My original intention for this post was to rave about the brilliance of the “Dylan Hears a Who” project (and lament my own, usual tardiness in getting around to hearing it) – but it appears that I’ll have to do that in the absence of linking to the site and its tracks, since the Dr. Seuss estate has (according to a notice at what’s left of the site) requested that the tracks be taken down. (Fortunately I’d already downloaded the tracks.)
So you’ll just have to assume (unless you can find the tracks online elsewhere – and they’re probably out there) that the marriage of Dr. Seuss’s words with Dylan-esque singing and arranging circa Highway 61 Revisited (with a few tracks reaching back to “acoustic” Bob) is positively inspired, so perfect a pairing that I’m amazed no one’s thought of it before. In fact, I might almost have believed it if the site had been posted as if it were an actual bootleg of Bob himself goofing on Seuss stories. (“Almost” primarily because, as good as the unnamed Dylan impersonator is in tone and phrasing, he exaggerates the tunelessness of Dylan’s singing at the time, particularly Dylan’s tendency to trail off descendingly in pitch at the ends of phrases. But then, parody has its licenses.) I can’t help but imagine Dylan himself (if he heard the tracks) would be amused – how could he not love Dr. Seuss, and unless he’s way too self-serious, how could he not appreciate what was clearly a labor of love?
Evidently, Dr. Seuss’s copyright-holders disagree – and this is a clear example of what’s wrong with copyright law. First, even though Dr. Seuss’s writings are not technically in public domain at this point (that is, Seuss’s heirs are still earning money from sales of his books and related products), in all other senses they surely are. The homage could not possibly be interpreted as defamatory, the words are (as far as I can tell) unaltered, and no one is going to confuse these tracks with actual Dr. Seuss product. (Unless, of course, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. has its own musical versions being worked up and was concerned about interference. Even there, though, unless their version also featured a Dylan impersonator, there’s surely room in the market for both items – especially since the one was free.) Dr. Seuss is fully credited at the site for his creative work, so there’s no question of taking credit for someone else’s work. (The Dylan impersonation itself would fall under the realm of parody – in case Dylan objected – and the Seuss lyrics clearly suggest parody, not an attempt to pretend to be Dylan…especially since Dylan hasn’t sung anything like that style for twenty or thirty years.) In a better world, the Seuss estate would be overjoyed that someone appreciates Dr. Seuss’s work so much that they’d pay such homage to it, and would merely request that the site link to a purchase site (something the original site might have thought to have done, pre-emptively).
So who wins? The hypothetical legal notion that copyright infringement left to exist eats away at copyright itself. And that’s all. Listeners lose, fans of both Dylan and Dr. Seuss lose, even fans of one artist unfamiliar with the other lose the possibility of learning to find a new interest.
It’s also curious – in the wake of the rather similar Beatallica dispute, which I recall ended up allowing the tracks on the grounds that Beatallica wasn’t selling them, only giving them away – that the Dylan Hears a Who site couldn’t operate on a similar logic. (Then again, it looks as if the Beatallica tracks are no longer available at that site.)
In other, much better news, Matthew Perpetua (of Fluxblog fame) has started yet another writing project. He’s working his way, randomly, through every song in the R.E.M. catalog, detailing his impressions of the songs. I think it was about a year ago that I once again went into a major R.E.M. obsession, and this might be enough to set me off again. They remain – despite the failure of their recent work to really move me, and despite what’s becoming increasingly more difficult even for me to deny is a decline in quality from each release to the next – one of my favorite bands ever, and Perpetua’s entries so far help to illuminate why. Essential.