Rights, Lou Reed and Susan Boyle

I’m not celebrity-obsessed.  I’m barely celebrity-interested.  As such, excuse me if this rundown of recent events lacks the feel of a well-written gossip column.

  • There is a television show called America’s Got Talent, which is a US-based knock-off of a show called Britain’s Got Talent.
  • Former Britain’s Got Talent runner-up, Susan Boyle, was supposed to appear on America’s Got Talent.  She was planning to sing Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”.
  • A few hours before Boyle’s planned performance, the folks at America’s Got Talent learned that Lou Reed refused to grant permission to sing his song.
  • Susan Boyle found the news very hard to take, decided she didn’t have enough time to rehearse an alternate song, went into some kind of crying fit and hopped on the next available plane to London.

I learned these things today afterI noticed Lou Reed’s name in a news headline.  I consider myself a Lou Reed fan.

I don’t worship at the altar of the grizzled singer with a questionable voice.  In fact, there’s a nice thick chunk of the Lou Reed catalog that I find extremely dull.  However, when Lou Reed is good…  Well, he’s outstanding.  I personally believe that “Romeo Had Juliette” is one of the ten best songs of the 20th century, “Dirty Boulevard” is awesome for at least 472 distinct reasons and it’s rock and roll sacrilege to ignore the influence of his work with Velvet Underground.

Lou Reed has allowed a variety of other artists to cover “Perfect Day” and the only available explanation for his unwillingness to extend the same courtesy to Susan Boyle is that he doesn’t consider himself part of her fan base.

It seems arbitrary and capricious, as they say, for old Lou to send Boyle bawling and to send 100 members of a children’s choir (and the little kids go do-de-do-de-do) home without a chance to back her on TV.  There may be a much more involved story underlying the refusal but the fact remains that Reed has even sold the song to TV commercials before getting tight-fisted with this talent show almost-winner.  It’s hard to believe it’s a question of artistic integrity, you know?

At this point, you may be wondering what in the hell all of this gossipy Lou Reed/Susan Boyle nonsense has to do with freelance writing and freelance writers.  Fair question.  Here’s the answer, in four parts.


Lou has ’em.  Susan wanted ’em.  Lou said no.

Those of us who are in the business of creating things can retain rights to our creations.  The world does not require you to allow some despicable media figure to recite your work on a television program.  You are under no obligation to allow some jackass-administered website to republish your work.

If you behaved smartly and maintained appropriate rights to your work (which will vary based on the work in question and your approach to business, natch), you can exercise them and keep the Susan Boyles of the world from crooning your tunes and the made-for-Adsense sites of the world from copying your columns.

The Protection of Rights.

Lou Reed has a wee bit more muscle than most FWJ readers.  We may all operate under the same laws, but folks like you and me probably aren’t going to be approached by a team of producers to discuss the terms of a rights sale.  We’re more likely to find out that some goober went Susan Boyle on us without giving the courtesy of a warning.

That puts the onus for discovering rights violations on our shoulders.  It also puts us in the annoying position of becoming enforcers of our own rights.

Choosing Your Spots.

I could probably find at least 3,000 different instances in which Lou Reed’s intellectual property rights have been infringed upon by this evening using Google alone.  Lyrics to his songs appear on countless websites.  Unauthorized bootlegs abound.  Even the link to “Romeo Had Juliette” provided above may very well represent a misappropriation of Reed’s work.

To my knowledge, Lou isn’t staying up night after night dropping the hammer on each and every infringer.  For whatever reason, he felt strongly enough about Susan Boyle potentially doing a Richard Cheese job on “Perfect Day” to shut it down, but he’s not up in arms about all of those made-for-Adsense and ringtone CPA sites that steal his words.

We have rights.  We can make an effort to enforce those rights.  The question of whether the effort necessary to enforce them is justified is a different story.  Most of us approach it from a cost-benefit analysis perspective.  Can I justify spending X minutes/hours shutting down a copyright thief when I should be writing and earning a living?  At the same time, there’s a little voice yelling at many of us, asking where it’s all going to end if we don’t take stands in the face of theft.

A Frightening Attitude.

I scanned the comments regarding the Reed/Boyle story and was reminded that most people don’t see things the way most writers see them.  The prevailing attitude (at least online) toward copyright and intellectual property is built on an “anything goes” foundation that completely fails to recognize the importance of rights protection or its underlying justifications.

Luckily, the law isn’t reflective of that perspective–at least not yet.  A shift in social mores and a growth of the anti-rights attitude, however, does seem to set the stage for a day when Alvin and the Chipmunks can do a straight cover of “Satellite of Love” without Lou Reed seeing a dime or even receiving a thank you card.

The other frightening aspect of those comments was the fact that many people knew who Susan Boyle is but had no idea that someone named Lou Reed ever existed.  But that’s a different scary story.

Now, for a few questions.  I wonder how the rest of the FWJ world approaches some of these issues.

  • Do you make a point of maintaining and protecting rights to your work?
  • Under what circumstances do you willingly sign away the rights to your work?
  • Do you actively look for misappropriation of work to which you have maintained rights?
  • When you find acts of theft, under what circumstances do you take action?
  • Do you let some acts of misappropriation slide, determining that exercising your rights is too much effort?
  • Are you secretly happy that no one had to listen to Susan Boyle sing Lou Reed?

You can skip the last one, though I am curious.


5 responses
  1. Required (obey!) Avatar
    Required (obey!)

    I would LOVE to hear Susan Boyle sing Perfect Day, accompanied only by Lou on electric guitar.

    I don’t think you had enough facts about the rights situation regarding that planned performance when you wrote this. Fact checking is good even when there is no boss demanding it.

    A nearby local, small town bar that featured local acoustic performers once in a while got a scary letter from the “Rights” overlords, demanding cash for each and every copyrighted song performed for 20 to 50 people on any given Saturday night in their place. The overlords claimed that they were snding out spies and would prosecute. The nice couple who run the place stopped booking live music.

    I have seen unsubstantiated reports that the same overlords have confronted an organization to which the Girls Scouts of America belongs, demanding $ for songs sung around campfires. That is not hyperbole.

    The old-media-based, corporately-skewed intellectual property laws are as unjust as they are unworkable, as they stand. You might as well attempt to enforce laws against plate tectonics. Oh sure you’ll ruin some lives and enrich some lawyers, but you’ll fail insofar as your crusade aims at justice rather than acquisition..

  2. Damaria Senne Avatar

    Who’s Lou Reed? Eh.. sorry. Just couldn’t resist that scary story.

  3. poch Avatar

    I once had one of my blog post plagiarized. The blogger at least mentioned my name but didn’t give a backlink. What irritated me was that she edited my post.
    I blogged about this thinking that would be enough punishment. I don’t mind my works being copied as long as I’m given credit the right way.

    I still wonder why would Reed not allow Boyle to sing his song. Isn’t that selfish?

  4. Carson Avatar

    @Required (Obey!): In my defense (as if I really needed one), the info re: the rights negotiation for AGT was pretty damn sparse at the time of this post’s writing. A quick check revealed no add’l info of value, for what it’s worth. Besides, I basically used the Reed/Boyle thing as nothing more than a jumping off point to mention a few topics of potential interest to writers and a few questions of the FWJ audience.

    With respect to your “rights overlords”, I would suggest that those seemingly heavy-handed techniques may not seem out of line to the people who actually spend their time and energy creating something of apparent value. In my mind, there is a good argument for choosing one’s spot when exercising intellectual property rights and the instances you mention may be good examples of when the iron fist should stay in one’s pocket. I’m also uncomfortable with rather draconian penalties for some seemingly minor infractions and with companies like RightHaven, which searches out violations involving the work of others, purchases the copyright to said materials and then sues the alleged infringer.

    These aren’t black and white issues (legally or otherwise).

    Oh, and the thought of a Reed/Boyle duet is a wee bit creepy to me.

    @Damaria: Boyle has a great story, but there’s something freaky about a world where more people know of her than Lou. I saw so many comments of a “who in the he** is Lou Reed. Never heard of the guy” nature…

    @Poch: Attribution is always a good thing. Necessary but often far short of sufficient.

    I won’t pretend to read Lou’s mind but I have to think there was some motive for the refusal that went past, “I’m not a fan.” On the other hand, he’s a notorious grump, so who knows?

  5. Tony Avatar

    Lou Reed wrote a song some time ago, though it could have been quite recently.

    That is not the point here. It’s HIS song, and it means SOMETHING to him first and foremost.

    Why should he allow HIS song to be sullied by some big TV show’s latest cheap sensation? This is about the context.

    Lou didn’t write that song with that show and that singer in mind, moreover he had something completely different in mind. If he doesn’t like it, it’s his prerogative to say that he doesn’t like it, but in this case a simple ‘no’ suffices.

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