A travel writer, Mike Gerrard, is in potential legal trouble with Bill Bryson.
Mike interviewed Bill a few years ago, and recently released this interview as an ebook. Bryson’s publishers have demanded that he withdraw the book from sale, claiming that Bill owns the copyright to the words he spoke that day.
Let’s explore the implications of this for a moment.
If you or I speak, or write, we automatically own the copyright to our words, unless we assign them away to a third party. If we take this to its furthest extent, it would be impossible for journalists to operate. Every interview we do would be accompanied by a copyright assignment form, which our interviewee would have to sign. Imagine a press conference!
Clearly, when someone consents to an interview, or a press conference, they are implying permission for their words to be published by a third party. So Mike is in the clear?
Maybe not. When I write my books, I retain copyright to my words. But I licence my publisher to publish those words in a book. I can’t then go and reprint the book elsewhere. And my publisher can’t take some of my content and republish it elsewhere. I assign my rights to publish to the publisher, in the context of the book.
Perhaps an interview is similar. A subject isn’t signing away the copyright to their words, they are just licencing the journalist to use these words in the context of an interview. For the journalist to then re-use some or all of these words in another context may fall outside this loose agreement.
It’s a grey area. Many of my interviews are conducted without a specific article or publication in mind. There’s a sense of trust between interviewer and interviewee that the quotes will be used appropriately, and in the right context. Legal action like this turns the whole situation very messy.