Ken Liu is a speculative fiction author whose stories have been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed, among other places. He lives in the Greater Boston area with his wife, artist Lisa Tang Liu, and their daughter. His web site is kenliu.name and he can be reached at <ken (at) kenliu.name>. This essay was originally published in LOGOS: The Journal of the World Book Community, Volume 20, Numbers 1-4, 2009, pp. 110-123. Hats off to Ken for releasing it under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license, thus enabling us to republish his fine essay. –The Editors
Forbidden Works: The “free speech” rights of secondary authors.
by Ken Liu
If free speech means the right to speak and write as you will, then certainly the copyright laws impose limits on that freedom (there’s no need to bring up the Copyright Clause, the First Amendment, and the like. I’m not making a legal or Constitutional argument at all. I’m simply describing the practical effects of the copyright laws).
For example, I cannot quote the lyrics of “The Sounds of Silence” in a novel without permission; I cannot publish a short story featuring Harry Potter or Jack Sparrow; I cannot improve upon the music of the Dixie Chicks by writing my own lyrics to their songs; I cannot make my own sequel to Spider-Man because I think Spider-Man 2 and 3 are poorly done. From a practical point of view, it makes little difference whether my sequel to The Catcher in the Rye is banned because the government censors dislike it or because a court tells me that it is an infringement of copyright. Sometimes, copyright holders actively use (or abuse) copyright simply to prevent speech that they wish to suppress. These are real limits on my freedom to speak or create.