Things fall apart: Three words worth more than fifty cents

Peter Kimani

Nov 02, 2011

Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot bear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...
William Butler Yeats' post-war poem, The Second Coming, has attracted a great deal of attention since it was penned nearly a century ago. It was at the centre of an unseemly row late this year, pitting very unlikely characters: an octogenarian man of letters from Africa, and an African American rapper. There couldn't have been worse contrasts: Chinua Achebe, a grandfather figure with his shaft of white hair and wrinkled face and 50 Cent, a bling-bedecked reformed gangster turned rapper. The subject of contestation: the latter's right to use Achebe's book title, Things Fall Apart, in a new film. To provide a context, Things Fall Apart is the book that Achebe, widely hailed as the grandfather of African fiction, published in 1958. This was the pioneering title in a series that British publishers, Heinemann, would keep running for the next 50 years - and produce what's regarded today as canon in African fiction. Achebe's seminal novel, which has since sold ten million copies, and translated into more than 50 world languages, chronicles the life of an ordinary villager, Okonkwo, who is caught in the social disruptions that colonialism heralds for the Nigerian society, and ultimately tear it asunder. In 2007, the Man Booker International Prize committee that honoured Achebe for his lifetime contribution to writing recognised his "redrawing the contours of African history." By the same token, the committee went on, Achebe had "redrawn the contours of the novel [James] Joyce recreated for the 20th century, and illuminated the path for other writers seeking new words and forms for new realities and societies." The great statesman and freedom icon, Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years as a political prisoner, before emerging to lead South Africa in 1994, said Achebe was "the writer in whose company the prison walls came down." The American author Toni Morrison thanked Achebe for "doors which (he) figuratively opened for her," according to another tribute to the distinguished scholar. Such is the book's revered history that Achebe lawyers claimed risked contamination through its association with a film starring 50 Cent. The film, which is scheduled for release, recounts the struggles an American football player diagnosed with cancer. "It's a project that I wrote, produced and financed myself," 50 Cent said in a recent media interview. The film directed by Mario Van Peebles, premiered at the Miami film festival last March and is due public release. "After being contacted by Achebe's legal team, 50 Cent allegedly offered $1m to hold on to the title. Achebe took this as an insult," wrote The Guardian of London. "The novel with the said title was initially produced in 1958 (that is 17 years before he [50 Cent] was born)," Achebe's lawyers are said to have responded, according to Nigerian website, Naijan, adding that the book title would not be sold, "even for £1bn." The film has since expanded its title to All Things Fall Apart, to avoid a blown-out legal tussle. While the feud illuminates on intellectual property rights, there are many grey areas. To start with, Achebe does not have copyright protection in his book title, according to multiple online sources. Quoting the US copyright law, says: "Titles, names, and slogans . . . are not subject to copyright protection. Even if a name, title, or short phrase is novel or distinctive or if it lends itself to a play on words, it cannot be protected by copyright." The rationale, it says, is "the result would be absurd if it did. To say citizens cannot name their songs, books, movies and what have you Things Fall Apart because someone else already did, would yield a very difficult society to live and function in. But the website clarifies Achebe could use Trademark Law and Unfair Competition laws to protect his book title, perhaps by explaining that 50 Cent could potentially damage his business prospects by diverting his would-be readers to his film if titled Things Fall Apart. That is highly unlikely, given the form and content in the two artistic servings. In any case, the author had no issue with the jazzy hip-hop band from Philadelphia, the Roots, when they used Things Fall Apart as their album title some ten years ago. In the absence of evidence that Achebe stood to suffer commercial losses by allowing 50 Cent use of his book title for his film, perhaps the attention should turn to what Achebe stood to gain had he consented. The David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University may have little use for $1 million windfall; at age 80, his four children are all grown, his house and cars long been paid for. But 50 Cent's film would certainly have aroused fresh interest among young readers who listen to his music. Or perhaps such people do not read books, the sort that Achebe writes. But symbolically, it could have been a fitting renewal of a relationship between the author and the African-American community that 50 Cent addresses. As Ernest Emenyonu and Iniobong Uko note in their essay from the literary volume, Perspectives on Achebe, James Baldwin had such great respect for Achebe that, upon his death in 1987, his family gave his briefcase to Achebe "believing that 'he would have wanted you to have it.'" The Guardian's article succinctly sums up the row: "It seems hawkish, at best, to hound someone else for using a phrase you yourself borrowed... as one smart cookie on Facebook pointed out, one could equally ask, "did Yeats have to pay Jesus for use of the phrase "The Second Coming"?