When Sean mentioned in his Roadblock #10 post that storytellers might be wary of violating the copyright of another author or storyteller, I was dubious.
Sure, I get the common sense logic. You can't be accused of violating another person's copyright if you're telling your own story.
Apparently this is an ongoing issue of concern in the storytelling movement, but it raised its head in the 1980s at national conferences.
But seriously, folks. Were storytellers accusing each other of "stealing" each other's repertoires? Were storytellers "stealing" folktales from other tellers?
From my own anecdotal evidence, I can see it might have happened. I learn stories better if I hear them, instead of find them in a book. Visualizing a story from a book is easy, but visualizing the story from book to stage is an added step, which requires more effort. Path of least resistance: tell the story you heard from someone else.
If everyone started telling the same Jack tale, or the same ghost story, sure, that's going to turn audiences off.
But in the analogous realm of traditional music, it's not at all uncommon to hear three or more different versions of "Sally Goodin," "Muleskinner Blues," and "Cripple Creek" in one weekend, both on the mainstages and around the campfires. That's the whole point of tradition. To carry it on. Sure, there are original bluegrass tunes being made all the time and post-punk old-timey revival re-imaginings of standards, but if you go a whole weekend without hearing a Bill Monroe arrangement of a tune, it's not a bluegrass festival.
So... back to storytelling. Traditional art form. Material hundreds if not thousands of years old. Material, therefore, in the public domain.
Artists are surprised that others are appropriating the same material?
Sure, you can call it unethical. Rude. Lazy. But like the story goes, "you knew it was a snake when you picked me up."
"Screw you all and the folktales you tell-- I'm switching to stories from my own life."
From what I hear, the change in material did not stop unethical performers from appropriating the personal memoirs of others for their own repertoire.
I live in a major metropolitan hub filled with theatre festivals in the summer. Several of them just do Shakespeare. Several just do musicals. Do they end up programming the same shows, opposite each other? Hey, it happens. Two, sometimes three "The Tempest"s in one summer. A handful of "South Pacific"s. They manage. They don't throw the classics out the window and start creating their own new scripts.
(Hmm. Bad analogy. --the perils of thinking in the blogging moment-- If these theatres ran themselves like the storytelling world, they would punt the classics, start creating their own new scripts, audiences would eat it up, and we'd never see "Midsummer Night's Dream" or "Hamlet" again.)
Copyright isn't the whole answer.
Stay tuned for more, on audience preferences, and on an academic's look at the movement.