Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Chinua Achebe vs. 50 Cent Legal Battle Is Bogus

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 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?


  1. I haven't heard of this case or Achebe, and I'm not a fan of 50 Cent at all. However, the rapper should be allowed to use the title and Achebe's claim on it is absurd. I mean, things fall apart and we all know that to be a fact and the phrase can apply to many situations.

    I'm wondering if there is some other issue involved like a similarity between the two stories. Is it pop politics? Are are the two in collusion to gain notoriety and attention for both vehicles? Maybe it's all a publicity ploy in the guise of a legal battle. Do these two know each other? Ah, ever the conspiracy theorist am I.

    Excellent post in any case. By the way, do you know 50 Cent and Chinua Achebe? Just asking :)

    Tossing It Out

  2. The idea of two such disparate guys as Achebe and 50 Cent being in collusion is so comical that I want to believe it. I'd love to be a fly on the wall at those meetings.

  3. Achebe should use the connection to sell some books. It might educate some 50 Cent fans.

  4. We had someone come in to talk to our writers' group once, and for some reason the number 17 sticks in my mind, as the minimum number of consecutive words required for copywriting.

    I always want to take the writer's side, they get ripped off often enough, BUT... in this case, I think Yeats has a better case than Achebe.

  5. I've never heard about the 17 word rule. Almost seems like it could be conditional. A haiku, for example, is pretty short, but packs a lot of meaning in a few words. I imagine a haiku would be copyright-protected.

  6. 17 with or without attribution? Sounds a little unlikely.

    Could you trademark a title then?