COPYRIGHT THE STORYTELLER’S QUANDARY
By "The Twosome Tellers"
My interest in the oral tradition goes back almost fifty years. It started during my teacher’s training when I was required to do a special study and chose to investigate storytelling in education. That interest stayed with me throughout my years a parent, grandparent and educator. I still maintain that stories can be found to fit any subject or area of interest at any age level and I worked at convincing others that this was so in my years as a children’s librarian.
It was during that period that I would often tell part of a story or almost the whole story in an effort to arouse interest and enthuse students about the fiction available to them. In the days when I first needed reading glasses I would often misplace them and found that I could tell the classic picture book stories as I showed the pictures because although I could no longer read the print I actually knew the story by heart!
When I was given coverage to travel to other schools that needed a storyteller but didn’t have money to pay for one. I naturally used the folklore and story books at hand to prepare my programmes. That meant that I usually worked with the print versions as I tried to commit the story to memory. Naturally I found I was drawn to those that appealed to my style of telling; stories with a vocabulary and phraseology that would curl gracefully around my tongue and which would, in my opinion appeal to the listening ear. Was I guilty of breaking copyright? After all, those words and phrases were the creative effort of some writer who was acknowledged in print as the person responsible for retelling or creating that particular tale. As a librarian I always acknowledged my source and as an educator I was legally able to use up to one third of a publication for educational purposes. Was I stealing someone else’s material or was I, perhaps, helping to advertise the book for the author? When we consider folklore and the oral tradition storytellers and folklorists are aware of the many versions of one story that may be found in cultures around the world. Although anthropologists have hypothesized that this may be a result of our common humanity and the similarity of human experience from birth to death (simply put for the sake of this article), we, as storytellers are aware that any story will change through multiple tellings. I have often been surprised to find out just how much a story has become my own when re-reading the original after telling it as part of my repertoire over the years.
Sometimes, we the tellers, will have a special “feel” for a story. It will, perhaps, have a certain wisdom or message we wish to pass on - but, how often are we surprised by those in the audience who enthusiastically let us know that the story just told had a completely different significance for them. If they repeat the story they will naturally emphasize what the story gave them and will recreate the less important parts using their imagination to fit it into their own experience and cultural background. Thus, the oral tradition continues ........ It seems to me then, that when we use folk tales we cannot be accused of stealing the work of an author. I do feel, however, that if we memorize a story that has been retold in print we should certainly acknowledge the source and encourage young listeners or parents to find the book containing it in a library or bookstore. Lets argue that such stories were never meant to be static but have survived simply because of the oral tradition.
After years of matching stories to age groups, subjects and areas of interest as well as fitting them into the time allowed for performances I have taken to writing my own versions of folk tale, myth and legend. I may read several versions if they are available then write and rewrite until I have something that fits into the time allotment as well as fitting comfortably around my tongue. Often I use phrases from the different books that particularly appeal but I do not consider that a form of plagiarism as it is actually the basis of all imaginative and artistic endeavour to take something that exists and add or reform to create something new.
Personal tales are, of course, the ownership of the individual so would not usually be considered in any query concerning copyright. But, if those tales appear in print permission to tell them would obviously have to come from the author - in writing. The same applies to any fiction work that is the creative effort of one or more people. An application to the publisher of the book to be forwarded to the author will more often than not result in acquiescence although I still feel that the oral telling of one part of a novel should be equated to any book talk given to recommend the novel to prospective readers
Laws differ from country to country, province to province and state to state so knowledge and respect for the artistic endeavours of others would necessarily be the guideline when in a quandary over copyright. Radio and television have their own rules concerning storytelling on air but they usually take on the responsibility of contacting the necessary sources before accepting the programme or finalizing your contract which is actually helpful although not always welcome!