How To Get Started in Storytelling

The following article will provide you information on the relationship between storytelling and copyright law.
Storytelling Ethics and Copyright Law By Ada Forney

Traditional Stories

If your story is a folktale, myth or other traditional tale, it is oftentimes uncopyrighted. If you retell it, try to tell it in your own words. Remember, many modern versions of these old tales have been rewritten and copyrighted by modern authors. There are also alternate versions that have been handed down through various historical sources, some oral and some literary. Unless you are sure that the material you are considering is free and clear of copyright, you might be required to credit the copyright owner and get their permission to tell the story. Some publishers will charge a fee and require a written contract, but the author will often grant you permission as long as you credit them.

Where Have I Heard That Tale? Who holds the copyright?

Copyright law is very fragile in this day of computers, easy downloads, OCR software and scanners, and accessible copy machines. What we do not realize is that each time we take that chance and violate another’s rights, we move one step closer to loosing that right ourselves. This opens the door to publishing or telling whatever we want to with no credit given to the individual who worked so hard to create it.

Watch people the next time you visit your local neighborhood copy center. It is happening all around us. People illegally photocopy written works and artwork for their own commercial (rather than personal) use. The artist gets no credit nor do they get any compensation for the hard work they put into it. It is, in a very real sense, stealing. So, we must watch what we do when using the material of others. This also applies to newsletter publication. Some editors do not worry about copyright ownership and publish the “borrowed” material without obtaining permission. Readers would then be unaware that the resulting "published" material, that they might be using or referencing, has been pirated from another source. Each time someone does this, it dilutes the integrity of the material as we move one step closer to loosing our rights and the protection of our work under Federal Copyright Law.

Here is a case in point: Have you noticed that people no longer call all tissues, Kleenex? It used to be popular to do so. But Kleenex found their name was becoming public domain and no longer unique to their product. Another example is Xerox. During the Watergate hearings, a senator asked an aide to make some “Xerox copies” of something on national TV. He was sent a letter from Xerox asking him to refrain from calling them Xerox copies and explaining that the process is xerography. These are trademarked brand names, and they function much like a copyright. When they come into common use, they are no longer identified with a unique product. The same is true with an original story or article.

New tellers must get permission to use personal stories and must credit the author of it. Even if the material is a story that has not been formally registered with the US Copyright Office, it is protected once the teller has performed it in public. This established prior use. While not as secure as a registered copyright, it can establish an oral teller as the originator of a story. It is not a good idea to use someone else's personal experiences and claim them as your own. This, like other forms of piracy, dilutes the integrity of the material and hurts the storytelling community.

All storytellers deserve respect and should respect others.

Now let’s talk about the idea of a personal repertoire of stories. The following comments are from Elizabeth Ellis, a nationally known storyteller. They have been excerpted from her letter to me about her presentation in Kansas City at the National Storytelling Convention. I use them here with her permission.

Her unpleasant experience began with a phone call detailing a recent story concert attended by the caller. The conversation revealed, that of seven featured tellers, four told stories taken directly from the repertoire of Elizabeth Ellis. No one gave credit to Elizabeth as the author of the material.

Elizabeth, in her letter, focused on what to do if this happens to you:

"I talked (in Kansas City) about wronging others. Then, about taking responsibility for open dialog - with the person with whom you have an issue. You may see it differently, then. Forgive them - don’t hold it inside yourself. It will just hurt you. If they refuse to be guided by community standards - shun them. Don’t ever hire them."

Stealing is stealing. Period. No excuses, no rationalizations. This unprofessional behaviour is unethical, immoral, illegal and damages the integrity of the storytelling community.

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