The Hazards of Homage

On Saturday, May 15th I will be a guest on Ahkil Chawli’s Majestic Mutt podcast in which successful individuals with atypical backgrounds show why everyone is a Majestic Mutt. Recent guests have included Canadian Astronaut Dr. Dave Williams, accountant and comedian Neha Kohli, and physician/Wellness Coach Dr. Mashall Khan,

I was thinking about talking points for the show and realised that there is a HUGE aspect of my work in progress – which is the second half of the diptych that began with my novel, The Human Template – that I have yet to publicly broach. On the surface, it very much goes against the grain of public opinion.

Writers, more so than most in the art world, have long been obsessed with plagiarism and the laws that protect us from the spectre of having our work stolen: copyright laws. Certainly, computers and the changing way we read – or enjoy any kind of entertainment – has shifted dramatically over the past 25 years. It is easier than ever for unscrupulous people to publish someone else’s work and keep all the profits for themselves. There have been many cases of people publishing other writers work under their own byline. People routinely use artwork on blogs, bookcovers, as wallpapers and even as posters – without paying the artist a penny or even giving the artists credit. There are countless music and movie sites selling albums and movies or making pirate DVDs without paying the creators. This is the age of electronic piracy and almost all artists are justifiably concerned about their loss of livelihood and theft of property that in many cases has taken years or even decades to produce.

But in the process of writing this book, the negative aspects of copyright laws have become increasingly apparent to me.

Music copyright laws – as applied and occasionally enforced by the big record labels – have always been especially draconian. And those laws in particular have been of concern to me in the writing of this book.

Artists themselves are hugely unlikely to take anyone to court over theft of work. Artists are generally so poorly paid that legal fees could put them in the poorhouse. And the logistic of suing some foreign website are beyond the ken of almost all of us. The enforcement of copyright laws is almost always the domain of corporations; big movie studios, big record labels, big publishing companies. You don’t fuck with the mouse is a saying I have heard more than once.

This very effectively discourages artists from borrowing ideas from other artists, or even from referring to popular works. If a big corporation sues you – you’d might as well bend over and kiss your ass goodbye. And good luck publishing any work that is considered derivative.

This, despite the fact that popular culture plays an enormous role in our lives. You can refer a song, movie or book by title, but quoting from it in a creative work is pretty much forbidden. There is a fair-use clause in copyright law that may save your ass in court, but pretty much everybody is afraid to test it. That’s what I ran up against in the creation of Avenging Glory.

Lesson in Obliqueness

I have always loved popular music. And my affection for it has broadened as I have grown older.

Technically, my first job was as an advertising copywriter. But the job that is a much better reflection of “me” as a human being was an almost 20 year stint as writer and creative director a number of westcoast radio stations. Those jobs gave me front row seats to the popular music of the 1970s through 90s. I got to go to concerts and write about music as part of my job and listen to music all day long. As someone with no discernable musical talent, it was like living nxt door to heaven. Just being close to it like that inspired me enormously.

I have an encyclopaedic memory of a number of popular genres, which has always been pretty much useless to me. It’s even too focused and esoteric to give me much of a hand up in various bar-room trivia games (if anyone even remembers those anymore).

As a creative person, I have always thought that copyright laws that were meant to give artists ownership of their work, and thus assure that people working the world’s poorest paying professions (the arts) could continue to survive and keep making their magical and indispensable contributions to society.

But I have also struggled a bit with the concept of copyright. As a Creative Writing major at UVIC, my big second year drama project was turning Jesus Christ Superstar into a space opera/science fiction musical. I couldn’t write music, so I just wrote new lyrics to the original Webber/Rice score. On my final assessment, my prof explained that copyright law would prevent that sort of adaptation from ever making it to the stage (and he asked a very good question about what parents in the future would ever name their kid Judas).

I got passing grades, assumably on account of the months of time, energy and work I put into it, but my girlfriend got better marks for a comparatively unambitious domestic drama about two old ladies living together (which I helped her write, mostly over the course of a weekend).

Having learned my lesson, I never crossed that line again. Until now, anyway.

I’m writing a two book series – also called a ‘diptych,’ entitled Amazing Glory. The main protagonist of the first book is ostensibly a young man named Raine whose consciousness was uploaded into a vast biological computer network in the root system of a genetically modified forest. The BioGrid network contained the sum total of human knowledge – all of our art and all of our history.

300 years after a natural disaster that pretty much wipes out humankind, the trees teach themselves how to interface with humans, and their first experiment is with a four year old girl, who they almost destroy by filling her with too much irrelevant information. This is the scene from book one The Human Template where that happens.

"Glory’s sudden understanding of the universe and humanity’s place in it hit her like a physical blow. Her fear turned to bewilderment, then appreciation for the consciousness dawning inside of her. There was seemingly nothing she didn’t know. Here was a toddler who could debate with Socrates, in his own language. It was all wonderful and magical until it began to hurt and the complex rhetoric in her head was overwritten by 1950’s advertising jingles, 1968 Canadian Federal election results, world records in various swimming categories and the textbooks for all the Astrophysics courses at Penn State University in 2004; which in turn was overwritten by documentaries about Japanese erotic literature, a group of musicians named Anvil, manuals for repairing a John Deere 9400 combine,  and a complete listing of 2021 American zip codes. Terabytes of data surged into the nascent pathways of her little girl mind. Her mental channels filled and swelled and burst, spewing swaths of wisdom and nonsense like bloody graffiti, across the inside of her skull.  

All of the Core’s dreams and needs and expectations were being force-fed into her tiny brain; forty thousand wills gushing at the same time. Raine was lost in the pandemonium as the child mentally aged five hundred years in milliseconds.

Despite all Glory’s screams and cries to stop, the data kept pouring in; scientific formulae; internet advertising databases, dirty limericks, public opinion polls, literature, languages, anime, mathematics, theology and recipes. By this point, the contents had overwritten themselves a hundred-thousand times, turning to gibberish in the pressure cooker of her head. 

Gibberish, yes, but gibberish interspersed with flashes of absolute clarity. Glory was the only person on Earth who knew what pressure cookers were or who won the World Series in 2011. The advertising literature of the 1950s and sixties was a short but fascinating chronicle of mid-twentieth century culture and somehow most of it had been stored electronically and pumped into Glory’s cerebral cortex, pushing forward through parietal and temporal corridors into her frontal lobes. The swelling was so sudden and drastic that her prefrontal area was drained of blood and began starving for oxygen. Even through the pain, Glory remembered penny candy and three-speed bicycles and beaming optimism in the face of an ever-present nuclear threat. She fought to preserve nursery rhymes and twentieth century novels and large sections of the Holy Bible. And somehow she was unable to forget a massive file full of electronic schematics.

 Unable to sort out her thoughts, Glory grows up with a kind of artificially induced autism. She gradually learns to communicate by creating mosaics from all that data inside her. The easiest way for her to do that in a coherent way is to take the hundreds of thousands of snippets of popular songs in her head and modify the lyrics to express herself clearly and succinctly. It’s not nearly as clear or succinct as she thinks, but over time, she gets the opportunity to develop that communication style further with the community of musicians where she end up living, thus becoming not just the first popular musician of her era, but something of a goddess for restoring joy and faith to a society that has all but lost touch with those concepts.

Through most of the novel, Glory communicates in song. What she has to say and how she says it is important. Consequently, my first draft of the book had more copyright violations than a beach has grains of sand.

At that point, I realized that all the lyrics had to be re-written! Trying to defend my adaptions as “Fair Use” might be possible, but it would be a tightrope walk that could – if I too egregiously stepped on any toes -bankrupt me with lawsuits and prevent release or distribution of the book.

So that was my challenge – make sure that I stick to the letter of the law by avoiding use of copyrighted lyrics…while at the same time writing lyrics that evoke the original songs well enough that people will have a pretty good idea what they actually are underneath the disguise. I’ve enjoyed daydreams of people making a game or recognizing the lyrics and singing along to the dialogue in the book. One of the beauties of the way I’ve approached it is that there is no single correct answer, because there will always be a measure of doubt. There are inevitably at least four or five songs that the lyrics could be sung to. On one stretch of dialogue, I went from using a heavy metal song to a sweet well-known folk song – and it’s almost impossible to tell where one leaves off and the other begins because the two otherwise very different songs have the exact same rhythm, rhyme scheme, vowel sounds, and syllable counts.

Those circumstances make it almost impossible to mount a strong case for copyright violation. I also frequently mix a number of different songs into a single speech.

As a reader, I would have a lot of fun trying to figure out the tunes to the songs as I read the new lyrics. And I hope that some readers who share my affections will enjoy that aspect of the books.

This technique gives Glory the opportunity to say things in strange, poetic, scattered snippets that are rendered totally natural by the way she thinks. She is expressing things the only way she can. And any reader with the inclination gets to enjoy it on multiple levels – not just as prose, but as song, as poetry, as a reflection of popular culture.

Avenging Glory is 100 years of popular culture reflected in the funhouse mirror of subjective memory and filtered through the lens of very damaged and imperfect technology.

And if I have my way, all my readers will be singing these wonderful songs in their sleep.

Please, come back for my next blog post, where I’ll talk about how copyright law stifles creativity and makes music less catchy and ubiquitous – taking music from being the ultimate social and participatory experience to being a very private experience.

My Book, The Human Template (Part One of the Avenging Glory diptych) is available at all online retailers.

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