What’s in a Name?

Joseph Campana
January 21, 2008
Comments 0

Cliches about the thefts of writers abound. It’s not that writers are plagiarists–though perhaps sometimes they are–but the truisms about writers knowing how to steal from other writers are near omnipresent. What about titles? According to a recent article in The New York Times, titles are not subject to copyright protection. The instance in question is The Saucier’s Apprentice: A Modern Guide to Classic French Sauces for the Home which graces the covers of a book thirty years old (now in its 16th printing) by Raymond Sokolov. Admittedly, the new version of this title, Bob Spitz’s The Saucier’s Apprentice: One Long Strange Trip through the Cooking Schools of Europe does have a different, if inadvisable, subtitle. (Gasp! Another incident of plagiarism. Perhaps the Grateful Dead should sue, if not for copyright infringement then at least for a violation of good sense and good taste.) So, is the problem that titles ought to be protected, legally, as a form of intellectual property or is it that we resent the re-use of titles when they just don’t work?

Maybe imitation is the highest form of flattery, but it certainly needn’t be a crime. In all honesty, it’s hard to say how duplicating a title might be directly beneficial or harmful. Presumably, at least in this case, no one who wants a guide to French sauces will be tempted away by a memoir about cooking schools when a web search pulls up both titles. But the aggrieved author had this to say, according to the NYT:

“But in Mr. Sokolov’s view, it’s one thing to duplicate another author’s use of a common phrase or expression and quite another to echo a play on words, particularly when both books are in the same genre. ‘I think it’s just in bad taste,” he said. “I looked into it, and I’m certain that this was not a blunder, that Norton knew about the existence of my book.'”

I know too little about cooking to be certain, but I do wonder if “The Saucier’s Apprentice” is really so mind-blowing and original as to cause such creative struggle? The duplication of titles might be a citation, an homage, or a creative shift of context, wrenching a phrase with one set of associations and giving it a whole new direction. Ultimately, one wonders if the true concern here is not originality but some misplaced anxiety about market share, as if the presence of multiple titles will have an impact on what seem to be the ever shrinking sales figures for most books. And if it makes the cooking debacle above any better, The New York Times reminds us that the title in question was first used by humorist S.J. Perelman long before Sokolov published his book. So much for originality.

But, you should be the judge of the this one. Write in and let everyone know your opinion. Should titles be subject to copyright? Or, better yet, what are the best thefts (or re-uses) of titles you can think of? To close, here’s a quote from a rather minor poet with barely just enough to say on the subject to warrant citing:

Most writers steal a good thing when they can,
And when ???tis safely got ???tis worth the winning.
The worst of ???t is we now and then detect ???em,
Before they ever dream that we suspect ???em.

Bryan Waller Proctor

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