CRF Blog

Crooner in Rights Spat

by Bill Hayes

In Crooner in Rights Spat for the New Yorker, the always great Louis Menand takes a critical look at copyright laws.

Rod Stewart is being sued over the rights to an image of his own head.

In 1981, a professional photographer named Bonnie Schiffman took a picture of the back of Stewart’s head, which was used, eight years later, on the cover of the album “Storyteller.” Now a different picture of Stewart’s head, also from the back, has been used to promote his Las Vegas act and world tour. Schiffman claims that the resemblance between her photograph and the new image is too close — the legal term is “substantial similarity” — and she is suing for copyright infringement. She is asking for two and a half million dollars.

A copyright is, first and foremost, the right to make a copy. The first products to be protected by copyright — the statutory history begins in Britain, in 1710, with the passage of a law known as the Statute of Anne — were books. Once you buy a book, you can legally do almost anything to it. You can sell it to someone else, you can tear the pages out, you can throw it on a bonfire. God knows you can print terrible things about it. But you cannot make copies of it. The right to do that belongs to the author of the book and his or her heirs and assigns.

As with any right, the right to make a copy is a lot less straightforward than it sounds. As the person who wrote this article, I own the right to make copies of it. Since 1976, in the United States, that right has been born with the article, and there are few formalities still required for me to assert it. The belief that you have irrecoverably forfeited your copyright if you have not sent a copy of your book to the Library of Congress, or put a © on it somewhere, is obsolete.

I have granted The New Yorker an exclusive license to the article for a limited period, after which the magazine retains certain privileges (including printing it in a collection of New Yorker writings and keeping it on its Web site). If, a year from now, someone else, without my permission, reprints my article in a book called “The Most Thoughtful and Penetrating Essays of 2014, ” I can complain that my right to make copies is being violated and, if the court agrees with me, legally suppress the book. Theoretically, the court could compel the publisher to pulp all the unsold copies. Although not the author of this piece, you, too, would likely feel that the publisher of “Most Thoughtful Essays” was a bandit, and you would share my sense of righteous indignation. [more]