Epigraphic Ephemera

Photo credit: Napoleon Sarony, via Wikimedia Commons

“We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities.” ― Oscar Wilde

In certain kinds of books, epigraphs are popular.  In fact, I’m currently reading a book where every part of every chapter begins and ends with an epigram.  It starts to taste like an epigram cracker after a while.  Don’t get me wrong, every great once in a while there’s a quote that just illustrates your point in a chapter so pithily that you can’t resist.   Still, epigraphs ought to come with a warning label.  Working in publishing one of the first things I learned is that unlike quotes in the body of a text, an epigraph that’s covered by copyright isn’t considered “fair use.”  It’s an ornament, an embellishment.  If you want to use one, you need to get permission from the rights holder.  (Unless it’s in the public domain.)

While the idea of copyright itself isn’t that complicated—the creator of intellectual property is the owner of said property—copyright laws can be complex.  Publishers discourage the use of epigraphs (which only academics seem to use any more) because of permissions complications.  You see, when you publish a book (or article) you’re trading your copyright for whatever emoluments the publisher or the journal has to offer.  Most publishers, no matter how noble, are businesses.  There are costs with producing books.  If someone wants to reuse part of a another book—apart from the standard academic quote—they must have permission to do so.  Epigraph permissions can really slow a book down.  And make it expensive.

Reading is an involved process.  We human beings are seldom given such direct access to the interior lives of others.  Think about it—books are private thoughts made public.  Sometimes writers like to show that others have been thinking along similar lines, especially if what they have to say challenges convention.  Thus the epigraph.  The quotable quote.  But did you have permission to take that?  I like poetry.  It takes longer to read than prose, but it says so much in so few words.  That means using poetry in epigraphs becomes a nightmare.  Rights holders often charge by the percentage of the poem used.  And once a book becomes e book there no stopping the spread of its epigraphs used so carefully by permission.  Indeed, e-books are easily pirated, increasing the concerns of those who sell other’s thoughts for a living.  Before sticking that clever quote at the start of your chapter, it’s worth pondering the epigraph above (in the public domain, of course).

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