Bill Bryson Might Legally Own Every Word He Says Out Loud

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Lawyers for humorist Bill Bryson are claiming that Bryson is entitled to copyright protection for quotes he gave to an interviewer twenty years ago.

The story starts in 1994, when freelance writer Mike Gerard interviewed Bryson for a travel magazine. Gerard recently looked back at the interview and decided that there was enough excised material to justify publishing the entire interview as a standalone eBook. Bryson's publisher, Transworld, objected. Transworld argued that readers would be confused and think the book was written by Bryson. 

What makes this story unusual is Transworld's lawyers' logic. Transworld argues that one reason the book shouldn't be published is because the quotes in Gerard's article belong to Bryson. Bryson said these words, the logic goes, so he can decide where they're allowed to be republished.

Obviously, if you follow this logic, journalism becomes very difficult. Any source could prevent a journalist from quoting them, or from their quotes appearing in more than one approved venue.

Transworld's argument is being met with general incredulity, but they're being taken seriously in the one place that matters: Amazon. Amazon published Gerard's eBook originally, and they've taken it down in response to Transworld's complaint. Now, it's up to Gerard, a freelance writer, to wage a court battle to get his book back up on Amazon. 

Sites whose business relies on keeping large rights-holders happy, be they Amazon or YouTube, will often side reflexively with the big guy. You'd rather keep Bill Bryson and Random House happy than worry about a million angry Mike Gerards. But stories like this one give you pause about our increasingly Amazon-dominated future.

I've reached out to Transworld and I'll update if I hear back.