Teachers, librarians and educators working within the context of their jobs in an educational setting are free to use material that has a copyright without asking permission of the author. Using the material for personal financial gain by performing it for a fee or by publishing it in any media outside of the educational context requires permission of the copyright holder.
What is a copyright?
In our modern society, according to American copyright law, when an artist claims ownership of an original personally created artistic “work,”, they can write c with a circle around it, the date beside it, and their name ((c) 1998 Heather Forest) on a “fixed” version of the work, such as a tape or a manuscript. With the copyright notice clearly legible, the documented version of the work could be then kept in a safe retrievable place or, for safekeeping, an artist can officially register the work with the copyright office in Washington D.C. This copyright claim allows an artist to require that others obtain their verbal or written permission to use or reproduce the work or must offer the artist financial compensation for the use or reproduction of the protected work. This extends also to permission to make a derivative version of the copyrighted work such as a film from a novel, a song from an original short story, or a performance piece based on a field-collected folktale that has only one copyrighted translation available in English. The financial compensation is often negotiable and could range from a one-time licensing fee, to a mechanical licensing fee based on the number of copies manufactured, to royalties paid based on the number of manufactured copies sold. Forms to register works and printed information on copyright basics can be obtained by writing to: Copyright Office, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20559.
Some storytellers consider the plots of folktales to be public domain entities and, as such, do not treat them as the property of any individual or group in particular. Other tellers feel that folktale plots belong to the descendants of the culture from which they derive. Without proper study of the culture and context of the tale, tellers who delve into unfamiliar cultures to find performance material can be like clumsy cultural imperialists, taking plots which have deep meaning in their cultural context and prostituting them for personal gain. There needs to be ongoing discussion on this topic in the storytelling community. Scholarship, intuition, and respect for the plot can help a teller determine if a tale is a proper one to present. Choosing appropriate tales to tell is as much a part of the artistic process as learning to tell the tale. Some tellers say that the tale chooses them. If a tale from an unfamiliar culture resonates within the teller who wishes to be a vehicle for it, then sometimes it can be very appropriate for the teller to attempt to present it. It is a matter of the heart. However, to do justice to a traditional tale, respect and understanding of its cultural context is essential.
Developing Repertoire Based on Folktales in Print or Recorded Media
If a folktale appears in printed or recorded media in multiple versions, each printed or recorded version claims a legal copyright notice. However, this is not for the plot of the folktale, but for the fixed arrangements of the words used to narrate the plot. If a teller uses the exact words of a printed or recorded text, then permission must be obtained from the publisher to use those particular words if the text will be told for pay. Royalties would be due if it were to be recorded or reprinted. If, on the other hand, the teller researches the story, finds all the variants of the tale in print or on tape, adapts it, edits it, and constructs a unique retelling of the tale, then no legal permission is needed to present the new version of the story. The teller can then actually claim copyright, not to the plot, but to their own version of the tale.
If there is a particular version of a folktale which brought the tale to light for a teller, and which inspired further research or was especially influential in the retelling, often, as an artistic courtesy, tellers will give credit to that source. If there is a particular teller for whom the story is a signature piece, or if the teller heard the tale orally from another, tellers will often cite that teller before telling the tale as well. It is a matter not of law but of conscience. As a community we can choose to respond only to the written law or we can create an atmosphere of fairness and justice among ourselves that goes beyond copyright law. A story is invisible. It feels in some ways like the wind. It can’t really be owned. But we each do know what is original with us… what we have honestly invented. We must be aware of what we have brought to the telling of the tale. In the interests of fairness and peace, when we support each other with respect for the time, effort, and invention we each put into our art, then we can alleviate the thorniest issues of tellers lazily or disrespectfully copying ideas, stylistics, or text from others. Part of the work of a storyteller is to personally know or create a body of work that reflects their deepest convictions, passions, interests, and spirit. This takes time, perhaps a lifetime.
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