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What legal hurdles would be involved in writing a concept album that basically retells a novel?
July 19, 2005 2:34 PM   Subscribe

What legal hurdles would be involved in writing a concept album that basically retells a novel?

Let's say I wanted to take a novel by a living author and make an album retelling it. I want the name of the album to be the same as the name of the book. I want to mention characters by name, and redescribe, in song format, the things that they do and feel in the course of the book. I do not want to quote any passages from the text.

What, if anything, would I have to do in order to make sure that I could make this album and advertise its existence without fear of getting calls from lawyers?
posted by 23skidoo to Law & Government (10 answers total)
 
You'd probably have to contact the author and ask permission to make a derivative work of it.
posted by Jairus at 3:12 PM on July 19, 2005


(Consider the following question: What legal hurdles would be involved in writing a concept movie that basically retells a novel?)
posted by Jairus at 3:16 PM on July 19, 2005


I've always wondered the opposite, what if I wanted to write a novel based on a song? (say for example the Decemberist's Mariner's Revenge Song) I imagine the process is basically the same though.
posted by cyphill at 3:38 PM on July 19, 2005


Led Zeppelin has songs that reference characters and events from Lord of the Rings, although they don't retell the whole story. Knowing that doesn't really help you out, though. I'd agree that your best bet is to contact the author; depending on the person, he/she may be flattered or see it as a way to increase exposure and make things easy for you.

I applaud you for considering the idea. I hope you can follow through with it.

And cyphill, a novel based on a Decemberists song can't really go wrong, can it? Maybe even short story collections; you could do them by album.
posted by ludwig_van at 4:04 PM on July 19, 2005


Alright, I will never live down that I know this...

Joshua Kadison (yes, that one) has a song called "The Pearl" that is a retelling of the Steinbeck novella "The Pearl". It doesn't just reference the characters, it tells the story (the characters do have different names, but trust me, it's the same and he doesn't disguise the story in any way). The references to song in the lyrics is actually one of the literary devices that Steinbeck uses.

But I'm guessing you have to have legal permission (even if the author were dead), because the other example I can think of is this one where rumour has it the song was never commercially recorded because Dr. Seuss' widow apparently only greenlights projects that will make a tonne more money.
posted by duck at 4:45 PM on July 19, 2005


If I remember correctly David Bowie had to change a lot of the songs on what became Diamond Dogs because he couldn't get permission from the author of whatever book he was trying to make a concept album of. This is half-remembered information from the liner notes, but I'm sure the story is online somewhere.
posted by HSWilson at 7:28 PM on July 19, 2005


Try to imagine writing a novel and publishing it. Imagine that this novel took you years of effort and sacrifice to bring to the light of day. Now: imagine some lame-ass blogger ripping off your story for a concept website. Or whatever would be your worst nightmare. This is the reason we have copyright: to protect our creations.

But more to the point: you almost certainly need permission. If you are serious about the project, you will need to consult a lawyer to get a definitive opinion for the work you are considering using. Here's what the U.S. Copyright Office says:

Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:

* To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords;
* To prepare derivative works based upon the work;
* To distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
* To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
* To display the copyrighted work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work; and
* In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

posted by _sirmissalot_ at 8:57 PM on July 19, 2005


I should add that I'm not a lawyer and I'm just saying what I would do in your situation, yadda yadda yadda.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 9:02 PM on July 19, 2005


Diamond Dogs was partly based on Orwell's 1984.

Still, that was 1974 -- current case law is, if anything, even less friendly to derivative works (in this age of sampling). The emblematic derivative work of recent years is The Wind Done Gone, a retelling of Gone With the Wind from the point of view of the slaves. It didn't provide case law, though, due to a settlement.

The most obvious example, though, is right in front of you. Note that you cannot adapt a novel into a film without having clear rights.

> When you option the rights to a novel, you draw up an agreement (preferably have an attorney do it) and you name a purchase price to be paid if and when you sell the novel to a studio or produce it yourself. You can often option for $1 and set a purchase price that is paid only when the film is produced. Often the purchase price of a script is 10 to 15 percent of the budget on an independent production, plus any agreed upon royalties on the picture's profits. You're probably saying to yourself, "Why even pay a dollar?" Any monetary amount makes it a legal agreement.

LOTR is a possible lighthouse, though. Over the years, in the interest of milking the brand feeding the fan frenzy, Ballantine (now part of Random House/Bertelsmann) licensed the derivative rights for everything from a song cycle to an atlas.

There are other concept albums based on novels, but some of them appear to have used public-domain sources such as H.G. Wells.

What, if anything, would I have to do in order to make sure that I could make this album and advertise its existence without fear of getting calls from lawyers?

Broaden your concept. Reference more than one work, for example.
posted by dhartung at 9:48 PM on July 19, 2005


Try to imagine writing a novel and publishing it. Imagine that this novel took you years of effort and sacrifice to bring to the light of day. Now: imagine some lame-ass blogger ripping off your story for a concept website. Or whatever would be your worst nightmare. This is the reason we have copyright: to protect our creations.

That is just about the worst justification for copyright I've ever heard.

Someone who follows this line of thought is indignant and possessive.

If I write a book, and ANY sort of fan wants to make a derivative work of it--they are entitled to without pay. What is this, feudalistic principle? "But it is MY work and MY hard labor, GRR, they are STEALING it." If anything it's a fucking compliment. You could say, "that's just you," and yeah, few people do think like this. But it's a shame when someone as intelligent as Kurt Vonnegut get offended because someone satirically released a sci-fi book under the name of Kilgore Trout. When you are humorless like that, you should rethink your art. Art is about creation. Any argument that amplifies possession or money has lost the point of the original art--I said it in the new thread about this, but I'll say it again: make it anyway. Get it out there so people know about it. Wait for the bastards to take it down, and even when they have, some of us will be in possession of it.
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 2:24 PM on July 20, 2005


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