WRITTEN WORKS TAKE ON A LIFE OF THEIR OWN
September 1, 2018
"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings." -- Lewis Carroll, excerpt from “The Walrus and The Carpenter”
by Christine Kohler
What I am NOT going to talk about is kings, or presidents, or specifically President Donald Trump. I’d rather talk about cabbages and sealing wax and whether pigs fly than discuss politics publicly. So, if anyone posts a political comment, I’ll consider it off-topic and not approve. Sorry. My blog. My rules.
However, I am introducing this topic of how works take on a life of their own by using Steven Tyler, a musician with the rock band Aerosmith, as an example. When Tyler wrote “Dream On”—the chorus is an epic song for writers!—and Aerosmith released it in 1973, I doubt he had any idea who all would sing his song in the future. Miley Cyrus, Adam Levine, and Alicia Keys, to name just a few. He could not have foreseen that “Dream On” would sell Kia cars on 2018 Superbowl ads. Maybe he was surprised, flattered, when the cast of the tv show Glee sang it. (The royalties are nice, too.)
But in 2015, 43 years after “Dream On” was released, Steven Tyler had his lawyer send presidential candidate Donald Trump a cease-and-desist letter to stop using the song in a campaign rally. Now, Tyler has issued another legal letter to President Trump to stop using “Livin’ on the Edge” at rallies.
What I find interesting, according to an Associated Press article, is Tyler tweeted that it isn’t a political issue; he just does not let anyone use his songs without permission. This is the type of issue I used to enjoy debating in Media Law class at the University of Hawaii. A media law attorney could add to the discussion greatly by telling what case set precedence. Do we get total control of how our work is used? As writers, we do in that no one is allowed to use more than a percentage of the work without permission, and often financial compensation. This is how copyright law is supposed to protect us. However, I don’t know how this applies to music. This is a court case that would be interesting to follow, if Tyler pursues it.
Separate from the legal entanglements, the reason this news article caught my attention is because it shows how a work takes on a life of its own.
Several years ago, I typed my name into my daughter’s Google Scholar account. (Dr. Jennifer Sherman teaches at two universities.) I discovered that my first four children’s fiction books, published in 1985 by Concordia Publishing House, for ages 5-9 were mentioned in a book about working with at-risk children. I also found these books referenced in a scholarly journal. And in another article in a scholarly journal the writer had lifted a quote from an article I wrote while a political reporter. The writer used the quote to make a point very different than the topic of my article.
Children’s magazine writers often get requests to use their stories, nonfiction articles, and poems in testing materials, workbooks, and textbooks. The educational publishing companies pay nicely for these reprints.
When I wrote WORDS ALIVE! CHRISTIAN WRITERS SKILLS & PROMPTS I used examples from published novels and a humor book. In every case that the work was not in public domain, I got written permission from both the author (or heirs) and the publisher, or I wouldn’t use the selection. I’m sure when the writers wrote their books they never thought, “Gee, I hope someone uses this as an example of good writing craft in her writing book.”
Probably the most profitable spin-off a book can take is to have a tv show, or tv special, or movie made from the book.
Or, I’m sure you know of authors whose books were later produced on stage as plays.
If you are a writer, what are some ways in which your published work took on a life of its own?
We talk about birthing our work, and how books are our babies. And like our human children, it’s just possible as they age they will walk down a path we never imagined.