Editor’s note: Michael Ackley’s columns may include satire and parody based on current events, and thus mix fact with fiction. He assumes informed readers will be able to tell which is which.
Imaging the following little drama:
The time is June of 1860. Howard Bashford, who is managing Abraham Lincoln’s campaign for the presidency, enters the offices of the New York Tribune, where he finds the famed publisher, Horace Greeley:
Bashford: Mr. Greeley! A word with you, sir.
Greeley: Mr. Bashford, how nice to see you!
Bashford: You won’t think so when you hear what I have to say. You went and printed Abraham Lincoln’s entire Cooper Union address! Didn’t you know it was copyrighted?
Greeley: Uh, no.
Bashford: Well, it was. And you left out a comma, which means you had the temerity to edit it!
Greeley (flustered): Gee, I’m sorry.
Bashford: See it doesn’t happen again. We can’t have candidates’ public statements being recirculated unless the candidates say it’s all right. Who do you think is in charge here anyway?
Greeley: I certainly see your point.
Bashford: And we can’t have any editing or excerpting either!
Greeley: Of course not, (adding brightly) and no quoting out of context.
Bashford (now jovial): Now you’ve got it: Just because a candidate makes a public statement doesn’t mean every tinhorn journalist has a right to use it. That’s why we’re attaching the following paragraph to all of our campaign materials.
(Grinning, he hands Greeley a piece of paper on which is printed: “BY READING, HANDLING OR OTHERWISE USING Abraham Lincoln for President materials, YOU ACKNOWLEDGE THAT YOU HAVE READ, HAVE UNDERSTOOD AND AGREE TO BE BOUND BY THE FOLLOWING TERMS, INCLUDING ANY ADDITIONAL GUIDELINES, AND ANY FUTURE MODIFICATIONS (COLLECTIVELY, THE ‘TERMS’). IF AT ANY TIME YOU DO NOT AGREE TO THESE TERMS, PLEASE KINDLY IMMEDIATELY TERMINATE YOUR USE OF THE Abraham Lincoln for President materials.”)
Greeley: I like your use of uppercase type. It really makes a statement. But, what “terms”?
Bashford: Turn it over.
(Greeley does so, and finds printed on the reverse side: “By reading, handling or otherwise using Abraham Lincoln for President materials, you agree not to copy, publicly display or distribute any part of said materials in any medium without prior written authorization from an authorized representative of the Abraham Lincoln for President Campaign.”)
Greeley: Wow! That covers about everything. So, satire would be out?
Bashford: No exceptions. It means you can’t copy, modify, publicly perform or display, transmit, publish, edit, adapt, create derivative works from or otherwise make unauthorized use of Abraham Lincoln for President materials. Satire would fall under “derivative works.”
Greeley: So, basically, we can’t reprint or otherwise use anything you publish without prior, written permission, right?
Bashford: You’ve got it, and you will kindly comply, or you’ll be in trouble. The only exception would be if we think the way you have used the material assists our campaign.
Greeley: I understand entirely. You won’t have to worry about the New York Tribune.
Bashford: Or any other publication – if they know what’s good for them.
This is fantasy, of course. Greeley wasn’t a journalist to be trifled with, and he’d have thrown Mr. Bashford out on his ear. Even more fantastic in that era would have been the concept of political utterance as untouchable intellectual property. The very idea that a politician seeking public office could control the use of his statements through copyright would have been laughable.
But is the idea laughable in 2010?
Certainly politicians and their minions are capable of creative work, but press releases, speeches and advertisements hardly are of the same character as the poems of Robert Frost or the novels of J.K. Rowling. What’s next? Assertion of implied contracts with folks who look at campaign billboards?
It’s almost as if Whitman’s campaign wants to micromanage, censor and otherwise control what is written or said about the candidate and her political positions.
As the younger generation would say, “You think?!”