Permission to protest

In the third-year English class at King’s Park School in Glasgow, while Mr Donald tried to rouse our enthusiasm for the pleasures contained between the covers of Ivanhoe, I concentrated on my ban-the-bomb poetry. “Death creeps slowly o’er the hill”, one protest poem began. I copied the work in full into my inadequate school jotter, in readiness for showing it to my neighbor and best friend, Bruce Dryden. He was at a more advanced stage of literary development than me, reading 007 novels and anything by Mickey Spillane. When it came to music, I was the adventurous one. In an act of appropriation that strikes me now as avant-garde, I concluded the poem with four lines from the ending of “Masters of War”, from the then-contemporary Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album – which, for reasons that will become apparent, I cannot quote here. Then I tore the pages from my jotter and slid them across the desk.

Bruce read the poem and at the end of the lesson delivered his verdict. The first part wasn’t bad, he conceded, but as for these final lines, whose authorship he didn’t recognize: “Till they’re deid… ? Come off it, Campbell!”

There the matter rested, until I wanted to include the incident in a memoir to be published next week. Many songs are referred to in the story. Among the ones I wished to quote from were “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, and one that was probably more important to me than any other, Robin Williamson’s “October Song”, sung to solo guitar accompaniment on the Incredible String Band’s first LP in 1966.

My publishers in Edinburgh were happy with the manuscript in general, but greeted the songs with alarm. All would need permission from the copyright holders, even when only a few lines had been quoted. It wasn’t going to be easy. A recent author had wished to quote two lines of a song by Leonard Cohen. Permission was granted, upon payment of a fee of £18,000.

I went to work on rewriting some passages, removing the repeated refrain from “Blowin’ in the Wind”, and in one case substituting a verse of my own for a copyright-protected one, while keeping the atmosphere. All fine. But I pleaded for four lines each from “October Song” and “Masters of War”. I volunteered to seek out Robin Williamson, still active as a singer and storyteller, leaving the more complicated pursuit of Dylan to a woman called Alison at the publishers. I was willing to contemplate a reasonable fee.

My teenage appropriation of Dylan had a subconscious ingenuity behind it. The tune of “Masters of War” is borrowed from the English folk song “Nottamun Town”, which I had thrilled to on the “folk-baroque” Bert Jansch version. “Masters of War” adapts the tune to an anti-war purpose. Released in 1963, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is plump with inventive transformations of Scottish, English and American traditional material. The insistent “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” derives from the grisly Scottish ballad “Edward, Edward”. On Freewheelin’, “Corrina, Corrina” is credited to Dylan but elsewhere to one or other of those great songwriters, “Trad” and “Anon”. Behind Dylan’s “I’m walkin’ down that long, lonesome road” can be heard Mississippi John Hurt in 1929: “I’m going up the country through the sleet and snow”, and John Hurt a procession of nameless singers. Freewheelin’just like the grand phenomenon of Dylan in general, was a magnificent flowering of modern folk fertility, but it didn’t spring from nowhere.

Permissions to quote from Dylan songs, or to include a snatch of melody in a film or the like, are dealt with by the Bob Dylan Music Company, administered by Jeff Rosen and David Beal. They have a reputation for being helpful. Alison knew how to reach them by email. She did so, including with her request the tale of Bruce’s jeering reaction to lines he thought were by me. The response was more or less immediate: permission not granted. “We can’t approve the context in which quote appears”, Mr Beal wrote.

More than one person, on hearing the story, said: surely you can just go ahead. They’ll probably never see it. Other authors have proceeded on this obligation, and regretted it. When I rooted around for situations comparable to mine, I came across some frightful cases. One woman had been granted permission to quote lyrics (not Dylan’s) for a reasonable fee, but when her book found an unexpected success, with film rights sold and a planned reprint, she received a demand for a larger sum, together with a stern complaint that permission should have been sought all over again. The verdict of those who had been through the experience was unanimous: don’t risk it. Better still, don’t quote.

The integrity of copyright ought to be respected, though a restriction on two lines of Leonard Cohen in print, and four of Bob Dylan, might seem unreasonable. The accepted practice of Fair Dealing (sometimes called Fair Use) is that an author may quote a certain amount of text for the purposes of critical analysis or historical inquiry. Fiction and autobiography come into a separate category. For reasons unclear, song lyrics appear to have greater protection than poetry.

In the twenty-first century, the internet has blown a hole in copyright, for better or worse. If I want to know the words to “Masters of War”, I can find them in the next five seconds. If I wish to copy and share them by email with a hundred friends – to publish them, in effect – it’ll take about half a minute. It is no longer necessary to pay £14.99 for a Bob Dylan Songbook, with royalties payable to the author, in order to check that the four lines I borrowed for the ending of my schoolboy collage work are correct. There is a wide choice of websites to draw from – all free of charge – including “The Official Bob Dylan Site”. Moreoever, you could sing “Masters of War” in its entirety to an audience of 2,000 at your local concert hall, without likely restriction, though a copyright lawyer tells me you’d be in breach of copyright in doing so. The rules are broken every day.

In the event, I had reason to be grateful to the Dylan people. My ban-the-bomb poem is long gone, but by concentrating hard I managed to come up with another line to follow the immortal “Death creeps slowly o’er the hill” and I put them both in, together with other adjustments to the scene.

The day after the Dylan verdict was relayed, I heard from Robin Williamson. I had sent a letter to his music company by post – again including the context – with my email address. “Dear James,” he wrote, “Yes, you are welcome to quote from October Song. Just one wee correction if possible…” No fee was mentioned, only a request to include the name of his website on the book’s acknowledgments page. I ordered one of his CDs from it.

Just Go Down to the Road: A memoir of trouble and travel is published by Polygon and Paul Dry Books (US) on May 5

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