What happens if these underlying sources are copyrighted? As Judge Richard Posner pointed out, “Romeo and Juliet itself would have infringed Arthur Brooke’s The Tragicall Historye of Romeo and Juliet… which in turn would have infringed several earlier Romeo and Juliets, all of which probably would have infringed Ovid’s story of Pyramus and Thisbe.” You get the point — without a rich public domain, much of literature would be illegal.
Shakespeare, at a writing table, feathery quill in hand, holding up what he has just written to read it aloud.
SHAKESPEARE: “But soft! What light through yon window breaks? It is a lightning bug, and Juliet is the bug’s ass.”
Shakespeare sits, slumps his head into his hands.
SHAKESPEARE (thought): Needs work.
FEDERAL AGENT (from off-panel): HALT, THIEF!
Shakespeare rises and speaks sharply to the Federal Agent who has just walked in. The Federal Agent wears a 20th century suit and dark glasses, and displays a badge.
SHAKESPEARE: SIR! What brings you to my chamber?
FED: This PLAY you wrote, “Romeo and Juliet.”
FED: You STOLE it from Arthur Brooke’s “The Tragical Historye of Romeus and Juliet!”
Shakespeare is using the ol’ “explaining hands” gesture, the Fed points and yells.
SHAKESPEARE: The SEED was Brooke’s, but under my care it has flourished into a DIFFERENT tree-
FED: So you ADMIT it!
The Fed whips off his dark glasses for a panel. He looks so mad that he might eat them.
FED: Answer THIS, smart guy: Why should BROOKE bother writing NEW WORK when second-raters like YOU swipe his stuff?
Shakespeare is beginning to get pissed.
SHAKESPEARE: But sir! Poor Brooke lies beneath the sod. My simple play cannot disturb him now. The ONLY work being stifled is mine own!
FED: YOUR work? HA! Derivative TRASH! If you had any talent, you’d write something ORIGINAL!
SHAKESPEARE: But Brooke’s OWN idea germinated with Matteo Bandello! We are ALL leaves from the same branch, sir! That’s how creativity works!
The FED, who is quite a bit larger than Shakespeare, grabs Shakespeare and shakes him back and forth.
FED: No, that’s how STEALING works! Brooke’s only been dead for THIRTY YEARS. The worms have barely finished digesting!
Shakespeare’s babbling is interrupted when the stern-faced Fed yanks him around to put handcuffs on him.
SHAKESPEARE: But this is MADNESS! Do we not value freedom of THOUGHT? Are IDEAS not the currency of culture? The veritable grist of progress for the social mill? Tell me sir– OW!
Shakespeare, dressed in jailbird’s stripes, sits in a prison cell, loking a bit wistful or confused.
CAPTION: And so Creativity was Saved from a Plagiarist Lout.