Copyright and the Sedulous Ape

We’re honored to have BJ Robinson, University Press Director, as a guest author today. Dr. Robinson has published scholarly works on late Victorian literature and Creative Writing pedagogy. She has won several publishing grants, including a National Endowment for the Humanities digital start-up grant on digital publishing in the Humanities.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Learning to write, let alone learning to write well and effectively, takes practice and discipline. Successful writers have suggested practical means for such practice, including the “sedulous ape” method of copying exemplary writers’ work. According to Robert Louis Stevenson,

Whenever I read a book or a passage that particularly pleased me, in which a thing was said or an effect rendered with propriety, in which there was either some conspicuous force or some happy distinction in the style, I must sit down at once and set myself to ape that quality. I was unsuccessful, and I knew it; and tried again, and was again unsuccessful and always unsuccessful; but at least in these vain bouts, I got some practice in rhythm, in harmony, in construction and the co-ordination of parts. I have thus played the sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne, to Defoe, to Hawthorne, to Montaigne, to Baudelaire and to Obermann. (Memories and Portraits)

Following Stevenson’s suggestion, I’ve decided to improve my writing by aping the work of writers I admire. But how can I do that without violating copyright? Is the purpose of copyright law to prevent this mimicry?

Mateo Aboy succinctly states that “The purpose of copyright law is to promote the progress of useful arts and science by protecting the exclusive right of authors and inventors to benefit from their works of authorship” (“What is the purpose of copyright law?”). If my writing improves by copying the work of, say, Salmon Rushdie, then I can be said to benefit from that work. But is that particular benefit exclusive to Salmon Rushdie?

Which part of Salmon Rushdie’s work is exclusive to him and therefore (probably) copyrightable? His Satanic Verses uses Islam and “episodes” from Muhammad’s life by giving a “re-narration of the life of Muhammad (called ‘Mahound’ or ‘the Messenger’ in the novel) in Mecca (‘Jahiliyyah’)” (“The Satanic Verses”). Rushdie could do that without violating copyright because “Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed” (“What Does Copyright Protect?”). The way Rushdie expresses or “re-narrates” the “life of Muhammad” is protected by copyright. The expression is, particularly, what I want to ape. So, can I sedulously ape Satanic Verses?

I’m looking at my copy of Satanic Verses right now. It’s my copy (not a pun), so I can do anything I want with it. I can underline parts of the text that particularly appeal to me and cross through the parts that don’t. I can even cross through the trademark of its publisher, Penguin Random House. But I can’t transfer that trademark to anything I create without that publisher’s legal permission to do so. The Penguin Random House trademark is a type of intellectual property that, like creative work, is protected—not through copyright law but through trademark law. Their trademark visually identifies them as the publishing source of a particular book unit, including my copy of Satanic Verses.

If I invented a new way to publish a book (for example, with a new book technology) then that invention would be another form of intellectual property that I could protect through patent law. If I were to design plans of such new book technology or construct a model of it, thus creating and fixing it in a tangible form that is “perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device” (“Copyright in General”), then my invention would be protected. But I couldn’t attach the Penguin Random House trademark to that invention. Doing so would confuse the source of my form of publication with theirs and so would violate trademark law.

Considering Rushdie’s style and expression in Satanic Verses, I could legally “copy it” verbatim and even publish that copy, providing I did so in accordance with fair use. If I were to critique Satanic Verses as post-colonial literature, I could use direct (and correctly referenced) quotes from the text to support my critique. If I were to parody Satanic Verses as an extreme form of migrant displacement—using characters, situations, and unique settings in this parody—I could do so in accordance with fair use because my parody would transform the original work. Such critique and parody would still need to be ethical. For instance, without obtaining legal permission, I couldn’t include complete sections of Satanic Verses in an anthology of post-colonial literature that I edited. And I couldn’t insert just a couple of jokes into Satanic Verses and claim that as a parody.

A painting of a monkey reading a book by Gabriel von Max.
Painting by Gabriel von Max, from Wikipedia

However, to succeed with such a critique or parody, I would already need to be a pretty good writer. So how am I going to successfully improve my writing using Stevenson’s sedulous ape method? I could analyze what makes exemplary writers’ work effective, or I could use exemplary writers’ work as touchstones of quality, thereby honing my own imagery, style, voice, and themes. I could even copy complete chapters verbatim without correct citation, providing that I keep those copies for myself and not publish them as my “own” work. Legally, I could copy a work verbatim and then publish that work if it were in the public domain. But I would need to verify that it were in the public domain, and verify that it was a “creative [work] to which no exclusive intellectual property rights apply. Those rights may have expired, been forfeited, expressly waived, or may be inapplicable” (“Public Domain”).

Because Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, its copyright expired over 100 years ago. It’s in the public domain, so I could copy the entire text verbatim. I think I would learn a great deal about carefully-constructed prose by doing just that. I could publish that copy as “proof” of my sedulous work and even make money from that publication if I offered it, say, on the internet as an ebook. But ethics would compel me to attribute the text to Austen and identify the source of the particular book unit I copied. If I copied the entire text of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) verbatim, I would probably learn a great deal about parody and how parodies elucidate hidden or suppressed themes of original works. I also would probably learn a great deal about Austen’s style, since a majority of Grahame-Smith’s text copies Austen’s. Grahame-Smith’s book does not violate copyright laws because Pride and Prejudice is in the public domain and, arguably, Grahame-Smith’s book transforms Austen’s text through parody. But I could not copy Grahame Smith’s complete book verbatim and publish it as my own work because it’s still under copyright.

I think I will indeed try Stevenson’s sedulous ape method. After I read a few more books.

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Flesch Reading Ease: 45.5

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 10.8

Works Cited

Aboy, Mateo. “What is the purpose of copyright law?” Mateo Aboy, PHD, MBA Academic Site & Blog, 2006, Accessed June 26, 2019.

“Copyright in General.” Library of Congress, Accessed June 26, 2019.

“Public Domain.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 16 June 2019, Accessed June 26, 2019.

“Satanic Verses.” Wikimedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 9 June 2019. Accessed June 26, 2019.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Memories and Portraits, March 27, 2016, Accessed June 26, 2019.

“What Does Copyright Protect?” Library of Congress, Accessed June 26, 2019.

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