently explored this issue with a biographer of Winston Churchill, Barry Singer.

Singer is somewhat obsessed with Churchill, running an entire bookstore devoted to Churchill. As such, he actually says he’s had a very good relationship with Churchill’s heirs for years. But when he finally sought to write a book on Churchill himself, the family went the usual route and claimed no quotations unless you pay. The approximate rate: 50 cents per word. Quoting other Churchill relatives also costs money and the rates may differ. As Singer explains, he basically had to significantly cut back on what he quoted, and completely excise some Churchill family members from the book. But he did have to pay for the 3,872 words he used that included direct quotations from Churchill — though the family gave him a slight discount, such that he had to pay £950 — which works out to about 40 cents per word.

Singer admits that, while some lawyers told him he could fight this, he gave in to keep up his strong relationship with the family. Of course, that only brings to mind Churchill’s quote:

An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile–hoping it will eat him last.


You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.

It’s too bad Singer chose not to stand up more.

To be honest, the podcast is a little weak in that it doesn’t go too deep into the legal issues here and how they can impact history, culture and research. Furthermore, it does little to explore the actual law and how far the Churchill estate is overreaching. Oddly, it seems to suggest that this is just “the way” that the UK’s copyright laws work (not quite true) and then does a little section on the attempts by the UK government to reform the laws — even though the UK government decided to reject the idea of including a US-style fair use exception.

Stephen Dubner then talks to Steve Levitt about copyright in general, and claims that his take is “un-economic” because he doesn’t seem to care much for stringent enforcement of copyright, and would prefer to share his own works more widely. I don’t see how that’s un-economic at all. In fact, as Levitt notes, his own status goes up as the work is more widely shared, increasing all sorts of opportunities elsewhere. I actually found this part of the discussion kind of disappointing, as there were a bunch of interesting nuanced directions in which it could have gone, including a much deeper analysis of the economics of copying, but instead, they went with the standard line from people who are just exploring this topic for the first time, which I’ll paraphrase as: “well of course copyright is important, and we don’t want anyone copying our book, but perhaps it goes too far in some cases.”

The parts on Churchill are interesting, and hopefully Dubner (and Levitt?) will follow up in more detail down the road. For example, it would be great for them to bring on Chris Sprigman and Kal Raustiala, who they’ve had guest-post for them in the past, considering they’ve written an entire book on these kinds of things.

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Comments on “Churchill's Heirs Seek To Lose The Future By Charging Biographer To Quote His Words”

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Re: What about the g*d d*mned family legacy?

Even more bizarre is how this negatively impacts the family legacy. I was under the impression that his family were the sort that would have been fixated on the idea of making their mark and leaving a lasting legacy. I would have expected a more “Lannister” attitude from them.

Although now that I think about it a “pay per word” approach sounds like the Lannister’s too…

Duke (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It is insane. It also isn’t what the law says. Quoting is perfectly legal, provided it only a small amount is quoted, or the quoting is “fair.” It used to be thought (by the major publishers) that you could quote was about 400(?) words without permission. Then there were a couple of crazy cases that said even a few words (or a headline) could be copyrighted, and suddenly the publishers got a lot less friendly.

And they can get away with it because (a) people pay, (b) people can’t afford to go to court, and (c) the Courts are yet to overturn (or clarify) the crazy rulings. The UK Supreme Court is due to look at it soon (a hearing in a couple of weeks), and hopefully they will fix some of the law. Getting the publishers to accept it could take longer.

Anonymous Coward says:

If this is how descendents of people remembered well try to make money off their dead ancestor, imagine how much worse descendents of people remembered poorly will try to make money.

“Want to talk about or quote Adolf Hitler, that will be $1,000 a word. What we’re driving Hitler’s name and our own name through the mud by trying to profit off of him? Too late, he did that better then we could ever do it ourselves. We’ll always be hated, so we might as well profit off of it.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“If this is how descendents of people remembered well try to make money off their dead ancestor, imagine how much worse descendents of people remembered poorly will try to make money.”

When the movie PUBLIC ENEMIES came out, I created some John Dillinger-related merchandise using public domain material from 1940s crime comic books and old movie posters.
The Dillinger estate threatened the Print on Demand companies I do business with, claiming “right of publicity”.
(They also threatened all the other people on those PoDs who were doing Dillinger merchandise.)
The PoDs backed down and blocked sales of any Dillinger-related stuff until after the movie had run it’s course.

Chosen Reject (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Nuance takes time to understand. You can read all of Mike’s thoughts on copyrights on this blog. He’s written quite extensively. It’s all there. We all know you’ve had the time to do it, since you’ve been here long enough.

However, we also know you don’t want to talk nuance. You want Mike to say something short and non-nuanced in a single post so you can pounce on whatever it is he says with all the nuance of a shotgun used as a fly swatter.

Now buzz off you pesky fly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Nowhere does Mike every actually explain in detail whether he thinks we should have any copyright rights, and if so, what the scope of those rights should be. Mike wants others to have this nuanced discussion, but Mike is too scared to have it himself. No one runs away faster from a conversation on the merits than Mike. He keeps it all at really high-level stuff.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Hey, Mike

That’s four for Mike. Since we are at it I think I’ll contribute to cut his connection by quoting them again!

An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile–hoping it will eat him last.

You have enemies? Good. That means you?ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.

There you go, 5th and 6th strikes. Your move [insert Mike’s ISP here].

Anonymous Coward says:

Couldn't resist ...

We shall leech till the end.
We shall leech off authors,
we shall leech off publishers,
we shall leech with growing confidence and growing strength off the web,
we shall defend our IP, whatever the cost may be.
We shall leech off the researchers,
we shall leech off the charitable memorials,
we shall leech off the newspapers and journals,
we shall leech off the libraries;
we shall never go public domain

Peter Hirtle (profile) says:

Does the OGL apply?

A colleague in the UK wondered whether Singer bothered to check about copyright ownership. A large proportion of Churchill?s more memorable pronouncements were made in his roles as a minister of the Crown, notably as Prime Minister, and are thus Crown copyright, not copyright of the family. Singer could quote them as extensively as he liked under the Open Government Licence and some would probably be out of copyright altogether as published Crown works.

Of course, this would imply that the estate was trying to claim copyright were none exists. Who would believe that a rights holder might try to overreach on the extent of its rights?

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