To the Editor:
In Neil Compton’s thoroughgoing examination of . . . pop music [“Pop Music on Camera,” July], I find a parenthetical paragraph which suggests a common, important misunderstanding about the restricted use of copyrighted material.
Mr. Compton is comparing the doggerel of Bob Dylan with the fine craftsmanship of lyricists of an earlier period, as follows: “Even Bob Dylan, the Robert Burns of folk-rock, displays a surly indifference to both coherence and communication, using words as though they were brickbats or rotten eggs.”
But then, instead of supporting this judgment by appropriate citation, Mr. Compton feels barred from doing so by a misconception of his legal rights:” (At this point I should like to have quoted and analyzed a few lines from a typical Dylan song, but modern ‘folk’ artists have learned to copyright their least effusions, and Dylan is not just now in a mood to have his work criticized.)”
In other words, the writer plays safe against a possible suit for an infringement of copyright. In fact, he would have had nothing to fear from making the desired quotation, for under what is known as the doctrine of “fair use,” a person writing a piece of criticism, as in the present case, has a perfect right to quote copyrighted material, provided only that the quotation be used to illustrate the point he is making in his article and not for any ulterior purpose.
Such has always been the law, both in England and in this country, as the many decisions in our federal courts attest.
New York City
Mr. Compton writes:
I plead guilty not to cowardice but to ignorance. The original text of my article included one stanza from a Dylan song and a mildly acid critical analysis of it. Having a vague idea that permission to quote was necessary, I asked the COMMENTARY office to obtain it. The request was rather ungraciously denied by Dylan’s office. Naturally, I now regret that we didn’t let the original version stand.