Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The telling life: Intellectual Property

This week's #tellinglife column is an uncomfortable one for me to write. Intellectual property might seem boring, cut and dry; it's anything but. It's something every storyteller needs to think about and be aware of, for both their own protection and to make sure that we are being ethical in our work.

I've been a performing storyteller for over 20 years. I have a very clear memory of the moment when I knew, without any doubt, that this was the work I'd be doing for the rest of my life. It was a cold Tuesday night in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was in a basement bookstore, the Best Cellar, the place that hosted Brother Blue's storytelling series. I'd been attending for less than a year but I knew already this place was going to change who I was.

My story creation method then isn't much different from the way it works now. I have an image I mull over and eventually a story builds around it, kind of the way a pearl begins from an oyster's irritation. I'd been playing with an image, a gathering of street people under a bridge. From there I added in rain, the city and a period of my own occasional despair. A story. When it was my turn I stood up and found myself telling what was to become Coyote Under the Bridge, a piece that has become one of my signature works. It deals with depression, suicidal behavior, the possible intervention by Coyote, the lost people of the city and redemption. By the time I was done I was shaking and I knew this was my path, these kinds of meaningful stories that could change lives. I knew this story of my own dark times could save people. I knew what I had been born to do. Writing all of this down now it seems incredibly arrogant, but truly, it was one of those few moments when we know our entire purpose with utter clarity. You can hear the story on my website, right here.  To this day, every time I tell it someone comes up and says, "I never knew anyone else ever felt that way. Thank you." It was a defining moment.

I went on to capture this story on my first recording (a cassette! If you want a copy, write to me and I'll send you one). I sold it at various events until cassettes were a thing of the past and I was moving on to new work. Of the five stories on the cassette I still tell Coyote, none of the others. It's endured.

About four years ago I received an email from a man I didn't remember. He said we took a storytelling class together and there he bought my cassette. He was so moved by Coyote on the Bridge that he wrote a play based on it and was now in negotiations to see if it could be made into a film. He figured maybe he should get in touch and make sure, I wouldn't mind, would I? He'd credit my story as the inspiration and that should be enough, right? He included a copy of the original play so I could see how important my inspiration was.

No. It wasn't okay. It wasn't enough and I did mind. My work had been stolen from me, certainly without malicious intent, but the play was such a close read of my story I felt violated. I expect I would have felt the same way had any of my stories been stolen, but this one in particular had immense meaning and personal significance. I wrote back and told him I could not give my approval. I explained why, both in personal terms and in legal terms. And I told him that if he continued I would seek legal counsel. I rarely get angry and even less often on my own behalf, but I was furious.

As far as I know, he dropped the matter, but this incident made it abundantly clear to me just how vulnerable storytellers are. There is a perception that because our work is spoken, because it exists in the moment, it is more temporal and took less work to craft. While the performance may be temporal, its effect is not. It took no less craft than a written story. There is no less personal investment in a told story than in any other kind of creative work. Yet, because storytelling is a performance art many storytellers and other artists seem to feel more comfortable using others material without their permission.

It's not okay. Letting someone know after the fact isn't enough.

I've written before about IP issues around telling traditional material. This goes even further if you're interested in telling a story created by someone else. You need to have their permission, preferably in writing, if you're going to tell someone else's story. It isn't honoring them to steal their work, even if you attribute it to them. If someone wants to tell one of your stories you have every right to say no, to say yes but, to say go for it. This article has some basic IP information for writers that you may find useful.

You may be thinking that stories don't belong to anyone and, to a point, I agree with you. Imagine you put yourself into a piece. You crafted it, honed the language and movements. You put your own experience and life into it. And you find out that someone else is telling it as their own. How would you feel? I'd also add that I believe in as much open and accessible knowledge as possible. I just want artists to have some ownership over their life and work.

My bottom line when considering what I want to tell is this: If I am not the creator of the work do I have permission? How would I feel if someone stole my work (and I know, I felt awful)? What do I need to do so I can tell this ethically? And if I don't have permission to tell a piece someone else created, I take a deep breath and let it go. There are so many stories in the world. Why steal someone else's when I can create my own?

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. Not giving permission isn't enough.
    You actually need to ask him for royalties and licensing fees.
    Then, if you hear nothing, sue for copyright infringement. Make it clear that you'll settle out of court.

  2. I agree with you Laura. You create a story, your own story, not a retellling of a traditional story, but your story, that is yours. Rowlings sued the crap out of anyone who tried to steal her original work of Harry Potter. Has the play been performed and the writer been compensated for the performance/s? Has he sent a proposal to Hollywood? If so, I think you need to get some assistance.


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