Saturday, February 4, 2012

Charlotte Sometimes and The Cure

So often, the discussion about copyright centers around how authors can retain total control over their intellectual property and prevent others from borrowing it, copying it or stealing it.

I won't attempt to weigh in on all sides of the moral or ethical debates surrounding this contentious issue. Instead, I'm going to share a story about how a great novel inspired a great song.

The story illustrates the unintended consequences of what, at first glance, might strike the author as theft, but upon reflection is revealed as a gift.

Back in 1981, the gothic rock band The Cure released a single titled, Charlotte Sometimes. It's an amazing song (listen below). It tells the story of a young girl who at night mysteriously travels back in time 40 years to switch places with another girl.

The song was inspired by a childrens novel of the same name published by British author Penelope Farmer in 1969.

The Cure's lyrics for Charlotte Sometimes lift direct passages from the novel. The band wrote and released the song without clearing the rights with the author or her publisher.

When the author and her agent first learned about the song, they were livid. After all, here was a writer of limited financial means watching a megaband profit from her story, her title and her words. Was this theft or fair use? Read the links below, then you decide.

In 2007, Penelope Farmer shared her side of the story in two blog posts. The posts are poignant, and might surprise you. Read them here:
Here's The Cure performing Charlotte Sometimes in Brazil the same year (1996) Ms. Farmer came face to face with Robert Smith. Enjoy.

I don't know about you, but I'm curious to read the book.

Robert Smith (or any other songwriter), you have my permission to take my novel, Boob Tube, and immortalize it into song. Extra credit for turning The Smashwords Style Guide into song.


Terry LaBarba said...

We can choose to be fearful of creative theft, focusing on accusations and blame or we can let go of our projects, allowing them to evolve, evoking inspiration in others who are admirers. We could watch it develop, that intellectual progeny of ours. One way can cause blocks, the other possibilities. Is there such a thing as owning an inspired thought? Where did we get ours from in the first place? Go ahead, build on my creation, give me recognition if you will, and feel free to increase my book sales.

Aaron Majewski said...

Copyright, intellectual theft and, fair use of ideas, is a very complicated issue, and probably the answer is unique in every individual case.
As a creator of unique content, be it a novel, a movie, a song, a poem or whatever have you, any time someone else uses it for inspiration you should ask yourself, are they taking what you have created and making it their own... or using what you have created as a platform to build something new for themselves, and the world.
(or if you are just worried about finances, ask yourself if they have taken enough of what you have done to justify demanding a piece of what they have done!) :)

Whiskey McNaughton said...

I can understand the initial view of the author, finding lines from her book being used as a song. It might have been a good idea for someone connected with the band to contact the author or publisher before the song was released, but the free publicity should be worth any infringement that might have happened.

I think anyone trying to make a song from the Style Guide would end up in a padded cell for life.

J Van Stry said...

They should have paid her a percentage of the profits from the song, because what they did was illegal, as well as wrong. If she got a lawyer she could easily have gone to court and won an award for all of the profits for the song, as well as pretty significant damages.

This happens fairly frequently, and artists who don't get permission or pay for the rights usually find themselves in trouble.

Ron Scheer said...

I cringe whenever I see some unknown person claim that their intellectual property has been stolen by someone who's already made a fortune on their own merits, hard work, and creative output. Dragging them into court for a big chunk of money is just another form of theft.

Joleene Naylor said...

As sad as it is to admit, I'd put off reading the Sherlock Holmes collection for years, despite the fact that my mother loved it. Then I heard the song The Curse of the Baskervilles - - and was intrigued enough that I finally did. This is just one of countless times when one medium has led me to another.

I've been involved in a lot of discussions about this and I have come to the theory that it's a difference in mindset. Those people who are more likely to click a random link or go read a book because they heard it in a song *tend* (not always) to be more laid back, while those who do not do this are more likely to be uptight about it. Maybe because they wouldn't follow that link, or pick up that book so they don't see that other people might. I don't know.

Frankly if someone wants to build on something of mine they are welcome to do it. All my photography and most of my art is out there under a CC license and I find it amusing to run through the various places it gets used at. As for my books and my characters, I'd pay someone to make a song about them, LOL! ;)

Marcy Goldman said...

This is indeed poignant and is another sort of "Charlotte's Web' (pls don't sue me)

There is the issue of what is legal all the time – and I was hoping an intelligent, sane version of SOPA (one day) would prevail.
The issue that most creative people (authors, et al) don’t have the
legal deep pockets (or time/energy) to launch and follow a lawsuit to protect the work.
Then there is the issue that copyright law mostly sucks. For cookbooks authors – as I am – there is NO copyright on my recipes – perhaps only my recipe headnotes. And some of my recipes are so iconic they’ve been presented at the Smithsonian (I literally changed the way people bake at Passover in a global, multi generational way – among other things)

BUT what strikes me as the most poignant point is that Ms. Farmer,
despite life in the Canary Islands with her beloved – feels ‘struggling and poor’ –to some extent. This old theme writers/authors have of impoverishment really needs to change (and I say this as a single mother of three sons, author/website host who like most authors –have my fiscal struggles). I think that sense of art is poverty/everyone ‘steals’ from me – has really got to change. I think that more than copyright infringement keeps 'artists' struggling.
If I was Ms. Farmer’s agent, I would have run to film producers, Disney, Lion’s Gate or whoever with an adaptation, treatment or movie script for Charlotte Sometimes – and perhaps a kids 'computer games whiz or firm that would make Charlotte Forever interactive. I believe it would have another life and run to it. And it’s not too late. Alas – there is no email contact for Ms. Farmer and offer that suggestion. Hey - goes without saying the soundtrack of Charlotte Sometimes, the movie would be by The Cure. One good turn...or one hand washes the other.
Marcy Goldman

KLNappier said...

Intriguing and inspiring. BUT...yes, the Cure was clearly in violation and perfectly capable of negotiating something equitable from the beginning. They get no quarter from me on that point. Having stated that, however -as with Ms. Farmer-I like to think I could figure out how to make lemon out of lemonade. Proper attribution in all appropriate media plus a few other reasonable perks hammered out by the attorneys would make it a potential win-win.

Dovetail Public Relations said...

Jolene, I think that's an important point: one medium leading to another. When one artist's work is inspired by or builds upon the work of another (and no doubt, writers are artists), the second artist honors the first, and in many ways makes the first artist more accessible to a new audience.

The great band, The Waterboys, has a new album out titled, An Appointment with Mr. Yeats in which they put the poetry of W.B. Yeats to song. Their album and touring will surely introduce many new fans to this classic poet.

Mark Seecritts said...

Hmm... interesting. This seems to be one of those lucky-rags-to-riches stories (somewhat)... Ms. Farmer said on her blog that her sales increased for "Charlotte Sometimes" and went into print 4 or 5 times, as a result of the song's popularity... which is kind-of a "good" thing.

I think, Ms. Farmer must've thanked fate, or the stars' alignment in the universe, and, also the fact that Robert Smith's brother read "Charlotte Sometimes" to him, because, I wonder where "Charlotte Sometimes" would be, if Robert Smith's brother didn't read to him...? The flip side of this question would be; where would Charlotte Sometimes "the song" be, if Penelope Farmer had not written "Charlotte Sometimes"?

It's just luck, in my opinion -kind of like the lottery, really, and, Penelope Farmer won it (er... somewhat, The Cure got a lot of money, as well). And, besides, this was just one "success" story, for one author. But, I think it all comes down to the story you pen in the end -and, if it's a good story, people are going to pay for it and tell their friends about it, and, if it's a really good story, it's going to inspire at least one person... maybe a rock-star -to write a song about your book? -Luck of the draw, really. Who knows...?

As for copyright infringement, I think it was VERY borderline fair-use-approaching-infringement of Penelope Farmer's copyright. But, then again, songs are not the same as novels... what matters was the money that could have went, rightfully, to Ms. Farmer, as a result of The Cure's use of her novel, in that way.

So, basically, it might be called (dare I say it [treading in murky waters here]) "fair use" -if what you take, or use, from someone else's work, also makes that other person money, as well, in the end?

But, realistically, this is just a story about how one author got lucky over copyright infringement, and earned some money off of it.

-But, if you're okay with the money that rolls in, as a result of someone else using your copyright, without your permission -then, there must be a blurred definition of what "copyright infringement" actually is...

The Daring Novelist said...

Let's not forget Woody Guthrie wrote "Tom Joad" after watching "The Grapes of Wrath."

Inspiration is the point of what we do. Sometimes we inspire to action, sometimes to other expression. But once it's out there, and in someone else's head, an idea evolves, and so does the person who hears it.

The point of copyright, originally, was to encourage artists to continue to give and inspire, not to lock down our thoughts in a prison.

Danielle de Valera said...

So the end justifies the means, does it? Getting into some very murky waters with that attitude.

Dusk Peterson said...

What a fascinating story. I listened to The Cure in the 1970s, and I read "Charlotte Sometimes" in the 1970s. (I still own the novel. It has recently been on my "to reread" shelf.) It never would have occurred to me to connect the two. It's rather touching that the singer turned out to be a fan . . . but yes, it would have been nice if he'd thrown his beloved author a share of the profits.

JD Nixon said...

Thanks for the blast from the distant past, Mark! That's my favourite The Cure song, but I had no idea at all it came from a book. Oh, and if either Muse or My Chemical Romance want to make a song from any of my books - ring me! :-)

Oswald Bastable said...

Now I'm going to have to buy a copy of 'Charlotte Sometimes.

The only thing worse than bits of your story being 'borrowed' is nobody hearing of it!.

Wayne Watson

Keith R.A. DeCandido said...

I don't know what appalls me more, that a publisher with tons of copyrighted material on his web site is condoning this theft of intellectual property, or that so many people in the comments are doing likewise.

Then again, we do live in a culture where being more famous lets you get away with breaking the law, so I guess it's not a surprise.

Then again again, I wonder how the Cure would feel about, say, the Rolling Stones covering one of their songs and releasing it on a CD without getting any permission from their music publisher. I would guess a lawsuit would ensue, even though the Cure should obviously be grateful that the Stones would bring exposure to their song......

It would have taken almost no effort for the Cure to negotiate for use of the author's words. And if another, less-well-known band did the exact same thing with, say, Harry Potter or a Stephen King novel, I don't think it would have as pleasant a result.

---Keith R.A. DeCandido

Sarah Stegall said...

Seriously, Mark? You're condoning the theft of the same kind of intellectual property you host on Smashwords? Because that's what this is: theft. To assert that the victim of this theft should be GRATEFUL to the thief is akin to saying I should be grateful if Nora Roberts deigned to run over me with her car. To assert that this is NOT outright theft is breathtakingly (and disturbingly) naive. No, we cannot copyright a title or an idea, and if The Cure had merely used the title of the work, or borrowed the idea, they would have been completely within the law. But to lift the actual passages from the work, as you state, is reprehensible. The Cure has no more right to steal someone else's work just because they're famous and they like the work, than Paris Hilton has to walk into Tiffany's and take whatever she likes, just because she's famous and she likes it.

I believe you should seriously reconsider your "admiration" for the Cure's plundering of another artist's work.

Dovetail Public Relations said...

@SStegall, no, not at all, I think you're missing my point. I'm not condoning theft. The point is to share a fascinating story about one author's experience with copyright. I leave it to you to reach your own conclusion about right or wrong.

Personally, I don't know if this was right or wrong. I'm less interested in the answer than I am in the broader questions it raises.

Most artists (and I count writers as artists) stand on the shoulders of those who came before them. At what point does inspiration become theft?

After I wrote this post, I learned there's a band called Charlotte Sometimes. They were inspired by this book as well.

There are probably hundreds if not thousands of bands who write music inspired by copyrighted material. Are they stealing, and if so, how do we measure that theft and what does it mean?

According to the author's blog post, when The Cure wrote and released this song it might have been considered fair use. That's interesting to me.

If this was judged by today's more modern standards, would legal experts argue (and prevail) that this was fair use? Would a judge in the UK rule differently than the US?

I'd love to hear some copyright experts weigh in who have experience navigating the books to music question.

The author says The Cure used only a small portion of the book, yet they lifted some number of words or passages verbatim. She doesn't state how words.

How many words should be allowed under fair use, or Commonwealth equivalent, fair dealing?

I don't have the answer. Fair dealing, according to the Wikipedia link above, takes into consideration the amount of work used and whether or not it had a deleterious affect (my words) on the copyright holder.

I think it's up to every author to determine their own opinion here. I'm on the fence.

Sarah Stegall said...

"At what point does inspiration become theft?"

That's easy, Mark: when you use someone else's words, in the unique expression of their thoughts. Of course all artists "stand on the shoulders of those who came before them". We are primates; we learn through imitation. Nothing wrong with that, nor with the use of material no longer under copyright, nor with the occasional "homage" or "pastiche"; these are perfectly legitimate expressions of the art. But when it comes down to, as your blog claimed, lifting actual passages from the work, in toto, then The Cure (and anyone else) has overstepped the bounds.

"How many words should be allowed under fair use, or Commonwealth equivalent, fair dealing? I don't have the answer."

How many diamonds can you steal out of Tiffany's window before you're breaking the law? If there is any doubt as to whether you're taking too many words from someone else, then err on the side of caution and ask the copyright holder for permission. I suspect the author in question would have been thrilled to give her permission, perhaps even to charge nothing at all for the use of her work. But the point is to ASK, as an honorable person would do. To sidestep this question by saying "I won't take a stand on the morals" is weaselly, Mark. All writers, and those who support them (and profit from their work) have a duty to support them against theft. In any case, it's not a matter of morals. It's a matter of international law, law which might hold the publisher (or website host) of stolen material liable for copyright infringement. Even if you back away and claim "king's X" on the morals of this issue, the law will not permit you to claim ignorance. Ignorance of the law is not and has never been an excuse for breaking it.

If you (or any writer/songwriter/artist) don't "have the answer", and do not understand the copyright laws that protect our work, it's easy to learn. The US Copyright Office has an excellent web page at, Stanford University has a superb site on "fair use" at,
and Nolo Press publishes the definitive handbook on copyright law, "The Copyright Handbook" It's easy to learn all of this, and knowing your rights and responsibilities as an author is as important as knowing how to format a Microsoft Word style sheet.

"I learned there's a band called Charlotte Sometimes. They were inspired by this book as well. There are probably hundreds if not thousands of bands who write music inspired by copyrighted material. Are they stealing, and if so, how do we measure that theft and what does it mean?"

It's really very easy, Mark. Did you write that lyric/song/poem/story yourself? Or did you like it so much you took it, word for word, from someone else? Not the idea, not the title, not even the name "Charlotte Sometimes": you cannot copyright an idea, a title or a name. But if the LYRICS of that song are copied, word-for-word, from an identifiable portion of a protected work, then it is theft. Even if you change a couple of words around, a judge might still rule it theft. Why take the chance? Why not go ahead and ask for permission? Your chances of getting a "yes" are pretty high. Why NOT do the right thing, when it takes so little effort?

I understand that you were trying to make a point about creativity, about how artists inspire one another. I fully agree with you that we all take ideas from one another; I will even go so far as to say that there are probably no or very few "new" ideas under the sun. But ideas are not the issue here. The Cure were not engaging in creativity or inspiration when they lifted someone else's work, wholesale. That is the very opposite of creativity, and should never be supported by those who respect the work of true imagination.

finca tajaste said...

Now I know why hits on my long-unupdated blog have suddenly rocketed..... Thanks everyone who has taken my part - as for me, I'm glad to have a book in print and read still unlike many of my contemporaries - a book I'm still proud of what's more and that I know does and always has spoken to many. It's a murky issue morally speaking this 'inspiration' stuff. We all of us take from our predecessors in one way or another; in some cases it's more obvious that's all.

Oh and by the way, Charlotte Sometimes isn't a band but a singer, real name Jessie, who has written some good songs. We have communicated - another nice connection. Oh and there was a yacht that came second in the round Isle of Wight race. Should I be proud of that too? Cheers everyone. PF.

Emma said...

Have just posted a link to this blog on 6music as they are discussing books inspiring songs through the characters or the authors them selves. Hope that's ok

G.S. Mankowski said...

Dear Penelope. I am an author whose third novel is about to be published by a small independent press. It is a book about musicians, two of whom live together at one point and end up haunted by a couple of lines from your book, Charlotte Sometimes. At this point in their relationship their sense of identity is blurring as they are communing between artistic works they have both drawn from. I am getting in touch to see if I might be able to secure your permission to use these lines for the book? Some more information on it is here- My email is if you would like to get in touch. With my best wishes and thanks for a wonderful book, Guy

Dovetail Public Relations said...

HI G.S., I'm not sure if Ms. Farmer is still following this thread. Her blog is at so maybe you can try to reach her there.


G.S. Mankowski said...

thanks mark appreciate that

ninadora said...

scores of us only bought that book because of the cure. I'm not sure if anyone has bought their music because of that book.