Meera Nair

remembering Robert Wald – the man who saved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

In Posts on September 5, 2011 at 7:50 am

Robert Wald was born September 9, 1926 and passed away on September 7, 2010. The Washington Post described him as  “… an antitrust lawyer who helped found one of Washington’s fastest-growing law firms of the 1970s and 1980s.” The obituary also mentions that one case had special meaning to Mr. Wald – in 1965 he defended a sixth-grade production of Roald Dahl’s work, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, against a prohibition issued in the name of copyright.

This story resonated with me, not because of the copyright aspect, but because I have fond memories of my own fifth-grade class preparing a dramatization of another Roald Dahl work, James and the Giant Peach. Regrettably, we ran out of time in the school year before we were ready for performance. But the effort spent was sheer delight. Our classroom teacher Ms. C. and our school librarian Ms. H. were on hand if we requested help, but they largely left us to our own devices. And so we enthusiastically held auditions, wrote the script and painted backdrops all at the same time. At the end, the lack of actual performance did not detract from the hours of fun.

Quite by chance I came across Mr. Wald’s correspondence of the 1965 dispute. He brilliantly captured the idiocy that an overt copyright consciousness can foster and played the copyright game to perfection. At the outset he reminded the agent that “The right to a hearing is deeply embedded in our democratic tradition and I am sure you would not want to render a final decision without giving these trusting little children an opportunity to be heard.”

(The children are described as “alert, conscientious, questing, and more responsive to constituted authority than perhaps is necessary.”)

There are so many delightful passages in his letter – I am hard pressed to choose a favourite. But here are two front-runners:

It should be frankly conceded, however, that in their school careers – covering elementary grades one to five – they have been given no instruction in the substance, scope or application of the copyright laws of the United States, an omission, which I gather, you consider quite heinous. (“Bless their little hearts,” I believe you said in our conversation, “they should have realized it was copyrighted.”)

And,

The fact that “the material is of course protected by copyright” is, of course, only a starting point for discussion. It is really quite bad form to try to intimidate these kids with pompous declarations of the unenlightening obvious.

In response to the agent’s concerns that Mr. Dahl’s property interest in the book might be compromised by the play, Mr. Wald detailed a number of constraints that would be carried out in conjunction with the production, including:

A responsible member of the class – good with matches – will be designated as a Destruction Agent and will submit to you a sworn report of the disposal of all copies of the script following the last performance.

Thanks to Mr.Wald’s efforts, the production went ahead as planned.

And many thanks to the The Green Bag (“An Entertaining Journal of Law”) for providing the details and full correspondence of the 1965 dispute (including the letter of request for permission written by a sixth-grade student and the rejection letter issued by the agent).

School starts tomorrow.  To all students, teachers and librarians, have a very happy year.

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