The spectacle of a thuggish rap star showing more poise and grace than a venerable Nobel novelist apparently leaves confused journalists to find new ways to misplay the story.
According to the usually reliable U.K. newspaper, the Guardian, Chinua Achebe, Africa’s most distinguished novelist, unleashed his lawyers on American rap star 50 Cent over the title of a new movie entitled "Things Fall Apart".
Of course, that’s also the title of Achebe’s 1957 novel, regarded today as a masterpiece of post-colonial world literature. 50 Cent’s movie, written and financed by the rapper, is the uplifting story of a football player who struggles to overcome cancer.
50 Cent attempted to appease Achebe by offering a million dollars for the use of the title, but the author spurned it as an insult, saying the novel was published 17 years before the rapper was born. It’s “listed as the most read book in Africa,” Achebe said, “and won’t be sold for even one billion dollars.”
In the end, 50 Cent capitulated, changing the title of his movie to All Things Fall Apart.
Now this may look like a triumph of high art over low, of a distinguished novelist thumping the head of an upstart pop star. This would be entirely misleading. Instead, it’s a case of a fabulously wealthy and influential popular entertainer generously recognizing the claims of a revered elder — even when he does not have to.
The problem with the way the Guardian plays the story is its use of that word “forced,” coupled with the strong implication that 50 Cent caved in under threats of legal action.
In fact, titles cannot be copyrighted. Achebe has no legal standing to challenge 50 Cent’s use of the title in a court of law — where such a challenge would be summarily tossed out. I’m not a lawyer (thank God!) and I don’t play one on TV, but check out the United States Copyright Office FAQ and see if you can come to any other conclusion: “Copyright does not protect names, titles, slogans, or short phrases.”
Furthermore, Achebe did not originate the phrase “things fall apart,” but borrowed it from William Butler Yeats’ famous poem, The Second Coming — making his claims of ownership more than faintly ridiculous.
So who comes off better in this contretemps — the elderly chest-thumping author, or the pop star who respectfully abandons a title to which he is clearly attached, even though he cannot be compelled to do so?
As for the headline writers at the Guardian: I am very, very disappointed.
This may sound absurdly high minded, but I believe most readers learn more from newspapers, magazines, and books than they ever do in the classroom. Writers — journalists especially — have a professional obligation to get things right, even the little things.
By using the word “forced” when “persuaded,” or “pressured,” or even “shamed” would have been more accurate, the Guardian badly leads astray any reader who has not yet learned the facts of copyright law, which is likely a large portion of its readership.
As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
What do you think Chinua Achebe should have done?