It’s getting easier to copy – but it’s still hard to be original. However, it’s also now much easier to tell if an idea is original – although, even if it’s not, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a copy. There is, after all, such a thing as “independent creation.”
For that reason, whenever I get an idea which I’m pretty sure is original, the first thing I do is Google it. This has led to some big disappointments. For example, some years ago, this idea came to me, which I was sure nobody could ever have thought of before: “Bless me Father, for I have sneezed.” Google soon revealed that not only wasn’t I the first to think of it, but, among other usages, it was actually the title of a play someone had written.
Of course, we do have copyright and patent laws, in which protection is a matter of priority. The law is on the side, not of who thought of it first, but of who first took the trouble to register it. With copyrighting, this is a relatively simple procedure (or at least was, when I last did it). But with patents (which I’ve had no experience of), it can be lengthy, difficult, and expensive – (hence a lucrative field for lawyers).
All this comes under the heading of “Intellectual Property,” which also includes Trademarks – of which I did have one remarkable experience. Since “Brilliant” has been my real surname since birth, and since I was making a career of writing epigrams, at some point it occurred to me to start calling them “Brilliant Thoughts” – and to register this as a Trademark – although I thought it very unlikely that anyone else would use those words commercially. I was soon disabused of this notion. Before I knew it, someone had come out with a collection of quotes (including none of mine, but about twelve of the “Editor’s” own) called “The Most Brilliant Thoughts of All Time, In Two Lines or Less.” It appeared under the distinguished rubric of HarperCollins. This led to some fancy legal maneuvering, which finally ended in a sizeable settlement.
As far as copyright is concerned, when my own first book was published, I chose to make its title what was already my most-copied epigram: “I MAY NOT BE TOTALLY PERFECT, BUT PARTS OF ME ARE EXCELLENT.” I can tell you exactly how I got that idea. My inspiration was a cartoon by George du Maurier, which I saw in an 1885 issue of the British magazine, PUNCH. In those days, a cartoon could be captioned with several lines of dialog. In this one, a young Curate is dining at the table of his Bishop, who says with hospitable concern, “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr. Jones” – to which the timid guest replies, “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!”
I did own the copyright of my version, but unfortunately, one of the first products I licensed to use it (a set of tote bags) printed the copyright line in such an inconspicuous position that nobody was likely to notice it. And the product itself was so successful and widely distributed that I was soon confronted with a flock of “knock-offs,” especially on T-shirts. One of the most egregious cases wound up in Federal Court, where the Judge’s decision established my right to claim copyright protection for a work as short as twelve words.
That particular infringement may have been at first unintentional (although the culprits refused to stop, even after being notified). But what about the conscious, deliberately deceptive copying, which we call forgery? Look out! – Here comes another confession. Yes, I once committed an act of forgery.
I was 14 years old and was accustomed to doing well at school – one way I could make my parents proud of me. But we’d only recently moved back to England from America. In my new school, I had much catching up to do – and the grades on my first report showed it. Students had to get a parent’s signature on their report, and then return it to the school. I was too ashamed of my low grades to let my parents see them. So, I forged my mother’s signature. Somehow, I was very quickly found out. I probably received a stern lecture on forgery, but wasn’t very severely punished, although I also wasn’t very contrite. Fortunately, I never had another occasion to commit that particular type of crime. •MJ