This is my first two articles I wrote in the aftermath of the high-publicised row between Miriam Elia and Penguin Random House, when I still thought it was possible to calm down the hostilities. For the more up-to-date article following the online nastiness I got from Penguin supporters that prompted me to completely side against them, see Why I don’t believe Penguin’s side of the story.
COMMENT: The success story of the grown-up Ladybird books is overshadowed by an artist they took legal action against. Here’s why it’s time to make peace.
Over Christmas, a lot of you will have given or received any or all of the eight “Ladybird Books for grown-ups”. Just in case you’re one of the people who’s not heard of this, it was a brilliantly simple idea, sanctioned by Ladybird themselves, of writing new descriptions to illustrations from the classic children’s series Ladybird. Out goes the story from Tiptoes the Mischievous Kitten, and it goes a tip from the Ladybird Guide to Dating as to how this woman pictured has been so busy running her online macaroon business she realises one day she’s forgotten to get married and sleeps on a torn mattress in the attic. This is largely the creation of Joel Morris and Jason Hazely, two writers who regularly contribute to Charlie Brooker’s wipes.
And this would be a lovely success story were it not for the allegations of plagiarism and legal shenanigans. The issue is that the year before, a small-time artist called Miriam Elia produced her own parody of a Ladybird book. That time, it was a parody of Peter and Jane where Mummy takes them to a modern art gallery; and it eviscerates the crap passed off as modern art, and also eviscerates the bollocks praise that people like Mummy lavish on the aforementioned crap. To the credit of many modern art galleries, they took this in good humour and some of them even stock the book. But Penguin, Publisher of Ladybird, claimed copyright, came to a settlement with Miriam Elia that involved pulping most of the books, and it wasn’t until this year – when the laws on copyright changed and parody was accepted as “fair use” of copyright material – that the books were reprinted.
Those are the details we know for certain. After that, there’s two wildly different accounts depending on who you believe. Miriam Elia’s own version is a rather bitter story (albeit an understandably bitter one) about corporate bullying and stealing ideas. On the flipside, there’s a defence of Penguin written by Louis Farfe, who I gather is a friend of the two writers, where Penguin is a caring ethical publisher whose sole problem was the use of a ladybird colophon and nicely allowed her to sell enough copies to cover her printing costs. He also says that Ladybird had the idea first, and that came from Morris and Hazely from a 2003 book called The Frameley Examiner. Elia counter-claims that she was the one who showed this format could have a mass market. And we could argue till the cows come home on who owns this idea, but the thing is, I don’t care. Because I don’t believe in ownership of ideas. And neither does the Law.
Let me be clear here. If someone illegally copies your artwork or pirates your music without your permission, I will back you all the way if you choose to sue the wanker. I’ll probably also back you if someone rips off the plot of your play or film script. But when it’s just an idea … sorry, that’s not enough. If you use the idea to produce something great, or even someone not-so-great, you can claim ownership of what you’ve produced – but other people must have the chance to use the same idea and produce something that may be better or worse. Disney, for example, has a good case to claim it started the concept of films using computer graphics with Tron. That didn’t stop Pixar using Toy Story thirteen years later, and thank goodness they weren’t. Pixar’s success in turn led to a whole load of copycat studios, but Pixar didn’t make legal threats against other studios for stealing their idea. No, Pixar dominates the industry because they’ve spent the last two decades being better and more popular than all their competitors.
There is, however, one obvious difference in this analogy. Disney did not claim moral rights over the concept of CGI films, and did not try to block Pixar. On the contrary, Pixar who couldn’t have done Toy Story without Disney backing them all the way. That is in sharp contrast to Penguin who seem to have gone out of their way to stop Miriam Elia’s book. Have to say, I don’t entirely buy Farfe’s defence of Penguin. Claiming that Penguin never sued Elia might be technically accurate, but it’s a pretty flimsy excuse; big companies usually get their way through the threat of a lawsuit, rather than the lawsuit itself. Nor do I find Penguin allowing Elia the chance to sell enough books to cover her costs hugely charitable. Given that Penguin knew at the time that the law on parody and fair use was about to be changed, I’d say a reasonable course of action would have been to request that future print runs excluded the colophon and collage. My suspicion is that Penguin’s real aim was to kill the book for good, and knew they wouldn’t get their way in court once the law changed, but nonetheless hoped that their army of big scary lawyers would frighten an author into believing she’d lose – and Elia called their bluff.
As you might be observing, I’m leaning towards a pro-Elia anti-Penguin stance here. I’ve got two reasons for this. Firstly, although I think the official Ladybird parodies are funny, We go to the gallery is hilarious (and anything that eviscerates the bullshit passed off as modern art gets my approval, from John Farndell’s The Critics to Jason Woodscrew’s My Penis Smels of Apples). Secondly, and more importantly, I’m genetically programmed to side with the little guy in situations like this. I see a lot of small-scale artists at work in the festival fringes, and I do a bit of it myself, and I don’t take kindly to the idea of large corporations making legal threats, especially when it’s against people who don’t have the money or means to fight back. There seems to be an increasing normalisation of the attitude that silencing artists is okay – the reasons and circumstances vary, but what it always has in common is powerful individuals using their status to silence the small-timers. As a small-timer, I don’t want to stand for that.
There is one other issue. Being a regular punter at festival fringes, I’ve seen countless artists who’ve produced fantastic works vanish without trace because they do not have a big company providing money and publicity. So when Joel Morris and Jason Hazely have a publishing giant behind them financing and marketing their work, it rankles to the rest of us who don’t have this luxury. Now, that’s not to denigrate Morris and Hazely’s efforts; corporations can promote and fund your work but they can’t do your work for you. They wouldn’t have made it to the Christmas #1 slot without doing some good work that was hugely popular with Christmas shoppers, and Penguin’s support does not invalidate their achievement. But it still rankles.
But here’s the paradox. The best thing Penguin can do for you is a mass publicity drive, but if that’s not on offer, a legal threat comes a close second. I and many others had never heard of We go to the Gallery prior to reading the news of the copyright claim, and had Penguin done the reasonable thing and left her alone it would have stayed that way. Strange as it may be, Pengiun appears to have unintentionally done Elia a big favour. And even if you think it’s her idea which Penguin ripped off, she’s benefited hugely off the back of this. Lots of people are buying both her book and the Ladybird ones and they neither know nor care of the difference. Plenty of bookshops are displaying all the books together, and whilst that might be annoying for her, it can only help her sales.
So, how would I like this to be resolved? Ideally, I’d like Penguin and Miriam Elia to draw a line under this and work together. The onus is probably on Penguin to offer the olive branch here – big corporations don’t feel like their livelihood was threatened by an independent artist, and whilst I think Elia’s reaction was overly bitter, I probably would have felt the same. If Penguin need something to be in it for them – honestly, if they’ve got any sense, they should try to sign her on for the next series of grown-up ladybirds. She might not be in a mood to forgive, but Penguin can only try. But that’s my idealistic solution and not my realistic one. I fear that burying the hatchet now will require too much pride-swallowing on both sides.
So instead, here is what I hope happens: Joel Morris and Jason Hazely can and should have their moment of glory. Whatever happened between Penguin and Miriam Elia isn’t their doing, and what they achieved they earned. But amongst all the ongoing widespread praise for these eight grown-up Ladybird books, I hope as many people as possible hear about We go to the gallery in the process. And when they have a look at this book, they don’t judge the book over who has the better legal claim or moral claim, but simply judge it on merit. If people prefer Morris and Hazely, that’s fine, but I’m confident an awful lot of people will find Elia just as good, if not better. And I hope Miriam Elia will resist the temptation to use her new-found fame to pursue an ongoing vendetta against Penguin and instead go on to produce great new works to her new fanbase.
This might be a bitter dispute, but it’s a bitter dispute where everyone’s a winner and no-one’s a loser. It’ll be better for all of us if we remember this.
UPDATE 07/01: Okay, perhaps I was naive to suggest it would be so much nicer if we were all friends. Within 24 hours of posting this, two people leapt on it, both unremittingly pro-Penguin and relentlessly anti-Elia. One of them is the comment below, which was, shall I say, “impassioned”, and the other was an exchange of Twitter with a Guardian writer who claims I know nothing about the subject (but refused to disclose the sources of the things she supposedly knows that I don’t). I will write a longer update at a convenient moment to cover these points, although I must confess I struggle to take seriously a commenter who accuses me of trying to bully Penguin. I’m not sure how it’s possible for a theatre blogger with 111 followers on Twitter to bully a global publishing conglomerate, but I’m sure there’s an explanation somewhere.
In the meantime, a clarification (which I though I’d made clear enough in the post, but evidently not as I was berated for claiming something I never said). I am happy to clarify that I do not believe Morris and Hazely got their ideas from We go the gallery. (Nor, as far as I can tell, does anyone else.) And even if they did, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. And I can only repeat that, whatever happened between Penguin and Elia, I see no reason why they should have any blame for that. The fact that I have to go to these lengths to state what I’d thought was bleeding obvious is kind of tedious, but there you go.
And any primary sources would be welcome, no matter who it backs up.
UPDATE 23/03: And here you are: The long-awaited follow-up: Why I don’t believe Penguin’s side of the story. I’m now closing comments on this post, so please make any further comments there. And thanks a bunch to all you Penguin fanboys for giving me extra work to do.