Friday, October 28, 2016

I'm a Copyright Attorney, Not a Sorcerer (Updated 2022)

Steal Not this Book
Modern Day Book Curses
Several weeks before her death, I watched Bonnie Foreman laughing and joking as she downloaded a pirated copy of my book, The Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook: The Cursed Edition. She read a lot and drove too fast. I said I'd give her six weeks to live. The autopsy carried out on her body was inconclusive. But, here's what I can tell you. She expired around page 36. Somewhere between out-of-print works and special fair use situations. Curse or coincidence? I cannot say for sure. I'm a copyright attorney, not a sorcerer. But I know it wasn't the copyright notice that did her in.

When confronted with a book curse, we are forced to reflect on our mortality. Three thousand years after the pharaoh's death, the Curse of Pharaoh Tutankhamun still conjures up fear (unlike an FBI anti-piracy warning or copyright notice). While a three-thousand-year-old curse may retain its potency, copyrights wither and fall into the public domain a mere 70 years after the creator's death. From the standpoint of being an effective deterrent, it doesn't help that copyright notices resemble frown emoticons resting on their side.   

Book Curses the Forerunner of Copyright Damages

Do you wish to protect your intellectual property but don't have the means to hire a lawyer? Gory, gruesome, nasty, cautionary, score-settling book curses were once used to stop literary thieves and plagiarists in their tracks. Unlike the copyright notice, which simply proclaims "I own this" (with reservations), curses make it abundantly clear that some profound form of adversity or misfortune will befall the person who ignores it.

While there are some issues to iron out, I have come to believe that a mix of legislative solutions, works licensed under Creative Commons licenses, and cursing offers a workable solution to an internet that wants to be free and authors who want to eat. 

Cloistered monks, ancient rabbis and old sorcerers wrote the following ancient warnings. While dormant for years, these precursors of the modern copyright notice are a creative and cost-effective way to protect your intellectual property.    

In Biblioclasm, a book about the magic powers of the written word, the author identifies the following as the most famous literary curse. It still has what it takes.
"And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophesy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book." -- Revelations, 22:19

Aleppo Codex
The Christian church didn't have a monopoly on literary curses. Medieval Jewish scribes issued stern warnings against modifying even a single letter of the Hebrew Bible since each of its 304,805 letters had divine meaning. For example, the following lines, written C 984, appear at the end of the Moshe Ben-Asher Codex, the oldest medieval Hebrew bible:

"Whoever alters a word of this mahzor or this writing or erases one letter or tears off a leaf . . . may he have neither pardon nor forgiveness; neither let him behold the beauty of the Lord. He shall be like a woman in impurity and like a leprous man, who has to be locked up so that his limbs may be crushed, the pride of his power broken, his flesh consumed away that it cannot be seen, and his bones that were covered made bear."
The Ben-Asher curse focuses on the integrity of the text, not theft. Under copyright law, the exclusive right to alter or adapt the text resides with the author, in this case, Yahweh. Elsewhere in the Codex, atop certain pages, it reads, "Sacred to Yahweh, not to be sold or defiled." Disgorgement of profits (a copyright remedy) better fits this type of crime than broken bones or necrotizing fasciitis. Parenthetically, the Nazi face-melting scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark has my vote for the most iconic scary movie scene in cinematic history.  

Curses and Copyright Notices 

Medieval colophons, the antecedent to the copyright notice, initially appeared as concluding statements at the end of a book or manuscript. They provided information about the scribe or copyist, the date and place of copying, and contained either a blessing or a curse. To thwart piracy, printers' marks appeared at the dawn of Western typography. So, while a direct connection between the colophon (and printer's mark) and the copyright notice may appear fuzzy, the common assertion of ownership rights and the threat of consequences for those who publish "impudent frauds" cements the connection in my mind.

Curses and copyright notices should be displayed prominently in a manner that stands out from the accompanying text.  In the Encyclopedia of the Book (Oak Knoll/British Library), Geoffrey Glaister explains that by the early 16th Century, the practice of placing a colophon at the end of a book was largely abandoned. Instead of the scribe's name appearing at the back of the book, the printer's name (and its royal license to sell the work) appeared on the title page where it could be more easily seen.  Today, copyright law provides more potent penalties against willful or knowing infringers than innocent ones. 

Similarly, with a curse, knowing you've been cursed makes the curse more potent. Although, many "sorcerers claim that curses can be just as effective without the victim's knowledge of them." See Mystica. Whether you are an "Eye of newt and toe of frog" practitioner, or a pragmatic publishing type, I  recommend you display your disclosures prominently.  

By the early 18th Century, secular threats of legal action largely supplanted curses. With the passage of the Statute of Anne in 1709, England's first copyright act, the regulation of unauthorized copying was transferred from god's jurisdiction to her Majesty's courts. In 1802, the U.S. Copyright Act, inspired by the Statute of Anne, was amended to require notice to be placed on each copy of a work.

Like colophons, copyright notices generally appear on the title page or reverse of the title page of books. The copyright symbol, the familiar © followed by the date and name of the owner (not necessarily the author), often comes with a fey warning, not a curse. Here's a mildly threatening one:

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Not too scary. Compare the painfully polite "All Rights Reserved" statement in use today with the average illuminated manuscript curse. If you absconded with a late medieval psalter or made an unauthorized copy, you (and sometimes your forebears and children) were forever cursed. In contrast, a copyright notice is a yellow blinking light at the corner of Purchase and Purloin Streets. Copyright notice or curse? No contest.

According to Drogin, the oldest known book curse appears on 
cuneiform tablets found in the biblical city of Ninevah. Like today's authors, Babylonian King Assur-bani-pal (668–626 BC) wasn't just concerned with protecting against theft but receiving credit for his work. Droit Moral is the French term for moral rights, which includes the author's right to defend the integrity of their work and the use of their name. King Assur-bani-pal personal cuneiform tablet collection bore the following warning: 
"Whosoever shall carry off this tablet or shall inscribe his name on it, side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land."
King Assur-bani-pal

Clearly, the profound fear of being forgotten loomed as large in Babylonia as in Hollywood today. Removing the name of a king from a cuneiform tablet meant he never existed. Much the same can be said for failing to credit a screenplay writer whose livelihood (and footnote in history) depends on the works that bear their name.

Whether a curse or a copyright notice, these admonitions are powerful starts to the reading experience. Where does the power come from? Fear.
"May whoever destroys this title, or by gift or sale or loan or exchange or theft or by any other device knowingly alienates this book from the aforesaid Christ Church, incur in this life the malediction of Jesus Christ and of the most glorious Virgin His Mother, and of Blessed Thomas, Martyr. Should however it please Christ, who is patron of Christ Church, may his soul be saved in the Day of Judgment."
Before Gutenberg invented the printing press, between the 5th and 13th centuries CE, books were precious handwritten objects coveted by the wealthy elite and marauding Norsemen. The heathen marauders targeted Christian churches, killing defenseless monks and hauling away intricately detailed illuminated manuscripts containing equally detailed book curses. As the monks of early Christian Ireland discovered, a curse is unlikely to have a persuasive impact if the marauder can't read. But if you use a curse and a chain with a heavy rod to lock your psalter to a desk, you are more than twice as safe as you would be with either of them alone. 

In the 16th Century, book curses underwent a change, becoming more secular, foreshadowing the birth of copyright as a device to secure the sale of copies and protect the livelihood of authors and publishers  German renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer invoked the wrath of the crown, not god, declaring in 1511:

Dürer's Engraving of  Erasmus

"Hold! You crafty ones, strangers to work, and pilferers of other men’s brains. Think not rashly to lay your thievish hands upon my works. Beware! Know you not that I have a grant from the most glorious Emperor Maximilian, that not one throughout the imperial dominion shall be allowed to print or sell fictitious imitations of these engravings? Listen! And bear in mind that if you do so, through spite or through covetousness, not only will your goods be confiscated, but your bodies also placed in mortal danger."
A copyright notice threatens economic harm, while the strategy behind the black art of the curse is to attack the infringer's mind  Dürer's transitional curse succeeds at both tasks. 

Tensions between copyright law and freedom of speech aside, magic offers an intriguing pre-movable type solution to a 21st Century dilemma. On January 1, 2024, Mickey Mouse will pass into the public domain. With Disney unable to extend the copyright term, one can imagine Mickey bedecked in a magic blue hat with white stars and a crescent moon conjuring up an army of battling brooms to delay the move into the public domain. Unlike a copyright, a curse has no expiration date.  

©💀 2016 - 2022 Lloyd J. Jassin  All Rights Reserved. 

Disclaimer & Curse: This article is not designed to give specific advice concerning specific circumstances  Readers are strongly cautioned to consult an attorney or practitioner of the dark arts  This article may be reproduced in whole for non-commercial purposes, provided the author and website are credited  If you violate these term you will be seized by the neck like a bird, your head cranked off, and your carcass hung up to drain*.

*Adapted from a curse on the tomb of the courtier Biw at Sakkara, circa 2260 B.C.

Lloyd J. Jassin is a publishing attorney and head of his private practice, concentrating on legal issues affecting authors, literary agents, publishers, and composers  He began his career in book publishing, working for companies such as Prentice Hall / Simon & Schuster and St. Martin's Press in publicity and marketing, which may explain his affinity for trademark law  He's the coauthor of The Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook (John Wiley & Sons). 

Contact:   Law Offices of Lloyd J. Jassin, The Paramount Bldg., Floor 12, 1501 Broadway, NYC, 10036, (tel.) 212-354-4442; (email),  Follow on Twitter:


The 'Weird Tale' Behind the Malcolm Ferguson Book Plate 
The Story of St. Columba: A  Modern Copyright Battle in Sixth Century Ireland
Books in Chains by the Late William Blades (1892) (full text version)
Biblioclasm:  The Mythical Origin, Magic Powers & Perishability of the Written Word (Rowman & Littlefield) by Marc Drogan.
Books and their Makers in the Middle Ages  (Putnam) by Geo. A. Putnam
Questionable Utility of Copyright Notice: Statutory and Nonlegal Incentives in the Post-Berne Era by TP Arden - Loy  U. Chi  L.J. 1992

Threatening Bookplate via 'Confessions of a
Bookplate Junkie' Blog

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