Wednesday, November 19, 2008

What does Bob Dylan have to do with Copyright Law?


One of the great joys of Dylanology (i.e. the appreciation and study of all things related to Bob Dylan) is the unending mystery of his persona and his lyrics. I am fascinated by the fact that Dylan continuously seems to hide various clues in plain sight. Nowhere was this more apparent than on his 2001 album “Love and Theft”. As the Wall Street Journal reported several years ago, Dylan apparently ‘borrowed’ no less than twelve separate phrases from a book called “Confessions of a Yakuza” by Japanese doctor Junichi Saga. The discovery was made by a Dylan fan who happened to find Dr. Saga’s book at a bookstore in Japan. I couldn’t help but wonder what A.J. Weberman would make of this. What is fascinating from a creative standpoint is that Dylan appears to use the phrases randomly throughout several songs on the album.

This is really not a legal issue; no one would argue that what Dylan did would not be considered “fair use”, it is a transformative use of the highest degree. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported that Dr. Saga was thrilled to discover Dylan’s interest in his book. There is no telling how much Dylan has referred to other, older sources (both musical and lyrical) in his work. There is a fascinating section in his book “Chronicles Vol. 1” where Dylan writes about researching newspaper accounts of the Civil War at the New York Public . I kept thinking about this about when I listened to the amazing imagery in “Across the Green Mountains” on the new “Tell Tale Signs” album.

There is a great discussion of the concept of ‘allusion’ in the Jonathon Letham’s article “The Ecstasy of Influence” in the February 2007 issue of Harper’s Magazine, which references everyone from Nabokov to Muddy Waters. It’s an important reminder in this day, when people tend to see copyright infringement everywhere, of what Justice Stevens called “separating the fair use sheep from the infringing goats” (in Campbell v. Acuff Rose). Talk about imagery….

2 comments:

AJ Weberman said...

Dylanology is the study of Bob Dylan's poetry not everything Dylan.

Look, if Dylan can write sophisticated poetry such as that found below what difference does borrowing a few phrases make?


"Well Georgia Sam” Georgia Sam - The Communist Party USA controlled by the Soviet Union. “Georgia” is the Republic of Georgia then under Soviet rule. Dylan’s Wanted Man, "I might be in Colorado or Georgia by the sea / Working for some man who may not know at all who I might be / If you ever see me comin' and if you know who I am / Don't you breathe it to nobody 'cause you know I'm on the lam." The American State of Georgia is landlocked. Dylan also used “Georgia” to refer to Soviet Communism in Poor Boy, "Time and love” the zeitgeist of the 1960's and the desires of the music fans “has branded” placed me in a distinctive category; a particular kind: a brand of folk music that I do not care for. Also given me a mark of disgrace or notoriety; a stigma “me with its claws” and caused me to achieve something only after overcoming great difficulties: I had to claw my way to fame and wealth “Had to go to Florida” Dylan had to retire from folk music: In Tweeter and the Monkey Man Dylan wrote, “I guess I'll go to Florida and get myself some sun / ain’t no opportunity here / Everything’s been done” “dodgin' them Georgia laws” to get away from that old left communism “Poor boy in the hotel” L’Hotel De Ville – City Hall “called the Palace of Bloom” Dylan the folksinger in his political phase when his talent was just starting to bloom. “Called down to room service” condescended to call upon a government branch or department and its employees in the case a branch of the Kremlin operating in the United States “said 'send up a room’” supply me with a venue “Poor boy” as folksinger: Tonight I Will Be Staying Here With You “If there's a poor boy on the street” a folksinger in Greenwich Village, street: an area of a city e.g. Wall Street “Then let him have my seat” position of prominence “'Cause tonight I'll be staying here with you” because presently I intend to devote my time to getting high.

So “Georgia Sam,” the Communist Party USA had a bloody nose - idiomatic expression – they were defeated or damaged but not permanently or seriously by McCarthyism “Welfare Department” the liberals “they wouldn't give him no clothes” they would not let Communists express themselves in words that clothed their true totalitarian intentions “He asked poor Howard” poor – the Communists asked a folksinger “where can I go? “Howard said there's only one place I know” the folksinger responded that there is only one outlet that entertained Communist thought. “Sam said tell me quick man I got to run” run for office, take over America “Ol' Howard just pointed” wrote a song direct and obvious in meaning or reference; often unpleasant; "a pointed critique" "a protest song" “with his gun” acoustic guitar “And said that way down on Highway 61.” Howard said infiltrate the world of folk music and you will receive acceptance in the media. “Gun” as guitar: In Baby Blue Dylan told his former folk fans, “Yonder stands your orphan with his gun / Crying like a fire in the sun” and Dylan chose the song Take A Message To Mary because it fit well into his poetic symbolism as a message to his old folk fans “Take a message” message song “to Mary / But don't tell her what I've done” don’t tell her I switched to rock and roll. “Please, don't mention the stage coach” the voice lessons “And the shot from a carried gun” and the sound of an electric guitar...Tell her I had to change my tune” switch to rock and roll “and cancel out our wedding day” and that I am no longer wedded to leftist ideology “but please don’t mention the lonely cell” sarcastic: Communist Party Cell “where I’m gonna pine away” sarcastic: where I am going to languish with desire; to waste away with longing for folk music and communism “until my dying day” which will be soon if I remain a Commie folk musician.

Anjelika said...

I am humbled, sir.