If you read nothing else all year, read this.
Will Shetterly’s “The People Who Owned the Bible” is a tale of copyright gone amok. It’s the clearest, plainest, and funniest of all such works I’ve seen.
Note: My title is based on a New York Times story about copyright from a while back. Am I in trouble?
The People Who Owned the Bible
by Will Shetterly
It was time for another Mickey Mouse Copyright Extension to keep Disney’s star property out of the public domain. Somebody’s nephew had a bright idea. Instead of telling Congress to add the standard twenty years to the length of copyright, why not go for the big time? Extend copyright by 500 years.
Somebody’s niece added a smarter reason: A 500 year extension would let Disney track down Shakespeare’s heirs and buy all rights to the Bard. No matter how much the heirs wanted, the deal would pay for itself in no time. Every school that ever wanted to perform or study Shakespeare would have to send a check to Disney. Every newspaper or magazine or radio show that wanted to quote the Bard would have to send one, too. So Disney asked, and Congress gave, and the World Intellectual Property Organization followed Congress’s example. Disney paid off Shakespeare’s heirs, then used the Shakespeare profits to buy all rights from the heirs of Dumas, Dickens, Twain, Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, Bram Stoker and more. Once most of the films in every other studio’s library were subject to Disney’s copyright, they went bankrupt or became divisions of Disney.
And everyone was content, except for the storytellers who had to buy a Disney license or prove that their work owed nothing to the last 500 years of literature.
Then Jimmy Joe Jenkins’s DNA proved he was the primary descendent of the translators of the King James Version of the Bible. At first, Jimmy was satisfied with ten percent of the price of every KJV sold and 10 percent of every collection plate passed by any church that used the KJV. But when some churches switched to newer translations, Jimmy sicced his lawyers on all translations based on the KJV. That got him a cut of every Bible and every Christian service in English. Some translators claimed their work was based on older versions and should therefore be exempt, but none of them could afford to fight Jimmy in court.
So the churches grumbled and paid Jimmy his tithe, except for the Mormons, Christian Scientists, Seventh Day Adventists, Quakers, and Unitarian Universalists. Jimmy said their teachings hurt the commercial value of his property and refused to let them use the Bible. All of those groups dissolved, except for the Unitarian Universalists, who didn’t notice a change.
Then Jimmy took out all of the parts of the Bible that criticized rich people. Most of the surviving major churches didn’t notice that. But they did complain when Jimmy changed the traditional translations of Yusuf and Miryam to Jimmy Joe and Lulabelle, the name of his pretty new wife.
But when his Lulabelle ran off with a Bible salesman, Jimmy retired to one of his mansions and refused to let anyone print any more Bibles or use the Bible in any way that raised money.
The surviving churches sent delegates to Disney, begging them to get Congress to shorten the copyright period to put the KJV back in the public domain. But Disney had picked up the rights to a Restoration revenge tragedy that looked like a great vehicle for Britney Spears, so they made a counteroffer.
Congress extended copyright for an additional two thousand years, and the WIPO followed their example. Jimmy had to pay every dollar he had made to the Catholic Church, because the KJV was based on St. Jerome’s Vulgate version. In order to use the Bible, all Protestants became Catholic. Disney bought the copyrights and trademarks for Robin Hood, King Arthur, and the Arabian Nights.
And everyone was content, except for the storytellers who had to buy a Disney license or prove that their work owed nothing to the last two thousand years of myth and folklore.
Then Spike Greenbaum’s DNA proved she was the primary descendent of Jesus or his brother James. Spike agreed to let Catholics use their Bible after the Pope married her to her girlfriend. Then she said that since Catholic priests could be married or celibate for the first thousand years, and then had to be celibate for the next thousand, all priests should be married to at least one other person. And since Jesus had told his followers to sell their goods and give their money to the poor, every expensive thing owned by the Church had to be given up for AIDS research.
Catholics grumbled, but they took some satisfaction when the courts ruled that the Qur’an was a derivative work, and Spike would not let Saudi Arabia use it until they ruled that women could drive cars and men could not.
The Pope briefly considered recreating the church of Mithra, which would let his people keep worshipping on Sundays and celebrating a virgin birth on December 25th. But his wives pointed out that Rome’s Mithra Cult fell within the current period of copyright, and the primary heir was a charter member of NAMBLA who was preparing legal action against Spike for the rights to the Bible. So the Catholics sent delegates to Disney, begging them to shorten the copyright period to put Jesus’s words in the public domain.
But Disney had just picked up the rights to the Satyricon, which looked like great vehicle for Ashton Kutcher, so they made a counteroffer.
Congress extended copyright an additional twenty-five hundred years. Spike Greenbaum owed every dollar she had made to Israel, because St. Jerome’s translation was based on Hebrew sacred texts. To use the Bible, all Catholics became Jewish, and Disney bought the rights to the Iliad and the Odyssey.
And everyone was content, except for the storytellers who had to buy a Disney license or prove that their work did not owe anything to any story that had ever been part of human civilization.
Then Kurosh Jadali’s DNA proved he was the primary descendent of Zarathushtra, whose teachings about monotheism had been adopted by the Jews during the Babylonian Captivity. Kurosh said that since Zoroaster had taught religious tolerance, he would be glad to let the Jews use their sacred texts. In return, he only wanted a thousand Euros for each Torah that was published and three-fourths of any money that flowed through a synagogue. When the rabbis grumbled, Kurosh asked if they were communists who didn’t respect intellectual property.
So all of the branches of Judaism sent delegates to Disney, begging them to roll back the period of copyright so that Zarathushtra’s teachings would be in the public domain. But Disney had picked up the rights to the Epic of Gilgamesh, which looked like a great vehicle for Jim Carrey, so they made a counteroffer.
Congress extended copyright for an additional hundred thousand years. Kurosh Jadali had to give all his money to the United Nations, since everyone’s DNA proved they were the descendants of the first people to tell stories about gods. Disney bought the rights to a story that had been painted on a wall about some people with some animals that they thought would be a great vehicle for Mel Gibson.
And everyone was content, except for the storytellers who had to buy a Disney license or prove that their work did not owe anything to any story that had characters doing anything.
Until one day a woman came into the Disney offices and said thanks to the extension of the period of copyright law, patent law had been extended, too. And since her DNA proved that she was the primary descendent of the first person who cast shadows on a wall and told stories about them, she would like to speak to the C.E.O. about every movie and television show that Disney had thought it owned.
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