Under Copyright Law’s Fedora: Paul Zukofsky’s Copyright Notice as Critical Commentary

Paul Zukofsky, the son of poets Louis and Celia Zukofsky, has published an amazing Copyright Notice, in which he threatens to bring down a storm of litigation on anyone who dares to quote his parents without paying him the required fee. Describing his letter as “an obvious ‘do not trespass’ sign,” he says:

Despite what you may have been told, you may not use LZ’s words as you see fit, as if you owned them, while you hide behind the rubric of ‘fair use’. ‘Fair use’ is a very-broadly defined doctrine, of which I take a very narrow interpretation, and I expect my views to be respected. We can therefore either more or less amicably work out the fees that I demand; you can remove all quotation; or we can turn the matter over to lawyers, this last solution being the worst of the three, but one which I will use if I need to enforce my rights.

PZ may “expect [his] views to be respected,” but his expectations are not exactly the sort that are legally protected. Essentially, PZ is making a threat that either you do not use the work or pay him if you do, or else he will pursue you with vicious, expensive litigation that, while is unlikely to succeed on the merits, will bankrupt any grad student long before the merits could be reached.

This not an idle threat. Glancing around, I found a few examples of where scholarly commentary on Louis Zukofsky has been removed due to legally dubious copyright infringement claims made by PZ. He seems intent on making good on the threat contained in his Copyright Notice:

“In general, as a matter of principle, and for your own well-being, I urge you to not work on Louis Zukofsky, and prefer that you do not. Working on LZ will be far more trouble than it is worth.”

Despite P. Zukofsky’s assertions that his motivations are “almost purely economic,” and that he is merely protecting his financial interest when he “insist[s] on deriving income from that property,” I suspect money is not the true issue. First, it is quite obvious that the stance PZ is taking will lead to less income from the copyrights he now holds. By forbidding any substantive commentary on his parents, he is ensuring that their works will rush prematurely headlong into a grave of literary obscurity — as with no one talking about their poetry or discussing their works, there are no new potential fans to become intrigued enough to purchase a copy of the Zukofskys’ works for their own.

But second, and more importantly, the “Copyright Notice” is not at all some dry and dour admonishment, written in legalese, as you would expect with a true peremptory cease & desist notice, but rather it is a self-aware “irascible [and] recalcitrant” rant. It reveals too much about the author himself, such as his apparent daddy issues, (“I hardly give a damn what is said about my father (I am far more protective of my mother)”), to not have been intended as a form of literary speech in itself, separate from any legal warning it may also convey. This becomes most obvious in the following paragraph from the Notice, in which PZ mocks the uselessness of grad students and their dissertations on poetry:

I can perhaps understand your misguided interest in literature, music, art, etc. I would be suspicious of your interest in Louis Zukofsky, but might eventually accept it. I can applaud your desire to obtain a job, any job, although why in your chosen so-called profession is quite beyond me; but one line you may not cross i.e. never never ever tell me that your work is to be valued by me because it promotes my father. Doing that will earn my life-long permanent enmity. Your self-interest(s) I may understand, perhaps even agree with; but beyond that, in the words of e.e.cummings quoting Olaf: “there is some s[hit] I will not eat”.

e.e.cummings is, of course, still under copyright, and by all indications, PZ is not nearly so dense as to be oblivious to the irony of quoting another poet, in a diatribe about how no one should ever quote the Zukofskys. The use of the copyrighted quotation was almost certainly a deliberate act by PZ. Moreover, Louis Zukofsky himself wrote many volumes of critical commentary– the “so-called profession” PZ refers to with scorn is his father’s own profession — and many of the copyrights that PZ is trying to protect are themselves volumes of poetry criticism. So I do not believe that PZ could have been less than fully aware that his actions are an abuse of copyright, and contrary to his own father’s feelings on poetry.

Instead, PZ’s Copyright Notice is itself a form of literary criticism, a piece of scholarship about the Zukofskys’ works — albeit one that is, unfortunately, backed with the color of law.

Paul Zukofsky is brilliant and accomplished in his own right, and I actually cannot find it in me to condemn his instinct to protect and control the literary works of his parents. It is the asinine structure of our copyright laws that is to blame, for giving PZ the power to wield the American legal system against scholarship he dislikes, and to shut down any criticisms or homages of his parents that he disagrees with. Copyright’s only true purpose is to provide incentives for future creators — instead, perversely, under our laws today, copyright’s purpose has become to serve whatever whims the copyright holder might have, even if that whim is to have a poet’s work never be discussed again.


p.s. If you want to at least listen to P. Zukofsky’s works, a bunch are available online here.

p.p.s.: Or read LZ’s Poetry/For My Son When He Can Read. The closing paragraph takes on a new meaning in light of Paul Zukofsky’s attempts to prevent others from finding new meaning in LZ’s own poetry:

“Writing this Paul, for a time when you can read, I do not presume that you will read ‘me.’ That ‘me’ will be lost today when he says good night on your third birthday, and not missed tomorrow when he says good morning as you begin your fourth year. It took all human time to nurse those greetings. And how else can the poet speak them but as a poet.”