It’s the Law

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   April 29, 2021

Quite apart from our legal system, there are so many laws in Science and Economics and other disciplines that it must have been inevitable for satirical “laws” to appear, usually commenting on the perversity of life as we experience it. Probably the most famous of these “laws” states (in various versions) that “If anything can go wrong, it will.” In America, this is called “Murphy’s Law,” in Britain, “Sod’s Law.” In foreign languages, the name Murphy is usually retained.    

 The classic alleged evidence in support of this postulate is that a dropped piece of toast will always fall with the buttered side down. (Believe it or not, experiments have been performed to test the validity of this contention – but there can be so many variables that the results have been inconclusive.)    
Nevertheless, society needs laws – and, for better or worse, laws need lawyers. Although, as traditionally with all good Jewish parents, mine wanted me to become one, if not a doctor (and Doctor of Philosophy didn’t count). I managed to avoid any need for having a lawyer, let alone being one, until I was well into my 30s. And it happened that my first legal case was against TIME magazine.

I had discovered an unfilled niche in the literary world. Although people had been inscribing short messages on toilet walls and other off-beat surfaces for many years, it appeared that nobody had thought of copyrighting such creations, and presenting them as a legitimate genre of one-line poetry. So, I started a little business based on writing and illustrating short expressions, and publishing them on postcards. Among the very first of these (#79 of a series which eventually grew to 10,000) was a card which said, “IT’S REALLY QUITE A SIMPLE CHOICE: LIFE, DEATH, OR LOS ANGELES.” 

Imagine my amazement when, not long after this copyrighted card began to circulate, it appeared on the first page of TIME’s news section, accompanying an item about California’s population problems. But it was identified only as a “California Pop Postcard,” with no credit of any kind.

At that time, I was living not far from the University of San Francisco, which had a Law department, containing (I learned upon inquiry) a young Professor who specialized in Copyright Law. His name was J. Thomas McCarthy, and he went on to become a leading authority in the field of “Intellectual Property” (a term with which I was at that time totally unfamiliar, except in W.H. Auden’s declaration that:

“To the man in the street, who, I’m sorry to say, is a keen observer of life,
The word ‘intellectual’ suggests, straight away, a man who’s untrue to his wife.”)

Prof. McCarthy charged me $25 for writing to TIME on my behalf. It was my first lesson in the power of a legal letterhead – for, sure enough, the upshot was that TIME published a letter from me, setting the record straight.

If only that had been the end of my involvements with copyright law! – but it was just the beginning. I had decided early on to limit my epigrams to a maximum of 17 words. But unfortunately, many people – including some manufacturers of products like t-shirts – didn’t believe that you could claim legal ownership of a verbal expression that short. And it took more lawyers and a Federal Court Judge (William Matthew Byrne, already famous for presiding over the “Pentagon Papers” case) to establish that my copyrights were “valid, subsisting, and enforceable.”

In the meantime, however, my works were circulating widely – but I didn’t realize the extent of my influence until recently. Quite by accident, I came upon evidence that, while I’d been relying upon the law as a basis for my legitimacy as a professional epigrammatist, I myself was being cited as the author of a “Law” á la Murphy. I found it in a book called THE UNWRITTEN LAWS OF LIFE: Unofficial Rules as Handed Down by Murphy and Other Sages, by Hugh Rawson.

On page 255, one of my thoughts is referred to as “ASHLEIGH’S FIRST LAW.” The epigram thus immortalized (# 702) counsels that “If you can’t learn to do it well, learn to enjoy doing it badly.” No other of Ashleigh’s Laws are cited, but I take comfort in the fact that the very next Law quoted is attributed to Shakespeare.

But finally, I feel my best advice to you on this subject resides in #9990:      

Try to avoid situations in which all you have is a good legal case.” 


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