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Ozymandias Lessons for Copyright

Ann Bartow’s post about Paul Zukofsky, son of Louis and Celia Zukofsky, and his attempt to exert extreme control over his parents’ work reveals that heirs are problem for copyright. Mr. Zukofsky asserts some untenable points about his power over the material and the need for academics to seek his approval. The full letter is on his site. Here are some choice quotes:

Despite what you may have been told, you may not use LZ’s words as you see fit, as if you owned them, while you hide behind the rubric of “fair use”. “Fair use” is a very-broadly defined doctrine, of which I take a very narrow interpretation, and I expect my views to be respected. We can therefore either more or less amicably work out the fees that I demand; you can remove all quotation; or we can turn the matter over to lawyers, this last solution being the worst of the three, but one which I will use if I need to enforce my rights. …

Next, other than for the following, I am not trying to censor you. I hardly give a damn what is said about my father (I am far more protective of my mother) as long as the name is spelled properly, and the fees are paid. My interest is almost purely economic. That being said, I do not approve of delving into the personal lives of my parents. If you wish to spend your time worrying if LZ did or did not shtupp alligators, that is your problem, but I will not approve quotation. That is not scholarship. That is gossip, and beneath contempt. …

Finally, when all else fails, and you remain hell-bent on quoting LZ, but you really, really REALLY do not want to deal with me, or you have been stupidly advised to try to circumvent me — remind yourself again and again, and yet once more, what Lyndon Baines Johnson’s said about J. Edgar Hoover i.e.: “I’d rather have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in”.

Although these statements may seem like ravings, Mr. Zukofsky is not alone in having these perspectives. As some know, the Joyce, T.S. Elliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.M. Barrie, Sylvia Plath, Samuel Beckett, and Bertolt Brecht estates have expressed similar views. What strikes me here is that although Louis and Celia Zukofsky are important figures in American poetry, I would bet that many are unaware of who they are. Their son’s perspective of wanting extreme control, little discussion, and rent extraction indicates his interest in, well, his interests. Those do not seem to include aiding people who wish to keep the artists in question alive as part of our culture. All of which makes me think Mr. Zukofsky might take a lesson from another poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, for I think that not even the pedestal may remain for his parents if he maintains this posture.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

2 thoughts on “Ozymandias Lessons for Copyright”

  1. I strongly suspect that many — and probably most — of the “restrictive quotation heirs” are in the end more concerned with ruling out certain types of literary methods than they are with the money. That certainly seems to be the case for Joyce, Elliot, Plath, Beckett, and certain others I could name but for conflicts.

    There is a common thread among the four literary estates that I’ve named: Substantial quasiacademic controversy over the relationship between biography/personality and the works themselves. It’s one thing entirely to say “the author is not the work”; it’s another thing to say “the author’s personality, as reflected in particular interpretations of the work(s), has nothing to do with the personality of the author’s heir(s).” Particularly given the extreme pressure for outrageous-revisionism-as-a-path-to-tenure on humanities faculties, I find it entirely unsurprising that heirs would have a blanket aversion to that sort of scholarship. I’m not defending that aversion in substance; I’m only saying that I understand it, and that goes double for poets.

  2. Yes. It is understandable. I think, however, that sympathy or even empathy has led to policy based on a small group’s ability to tug at heart strings and to conflate works with people. The dead are simply dead. As a theoretical matter, I don’t think using heirs interests, as you identify them (quite well), provides a sound way to guide copyright. Yet, I suggest that those impulses animate policy to copyright’s detriment.

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