Creative Imperialism and Copyright Law

The Lewis Legacy-Issue 76, Spring 1998 The C.S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing

The vagaries of copyright law can be not only surprising, but amazing. In July 1997 London’s Observer reported that according to some lawyers, the River Kwai in Thailand does not exist. This claim infuriates surviving World War Two prisoners of the Japanese. In 1942 and 1943 Allied prisoners were forced to build a 250-mile railway to Burma for their captors, and 16,000 died in the process.

“Where do they think I was in 1942?” asked the vice-chairman of the Japanese Labour Camp Survivors’ Association of Great Britain. He has survey maps dating back to 1903 that name the River Kwai, and a 1945 RAF ariel photograph referring to the River Kwai. He also has the American pilot who bombed the famous bridge there in 1945.

The legal copyright dispute about the river name is clearly a money matter and possibly a matter of national face-saving. In 1957 Columbia Pictures released a Sam Spiegel film that is now a classic, The Bridge on the River Kwai. In 1989 British film producer Kurt Unger released a film titled Return from the River Kwai. But Sony, which is Japanese and now owns Columbia, has blocked distribution of Unger’s film in the U.S. for most of a decade, claiming copyright ownership of the name of the Thailand river.

Lawyers for the estate of Sam Spiegel claim that the River Kwai was not real, and 86-year-old U. S. judge David Edelstein disallowed any testimony to the contrary. Columbia’s (Sony’s) lawyer Ira Sacks claims that according to U.S. law if you use a name and it becomes famous you own an exclusive right to it in that area of commerce. Kurt Unger argues, “No court can say that you can appropriate to yourself the name of a place.”

According to Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis Pte Ltd has copyrighted the word Narnia, which is a real town by the Nar river in Italy, Can anyone name that place in a book title? All this raises a big question about book titles in general; they have never been protected by copyright law in the past. Has that changed?