You may have read about the legal battle between Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe and rapper 50 Cent. If not, the quick version is that Achebe took offense at the title of the rapper’s upcoming autobiographical movie: Things Fall Apart --the same as Achebe’s most famous piece of fiction.
Achebe’s legal team won, and the movie has been retitled. I find it interesting that the case didn’t go to court. If it had, there’s a likely chance a judge would have allowed 50 Cent’s use of Things Fall Apart, for one simple reason: titles can’t be copyrighted.
It’s true. While in some cases titles can be trademarked (franchises that go beyond books, or series titles), copyright law deems that the titles alone of things like books or songs --unlike their contents-- can’t be copyrighted.
That’s why I can say I’ve read Twilight. Not the Stephenie Meyer hoop-de-doo, but Elie Wiesel’s. It’s why there are at least a dozen romance novels called Everlasting. And it’s why “Crazy” is an entirely different song depending on whether you’re listening to Patsy Cline, Aerosmith or Gnarls Barkley.
To make matters more ridiculous, Achebe’s title comes from “The Second Coming,” a poem by Yeats (and one of my favorites). Achebe wasn’t alone in mining Yeats for titles. In fact, so many authors have taken their titles from the same poem that a friend of mine jokingly refers to “The Second Coming” as “that poem made out of book titles.”
Just a few titles off the top of my head gleaned from the very same bit o’ Yeats:
The Second Coming by Walker Percy
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
What Rough Beast by William Watkins
The Blood Dimmed Tide by Rennie Airth
The Widening Gyre by Robert Parker
And lest you think “Well, that’s all fine and good, but Achebe’s only worried about the specific phrase “things fall apart"...Things Fall Apart has been borrowed from Yeats by more people for more titles than any other piece of Yeats ever.
Things Fall Apart is the title of several works of both fiction and non-fiction. It’s the name of a little-known post-apocalyptic novel and a book about Iraqui civil war. It’s the name of both a Star Trek novel and an issue of The Justice League.
Maybe Achebe’s legal team is only concerned about non-book use of the title, then? In that case, they need to send cease-and-desists to the web comic Things Fall Apart, and stop NBC and ABC from selling or re-running episodes of The West Wing or Ugly Betty, both of which have episodes called “Things Fall Apart.” The BBC is also in trouble.
80's songstress Cristina Monet recorded a song called "Things Fall Apart," as did indie rockers Built to Spill and London band Serafina (plus other folks you've never heard of.) The Roots won a Grammy in 1999 for a song from their album...you guessed it: Things Fall Apart.
The bottom line is: as well-known as Achebe’s novel is around the world, the phrase is not copyrightable, and has a distinct life of its own, starting with Yeats, that reaches far beyond Achebe.
50 Cent’s team apparently offered $1 million for the title, which was turned down. In the instances cited above, no one offered anyone anything. If they had, it should have been offered to the ghost of Yeats.
Several Internet commenters seem to agree on one thing: Yeats would have taken the money.
What do you think? Should 50 Cent be allowed to use the title Things Fall Apart like pretty much everyone else has?