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Blogger beware – the battle over Bill Bryson’s words

Thursday 17 October 2013
Blogger beware – the battle over Bill Bryson’s words

Steve Keenan

WTM Social Travel Market

In 1994, travel writer Mike Gerrard interviewed illustrious author Bill Bryson. The article duly appeared in Gerrard's own publication, a magazine called Passport. Journalist does interview, gets published, end of.

Except that two decades later, Mike brushed the dust off the interview, thought there was more that could be made of Bryson's interview and decided to re-publish as a Kindle e-book, entitled Bill Bryson: The Accidental Traveller, running to 27 pages and some 8,000 words.

He made clear it was a reprint of a 1994 interview at Bryson's home, and included links to the author's books on Amazon. Initial sales were good and it appeared a good example of an enterprising journalist making good use of new mediums to effectively re-sell his interview.

I'd show you a photo of the book but, yesterday, Amazon suspended sales of his e-book following a complaint from Bryson and his lawyers. They claim infringement of copyright. And therein lies a worrying tale for any freelance, staff journalist or blogger - do you own the rights to the words given you in an interview?

According to Bryson's publishers Transworld, a division of Random House, you may not. Transworld wrote to Gerrard stating that Bryson did not authorise additional publication of the interview, or sale as an e-book beyond the contemporaneous interview for the magazine.

Furthermore, Transworld's lawyers argue that Bryson remains the owner of the words spoken by him. Which begs an almighty question. If you interview somebody for a specific publication, does that mean you can not use those words elsewhere, or at a later date?

The implications are obvious. As Gerrard says: "If that were the case, no journalist could ever quote anything anyone ever said to them, because the person speaking the words owned the copyright in them. There would be thousands of breaches of copyright every day, in newspapers and magazines, in the radio and on TV, and online.

"Bill Bryson himself quotes conversations with people throughout his travel books, frequently to ridicule them. Does he breach their copyright in the words they spoke? Does he ask their permission?"

Gerrard did offer to accede to one demand from the lawyers, to change the image of Bryson on the Kindle e-book, on the grounds that some Amazon customers may have believed that the e-book was written by Bryson. But he refused to concede on the request to take down the e-book - a decision now taken out of his hands by Amazon.

Gerrard is consulting lawyers at the British Guild of Travel Writers, of which he is a member, as well as The Society of Authors.

In the meantime, he points to common law copyright in the case of Falwell v Penthouse, which states: "Plaintiff's claim of copyright presupposes that every utterance he makes is a valuable property right. If this were true, the courts would be inundated with claims from celebrities and public figures all of whom may argue that their expressions should also be afforded the extraordinary protection of copyright."

It's a fascinating debate, not a view that Gerrard might share. He has taken to Facebook with broadsides against a man whose public persona as a cuddly, humorous observer of travelling life Gerrard might now question.

We await developments. But the outcome of this literary spat may well have ramifications for us all.

Steve Keenan is co-founder of Travel Perspective, a journalistic-led consultancy that advises travel brands on how best to tell their story through digital and social media.


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