Asking Permission, or, My Education in Copyright Law

Medieval library

I’d thought I was done. It had taken me five years to write my first book, a densely researched work of immersion and memoir set in the context of yoga in the 19th and 20th centuries. I’d conducted dozens of hours of interviews and cited over a hundred texts and unpublished letters. It sold as a completed manuscript and took another year to get through edits, production, and blurbs. Who knew there was still more to overcome. And who knew that what I learned from the experience would, many years later, help me confront a traumatic and unspoken fact from my family’s past.

I remember the email from my editor when we were about to put it to bed. Legal would surely have a problem with the Fleetwood Mac quote. She pointed me to my publisher’s handbook From Manuscript to Printed Book, which stated that only fifty words could be quoted from a prose work without permissions. More starkly, songs and poetry without permissions and not in the public domain would be pulled. “Does that include the title?” I remember protesting. Everybody knows the song “Rhiannon,” I’d thought at the time—perhaps we could cite just that. Still, we reworked the section to reference not even the title, burying a paraphrase in an arcane aside so obscured that a reader would have a hard time picking it out today. 

Next, there was a problem with the epigraph. I’d taken lines from a song performed by my favorite artist at the time, PJ Harvey, “Is That All There Is?” I knew that Peggy Lee had also performed this evocative song (since included in an episode of Mad Men). It was a perfect metaphor for my book, about the veil being lifted on my romance with the yoga tradition and on my admiration for a flawed guru. “Is That All There Is?” had been written by the blockbuster songwriting duo from the 1950s and ‘60s Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, most famous for having written Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog.” 

“Song lyrics can be very expensive,” wrote my editor’s assistant drily. My editor told me not to even bother, but I did query the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), the rights clearinghouse for music lyrics. I learned that citing just five lines would cost $2500. We agreed to drop the epigraph. Instead, my editor approved a new line worked in to chapter 14. “But I wondered,” I wrote. “like the Peggy Lee song, Is that all there is?” 

My permissions problems didn’t stop there, though. During my research in India, my subject, the then octogenarian guru B.K.S Iyengar, had granted me full access to his archives, which reached back to the 1920s. I doubted even he was aware of the riches held within. My discovery of several letters written to him in the 1950s solidified the thesis for my book. One letter in particular was from a musician, the world class violinist and conductor Sir Yehudi Menuhin. Intensely personal and heartbreaking, it referenced Menuhin’s frustration with Iyengar’s expectations of their friendship and latent resentment over the power dynamic in their 50-year relationship. This letter was central to my book, and I needed to site it at length to back up the book’s argument.

How was I to know that rights to letters belong to the letter writer, not to the recipient? I actually cried when I heard the news. Pulling that letter from the book would be like pulling out its spine. I’d worked so hard to acquire the letter and, no less, Iyengar’s permission to use it. While the recipient owns the piece of paper, the writer of the letter, or their estate, controls permissions. Since Menuhin was deceased, those rights had passed to his widow, Lady Diana Menuhin.

I found her address and wrote her a heartfelt letter explaining the letter and my need of it. She wrote back and, to my relief and amazement, not only granted me permission, but elaborated on the rift between the two men and its causes. In so doing she validated my book’s thesis. 

This emboldened me to approach the estate holders of the other letter writers whom I’d quoted, all of whom similarly embroidered upon the themes that I’d picked out of the correspondences.

For my second nonfiction book, a meditation on memory that, in part, portrays my mother in 1970s New York City, the legal queries came as less of a surprise, but I still ran into some snags. 

I wanted to cite the O’Jays song “Love Train.” I remembered how it used to boom from portable radios on the city streets, like a soundtrack for the era. But I could only use two lines, and the way the line breaks fell in the published lyrics, those lines were just a few words each. 

The epigraph, which I’d chosen in part thinking it was old enough to avoid public domain issues, was from a 1935 translation of Homer’s Odyssey. The title for the book, in fact, referenced the chapter cited—the Lotus Eaters. In checking many translations, it was T. E. Shaw’s in particular that highlighted the link between “lotos” (euphoria-inducing drugs, in most interpretations) and the desire to forget. I hadn’t realized that public domain covered only works published in 1924 and earlier. Once more, my book’s thesis was at stake. In the book, I linked traumas in my mother’s childhood to her lifelong fogginess and tendency to avoid the past. When, later, she had Alzheimer’s Disease, I felt the need to probe her traumatic past. 

But working with my editor, we avoided legal issues and came up with a version of the apt passage from the preferred translation that was fewer than 100 words. I had used three poetry citations, all specific to memory. One, from Celan’s poem “Ashglory,” was often interpreted as expressing the conundrum of children of survivors. His lines were very short, and we could only use two. Citations from Sylvia Plath and Edna St. Vincent Millay—both exploring the persona of Persephone, who retreats to the underworld to enjoy the bliss of forgetting—were likewise shortened. 

I knew, though, that I still had to approach the daughter of the writer of letters to my mother written in the 1960s. These letters said more about the author than they did about my mother, but the excerpts helped me reveal my mother in my book. The daughter agreed and granted permission, which led to many conversations where we shared reminiscences, tried to uncover the source of a rift between the two friends, and reframed the cited passages slightly to more accurately represent the letter writer.

However, with all of these permissions I was seeking, I realized I’d neglected one important piece of unfinished business in the manuscript. It had legal implications, and touched on a familial secret that had been kept for decades.

In a court document from their divorce, my father had hinted that my mother had had an affair before their breakup. I’d asked my mother about it on a few occasions. She’d been evasive the first time, and, the second, she’d already had Alzheimer’s and couldn’t remember. I’d never asked my father. In my manuscript, I talked about the divorce record and the insinuation within, but I’d never felt bold enough to do that reporter’s due diligence when it came to this sensitive personal matter and fact check it. But after these other monumental legal hurdles, it felt simple and obvious: I should, bluntly, just ask the question. So, I called my dad. I told him simply that I was fact checking the book and wanted to know if, in his view, my mother had had an affair.

“Yes,” he said matter-of-factly. “With that guy she married (her second husband). I think so. That was my understanding at the time. Yes. Definitely.”

Then we chatted about the weather. Somehow, with this confirmation, the uncomfortable secrecy lifted. My book, in fact, was about uncovering family secrets, and in doing so releasing the burden of intergenerational trauma—we don’t have to carry around our ancestors’ guilt and shame, after all. 

It was a vivid reminder: always double check. Legal issues or not, that follow-up might lead to exciting new elaborations on the facts. 


Elizabeth Kadetsky, winner of the 2019 Juniper Prize in Creative Nonfiction, is the author of The Memory Eaters, a lyric memoir in essays forthcoming from U. Mass Press in April 2020. Her three previous books include two works of fiction—a novella (On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World, Nouvella, 2015) and a story collection (The Poison that Purifies You, C&R Press, 2014)—and a researched memoir set in India (First There Is a Mountain, Little Brown, 2004, and Dzanc Books rEprint Series, 2019).

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.