Just Enough to Be Dangerous
Periodically I meet someone in a specialized industry – like when I talk with a CPA, for example – and I come up with some factoid that makes them think I know their subject.
Here’s the thing: I probably don’t know your subject, whoever you are and whatever it is. I might know a fact, I might even know a bunch of things. But they’re probably disconnected from any meaningful context. I can’t generalize well, and making connections is just stabbing in the dark.
Case in point: copyright law.
As a general rule, I understood that copyrighted objects would go into the public domain 75 years after their publication assuming that the author is dead. “Public domain” means that any of us can do anything we want with the text. For example: Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Brahms. And considering that The Heart of a Dog was written in 1925, I have long figured that, given we’re 85 years past, our adaptation would be working within the public domain free and clear.
Now there are exceptions, or modifications. One such is translations. Bulgakov might be in the public domain – but only the original Russian satire. The translator (into whatever language) would hold the rights on the “new” work.
Andy and I have taken more than a free hand with our production. We’ve added a new character, we’ve pulled from U.S. history and introduced new plot points galore. There’s only one character who retains the original name, Doctor Bormenthal. And with the exception of about 5 lines of text, we’ve used nothing of the novel itself except its storyline. In other words, we clearly owe our story to Bulgakov (operating principle: public domain), and we owe no words to any translator.
This is where things get interesting. A few weeks ago, shortly after we posted our Kickstarter campaign, I was contacted by a film producer in Seattle who was wondering about our rights and how we got them. To which I thought, but it’s public domain, right?
So I contacted an attorney. Here are the complicating factors to which I can easily connect: Bulgakov, a Ukrainian, wrote this in 1925, under the Soviet Union, when “owning” property was a bit tetchy. Would there even be a literary estate? Would it have been the government? What would have happened after the USSR collapsed? The attorney was as flummoxed as I was and did some digging, and as per my request, sent me information on how I might learn this information on my own rather than send me the information. I’d rather have a sense of how to address this sort of thing in the future and not always have to rely on friends and goodwill. I also did some follow-up using the information that the Minnesota Fringe Festival passed on to us.
The attorney sent me to the Library of Congress and the Copyright Office (within the LOC). I did some more digging. Sure enough, the translations are copyrighted, but nothing about the original text. I continued my correspondence with the producer, who’s done a lot more homework already. To a degree, he has to – distribution matters in copyright infringement. We’re not going to perform this show for more than 500 people at the most, I expect, while a successful film, posted online, could be seen by 500 people in a matter of seconds.
Here’s some of the additional information he passed on:
- A link to a summary of current copyright law (much better than what I had in my noggin)
- Bulgakov’s family does hold his literary estate
- Bulgakov wrote The Heart of a Dog in 1925, but it wasn’t published until 1968 (in English, outside the USSR), and the 1980s (in Russian, in the USSR). Which means that the whole number-of-years count is problematized on multiple fronts.
All of which is to say – we may be in violation of copyright with our show. And we don’t really want to be.
If you know Frank Galati at Steppenwolf in Chicago – he’s got a stage adaptation of the script, so he must have got rights from someone – or if you know how to connect us with someone who’s connected to the literary estate, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Just like we would want someone else to do right by us, we want to right by Bulgakov.