Thursday, September 15, 2005

Pray: Re: Ho’ Compassion?

Garrison Keillor, who before he became a celebrity used to have a detectable sense of humor, has had his lawyers bully a Minneapolis blogger with a “Cease and Desist” letter, for selling t-shirts emblazoned with a parody of the name of “Prairie Home Companion” the weekly radio program that launched Keillor’s fame.

How pathetic! How supremely IRONIC —we want to smugly whine — that Keillor should be so unable to tolerate parody, even though it may be offensive to him.

For those two or three of you in the reading public that don’t know, Prairie Home Companion is the name of a radio show that was presented by Minnesota Public Radio starting back in the 1980’s. I believe Keillor may have developed the show through a production company he owns, but the show gained much of its audience from its distribution by public radio.

That’s “PUBLIC” radio, folks. Supported by our tax dollars.

So Garrison Keillor, boy genius, sun climbing over the eastern horizon, came up with the concept, wrote many of the scripts and jokes, and performed as the Master of Ceremonies. He had some pretty good material. If only he hadn’t insisted on singing with every musician that came onstage, just because he was the star... But it is important to realize that a good measure of the show's popularity resulted from its being just about the only regular nationally-broadcast hour-long variety / entertainment show going. For some reason, the format had been mostly abandoned by the commercial networks.

By the mid-90’s he had a fair amount of fame, and good press. People were very sympathetic to his abrupt return from Denmark when things didn’t work out despite an extended anticipation and planning of his retirement.

The key to the enormous volume of comments on the website of the blogger, is that sometime during the Clinton era, Keillor became a bitter, humorless mooncalf.

By that, I mean he changed from universal gentle humor celebrating the commonplace experiences that define a community, to a mean-spirited opportunistic insulting sneering humor based primarily on not much more than saying mean things about conservatives. Things that divide rather than unite. It must have been an easy slide down that slope. There have always been audiences that laugh at someone who says nothing more than “Boy, what about that REAGAN!?!?!” It just doesn’t require much effort to write that sort of monologue. Maybe he just got tired.

Now I come to think of it, if you’ve got an audience that responds that way, why fight it? Why write ANY joke that depends on wit, or clever manipulation of logic, with a surprise twist or revelation or sudden glimpse into a truth we hadn’t anticipated? If you have an audience that will laugh out of simple relief that they are among others who share their orientation, why risk offending them by attempting humor that does not conspicuously reinforce that sense?

Well, on reflection I realize I’m just taking shots at Keillor for acting like a typical liberal (i.e., utter hypocrite, intellectually sloppy, and WRONG WRONG WRONG.) I am nothing if not even-handed.

In fact, it is true of patents, trademarks, and copyrighted intellectual properties, that the owner has the responsibility of challenging new products — especially COMMERCIAL ones — that bear any resemblance to yours. Otherwise, if someone later comes along blatantly making pirate copies, you run the risk of the court telling you that, since you made no attempt to challenge previous possible infringements, you have forfeited any rights you might have had.

Evidently this does not depend on having gotten a judgment that the earlier instances were after all, infringements. Just that you’ve established a record of defending the patent/trademark/copyright.

What a world...
My brother and I fetched up against this kind of thing when we had a tiny bit of publicity over a comic book we were preparing for the State of Virginia as one element of a package (consisting otherwise of an animated TV spot, radio scripts, newspaper quizzes, etc.) promoting responsible drinking habits by teenagers. (Seem like a waste of time to you?) The comic book featured a character we named “Soberman” – actually a fairly nerdish teenager who, seeing friends drinking irresponsibly at a party, would slip into a back room, change into his costume, and re-emerge to quote statistics, platitudes and exhortations. Real knee-slapper. Well, actually, there were a few funny bits. He rescued one girl from her drunk date, dropped the guy off, then went parking with her.

His costume was pajamas with footies, a towel knotted at the throat for a cape, and a block-letter “S” in a circular patch on his chest.

Somehow, a reporter sent out from the local newspaper expecting to find yet another blatant mis-use of public monies, thought the campaign was droll, and wrote some nice things. Two weeks later, after the wire services had picked up her story, we were getting requests for reprints of the comic from as far away as Johannesburg, South Africa, before the project was even delivered.

This was just after the release of the first blockbuster “Superman” movie starring Christopher Reeve. We soon received a formal letter from the law firm representing the vast communications conglomerate owner of the Superman property, passed along to us from the State of Virginia. The letter said they felt our Soberman character was an infringement of their rights in the Superman character, and asked us to refrain from distributing the materials we were developing.

The State of Virginia bureaucrats instantly stopped the project, and told the lawyers they should be talking to us, the two penniless brothers still living at home with their aged parents trying desperately to salvage a few coppers of profit on a tiny little budget. (*sniff*)

We had a lawyer at the time (Mr. Al Teich, Jr.) who was one of those attorneys that have made me actually bite my tongue and not tell lawyer jokes, because he was so fundamentally and inexplicably generous, meticulous, cheerful and helpful. I had a brief phone talk with him, and following his advice called the complainant’s lawyers. The fellow at the other end, whose letterhead alone cost more than my education, told me they were more or less obliged to challenge any new character that was brought to their attention that might even remotely be perceived to infringe upon the Superman character.

That was it. He didn’t threaten, didn’t specify any deadline, no “or else.”

I cobbled together a reply, mostly for the benefit of the folks at the Virginia agency for whom we were working. The gist of it was that we felt our character Soberman was distinct in every detail from those of Superman; that after all the word “superman” had been in use in English for over a century, long before the appearance of the character; that no-one may copyright a single letter of the alphabet and restrict its use by others; that no-one can patent or copyright the concept of a cape, since it had been an item of clothing worn by tens of millions of people for centuries; in any case, our contract gave all rights for the character to the state; we were only being paid for the production work. The note ended with the statement that in light of these facts, we felt that their charge of infringement was damaging our relationship with the client and asked them to send a retraction letter to our client. Blah blah boilerplate blah.

After a few weeks, there was only silence from the complainant’s lawyers, so the State in the fullness of time decided they could proceed with distribution, and we could be paid for our work.

It was pointed out to me years later that the challenge was not something that would likely have been pursued. They weren’t really concerned that our puny little contract was siphoning cash from their coffers. It’s the principle that they are obliged to establish a record of their willingness to defend their copyright, against the possibility of real piracy that must be dealt with vigorously.

Two important LESSONS for me during that episode:

1) In the midst of the dreary exchange, I found myself asked to explain certain fundamental principles of statutory copyright and how they applied to the present situation, by the then-assistant attorney-general of the state. I had come to my understanding only by reading a book titled “This Business of Music.” Even then I grasped that this doesn’t mean I’m smart and he was dumb. It only means that intellectual property law generally, and copyright specifically, are not covered in many law school courses. It’s a specialty. I thought the guy was very gracious to admit that he was not familiar with some of the details, and discuss it calmly and rationally.

2) When the wolves came calling, the government bureaucrats INSTANTLY said, “There, go kill the contractors. They’re the ones you want.” There was no consultation with their own legal staff to see if the accusation had any merit. On the strength of a piece of fancy stationery and the cost of one first class stamp, they stopped the presses, cut the citizens loose, and went about their business.

So FINALLY, the worst thing about all this is that knowing what I know, I am obliged to give Garrison Keillor and his lawyers the benefit of the doubt and say they aren’t really behaving horribly horribly...


If they actually go ahead and take some action against the guy, I take it back. That would show they really are a bunch of dirty rats.


Blogger Chuck Olsen said...

FYI, I’m selling my “A Prairie Ho Companion” t-shirt on eBay. I write for and am currently job-searching, i.e. broke. It’s the only shirt for sale that I know of:

12:06 AM  

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