Meera Nair

poems out of other poems

In Posts on December 10, 2014 at 6:50 pm

December 11 marks the death of John Gillespie Magee, Jr. (1922-1941). Born to an American father and a British mother, Magee opted to join the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940 to serve with the Allied Forces during WWII (the United States had not yet entered the war). Killed in flight during a training exercise, Magee’s name continues to circulate via his poem High Flight; he may be forever known as the pilot poet.

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Each sentence surpasses the previous; and the last line lingers inexorably: “Put out my hand and touched the face of God.” The denizens of Wikipedia have traced the phrase “touched the face of God” to an earlier work by Cuthbert Hicks, a poem titled The Blind Man Flies. Some other phrases of Magee’s are also found in other poems. It is a reminder of Northrop Frye’s edict: “Poetry can only be made out of other poems; novels out of other novels. … All this was much clearer before the assimilation of literature to private enterprise concealed so many of the facts of criticism.”

That creativity is an effort in recycling has gained heightened attention in the digital age. Where we once might have talked about chapbooks and scrapbooks, we now speak of user-generated content (UGC). To be sure, digital technology has enhanced both the tools for creative effort as well as the means to distribute the outcome of such effort. But the fact remains that creativity has always relied on inclusion of prior work. In our pre-digital world, amateur recycling of copyrighted materials would either have escaped notice, or been tolerated; today, copyright holders are more likely to resent such behavior and claim infringement.

Aware of the risk to our creative instincts by overt copyright consciousness, as part of the 2012 amendments to the Copyright Act, the Canadian government brought in an exception to protect UGC activities. Found in Section 29.21, the exception is titled as Non-commercial User Generated Content and begins with, “It is not an infringement of copyright for an individual to use an existing work or other subject-matter or copy of one, which has been published or otherwise made available to the public, in the creation of a new work … .”

As all such amendments to copyright have been, S29.21 was controversial from the outset. It pleased few. The exception addresses solely non-commercial creations, thereby offering little assistance to professional artists, and comes with conditions that appear too onerous for amateurs to follow. But closer inspection suggests that S29.21 is not far removed from the analysis that must accompany fair dealing in Canada (fairness and attribution are key to both).

Notably, Canada is the only country that has taken such a progressive step. Peter Yu, an internationally acclaimed intellectual property scholar, argues passionately that a similar exception be included in proposed modifications to the Copyright Ordinance of Hong Kong. Yu also expertly discredits naysayers who profess that Canada’s amendment violates international obligations.

From its infancy on, S29.21 was dubbed the YouTube clause; a title perhaps more fitting in spirit than jurisdiction. The moniker notwithstanding, the scope of 29.21 is vast. Any form of copyrighted work is eligible for consideration, not merely music or video. Teresa Scassa, also a highly acclaimed scholar in the world of intellectual property, writes:

From one perspective it is a licence to build on the works of others; from another it is a potentially sharp curtailment of the scope of a copyright holder’s ability to control the use of their work. In the end, the scope and importance of the UGC exception may come down to how its limiting provisions are interpreted: and in this regard, the direction already charted by the [Supreme Court of Canada] in its recent copyright decisions will likely have great bearing.

Scassa goes on to remind us that the Supreme Court of Canada has taken a strong stance on the issue of balance between rights of control and rights of access. Their directive should feature prominently if lower courts must assess a copyright claim against the limits of the UGC exception.

So, in celebration of Magee’s life and work, and the creative process in general, readers might enjoy this UGC creation by SongOfTheOpenRoad. High Flight’s words are elegantly scripted and interspersed with beautiful imagery. Set upon the musical score of Return/Reunion by Basil Poledouris, the result is much more than the sum of its parts.

 

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