Who Owns This Sentence? A History of Copyrights and Wrongs by David Bellos & Alexandre Montagu - review by Nicholas Clee

Nicholas Clee

Quote at Your Own Risk

Who Owns This Sentence? A History of Copyrights and Wrongs


Mountain Leopard Press 384pp £25

Those writing in Literary Review and other journals work under the assumption that they may lift passages from the books under review to illustrate their points and give readers a flavour of the authors’ latest offerings. This, despite the forbidding notice on the book’s copyright page: ‘No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in any retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means … without the prior permission of the copyright owners and the publishers.’ The warning has the proviso ‘except as allowed by law’. We take this clause to mean that quoting a few brief passages will not violate the much-disputed concept of ‘fair use’. Our chief worry, if we do not like the book in question, is not to overtax another disputed concept, ‘fair comment’.

Academics writing about T S Eliot’s The Waste Land (itself, of course, full of borrowings from various sources) could scarcely function if they were unable to demonstrate their arguments with lines from the poem. They have been doing so, often quite liberally, for about one hundred years. How then was the late Valerie Eliot, guardian of her husband’s estate, able in the mid-1980s to prevent the biographer Peter Ackroyd from quoting more than a tiny number of examples from Eliot’s work, and nothing at all from his letters and unpublished correspondence? And how in 1990 was she also able to prevent the cartoonist Martin Rowson from using any quotes at all from The Waste Land in his comic-book adaptation of the poem? 

David Bellos and Alexandre Montagu, authors of Who Owns This Sentence?, do not mention these examples, but they do cite another oddity, from the copyright page of ‘a recent novel’: ‘Excerpt from The Waste Land … Copyright the Estate of T S Eliot. Reproduced by permission of Faber and

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