How To Get Started in Storytelling

Storytelling Ethics and Copyright Law (Cont'd)

Published Materials

Published literary tales and poetry are definitely copyrighted material. They may be told at informal story swaps, but before you tell someone else’s story in a paid professional setting, you need to research and verify the copyright and give credit to the author. When telling anywhere, it is common courtesy to credit your source of the story. Pass stories on, share them with others, and encourage respect within the storytelling community.

I was forwarded a recent piece from the Storytell list serve on how to deal with the ethical use of copyrighted materials. I spoke with the author, David Holt, about his thoughts which were posted to Storytell. He agreed to allow me to use his comments as part of this article. His comments are as follows:

"Europeans do think we are very strange in trying to “own” a story...., but being an American storyteller I tend to agree with the ethical viewpoint in this country. It is very simple really, original stories and original versions of folktales are copyrightable."

"Tellers should stay away from original stories (unless they have written permission to tell them) and create their own versions of folktales. But more importantly: THE JOB OF ANYONE WHO CALLS THEMSELVES A STORYTELLER IS TO FIND AND WORK UP NEW MATERIAL. The art depends on it. If tellers want to climb up out of the primordial ooze of the storytelling masses they have to be creative, they have to work at finding new material, and they have to have something that makes them special...., and that will never be other peoples material. We are all inspired by others and get ideas from other performers..., but in my book that is where it should stop most of the time."

"The Ready To Tell Tales books (David Holt & Bill Mooney, published by August House) are an effort to make some really good stories available to everyone, so you don’t have to mess with permissions."

"As for giving credit, I think it is very important. The storytelling movement has been created by word of mouth. The more great storytellers out in the world doing good work, the more people we will all have in our audiences. So, in our programs if we can mention the names or even relate a little anecdote about another teller, it helps them and the movement as a whole."

"Personally, the reason I have all those large photos of the old-timers is because I have spent the last 30 years learning from those folks and I want to give them credit. It also gives the audience some context to understand the stories and music I present. I really haven’t learned that much from young folks... I’ve been inspired by them to be sure, but I don’t perform much of their material."

As tellers, we owe it to ourselves to ensure we respect one another’s talent and creative ability. Creating original work is not an easy task. It is very hard work. We must learn to give credit where credit is due by crediting the source (book or teller) of the story and by crafting the existing traditional stories in a way that allows us to make them our own. We must also ask permission before using another person’s family story or a significant part of one. Better yet, research and write your own family stories! (I'll deal with that in another article.)

Perhaps, as tellers, we need to review and revisit the stories we tell and the way we tell them. We need to ask a few questions about those stories: Do I know the source of the story? Where did I hear it first and is it an original or family story? Is it a public domain folktale? Is it my version of the folktale or someone else’s?

Finally, we must take personal responsibility for what we do and how we do it. Copyright law is a precious gift and all too easily lost in today’s technical world. It is up to each of us to understand and respect one another and, most of all, to respect the integrity of the stories.
Perhaps we need to view our ethical behavior, as tellers, in the same way we view copyright law. Use it or loose it. Let’s all be careful out there when we tell our tales. After all, we wouldn’t want to loose them.

Information on copyright laws may be obtained from the US Copyright Office by contacting them at one of the following: by mail, Library of Congress, C/O Copyright Office, 101 Independence Avenue, S.E. Washington, D.C. 20559-6000, on the web: or by phone: (202) 707-3000.

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