Quotes, Questions, & Quandries

In Blogging by Emerson Jane BrowneLeave a Comment

One of the things that I am enjoying about blogging is the responses I receive as I try to make sure that I have permission to publish artwork and that I am crediting and quoting people correctly.  Most artists and writers are very gracious in giving me permission to use their artwork here on my blog as long as I link back to their websites. Only very occasionally will I come across an artist who is more constricted about the use of their work.

Researching permissions and attributions, and blogging in general have lead me to learn more about copyright law. In researching the quote on the previous post the two trails crossed in an unexpected way.

When I began researching the quote used in the previous post I found it attributed to many people.  I posted a query on the forums at Quoteland.com to try and find the original author.  (Quoteland is a great site for anyone who uses quotes frequently or for occasional help in finding a quote to fit a purpose or identify the author of a quote.)

One answer to my Quoteland query attributed the quote to Patrick Overton.  Another response attributed the quote to two other people; one of whom is a friend of mine.  In addition to emailing Patrick Overton I also emailed my friend to find out what she knew about the quote.  The story got more interesting and involved than I had expected.  And it continues to get even more interesting! Read the update below.

Patrick Overton responded with the following nice reply:

Hi Jane

Yes, I am the author.  It was first published in my collection of poetry called "The Leaning Tree" published in 1976.

No, it is not the correct version.  You can find the correct version (and correct lineage) at my website patrickoverton.com.

The poem is entitled "Faith."  The correct version is:

When you come to the edge of all the light you have
And take the first step into the darkness of the unknown
You must believe one of two things will happen:

There will be something solid for you to stand upon
or, you will be taught how to fly.

Thanks for asking – I always appreciate someone taking the time to find out the truth and find out the actual words/lineage of the poem. 

Patrick Overton

I sent Patrick's response on to my friend and received the following surprise back:

Hi Jane,

Nice reply.

That quote, unfortunately, got attributed to me and resulted in a lawsuit, despite my never claiming to have said it. 

Ironically, that poem also appears, unattributed to him, in at least two other books.  I once heard that a power company, I believe, had sent it out in their bills with no author credited and it just started spreading.

Both of the people here, Patrick Overton and my friend, are excellent authors.  I was sad to see that there had been a lawsuit, especially given the circumstances.  But on the other hand I can see where Overton would be rightfully frustrated with his words being attributed to other people. 

I feel attribution to artists of all types is extremely important.  It honors the art and it honors the person.  I am one of the only bloggers I know who actually footnotes posts.  I do this to acknowledge, attribute, link, and thank my sources.  

This problem regarding the "Faith" quote's accidental attribution and the resulting lawsuit have brought up some questions for me.  Now granted, I do not have all the facts straight at this point and have sent a request for some clarifying information. 

UPDATE 2/15/2010:

Patrick Overton  contacted me because he found this post recently; a year after it was written. 

According to Patrick, there was never any lawsuit.  In fact, he was fairly distressed to think that my friend recalled a lawsuit.  He said he did have his lawyers write her a letter.  Patrick said that his lawyers drew up a contract for the use of the
poem and that she paid about $250 for the use, which includes the
use of it in her new edition of her book – where it is attributed
correctly.  Patrick said $250 was about a quarter of what he spent in lawyer fees.

To maintain a copyright an artist, writer, or a business must
be able to prove that they have taken action to correct the attribution each and
every time it is discovered that the copyright has been broken. 

In this day and age with the ubiquity of the Internet and the information and misinformation it contains it seems ever more easy to be quoted as well as to be misquoted.  Equally, it seems that it could be easy to have quotes misattributed to a person and have the misattribution spread on and on through the viral nature of the web.  If people can be sued for a misattribution how can a person protect themselves from that?  Lawsuits are expensive even when the defendant is in the right!

There is another question at hand too.  When is a quote altered enough that it is someone else's or at least no longer the original owner's?  In the post below I used a quote that is clearly derived from Patrick Overton's "Faith".  I prefer it over the "correct" quote above.  Of course, I attributed it to Patrick because they are essentially the same but if I just attributed it without noting that it is a variation I would be misquoting him. 

In seeking to understand copyright law a little better I recently took two great workshops from John Grant, an attorney in Seattle who specializes in "copyright law for creative people and businesses".  He has also written some good articles on the subject. 

However we did not cover the legality of misquoting or misattributions!  For the moment, I am left to wonder.

Emerson Jane Browne
I am Emerson Jane Browne. I write about Brains, Apps, & Productivity, and many other aspects of Life. I speak to TBI support groups, speak and teach workshops at tech, music, and writer conferences. I consult with organizations on strategic planning and building a strong community.