Desiderata – not so peaceful

From our recent post on Resolutions and Revolutions of 2009, R&R 2009 a little research has thrown up some interesting information about the Desiderata. It is of particular interest to me, because Robbie and I gave each guest at our wedding in May 1985 a personal copy of the poem, simply because we liked it so much.

In the ten Resolutions and Revolutions for 2009, I listed the Desiderata at number 10 and published it in full, with attribution:

10. Live in the spirit of the Desiderata – for it is a timeless message of simple peace and tranquility.

The history of the Desiderata, considering its loving and peaceful message is shrouded with confusion and angst.

Its author is Max Ehrmann, a poet and lawyer from Indiana, who lived from 1872 to 1945. “I should like, if I could, to leave a humble gift — a bit of chaste prose that had caught up some noble moods”, he wrote in his diary.

In the US, copyright exists from the moment the work is created, but to sue for breach of copyright requires that it must first be registered and published copies of the work must include the notation that the work is copyright and to whom.  The Desiderata probably written in the early 1920’s, but no application was made for copyright until 1927 and the 1977 Annual Report of the US Register of Copyrights, sets out the key point that forfeiture had occurred by authorized publication of copies without the correct notice on them.

In 1942 and 1944 (well after registration), Ehrmann had friendly correspondence with Merrill Moore, a US Army psychiatrist, and their letters were held to supply direct credible evidence of a general publication authorized by the copyright proprietor. Permission to use the work was given gratuitously. Nowhere was a copyright or copyright notice mentioned.

The lone copy of the poem found in the Merrill Moore papers did not have such a notice and neither did the copy that Reverend Kates found some years later, and the clergyman testified that he distributed “many copies” without the required notice. It was his publication, with the heading “Old Saint Paul’s Church in Baltimore, Maryland” that gave rise to the story that the work had originally been published in 1692.

The current owner of the copyright, Robert L. Bell, who acquired the copyright to Desiderata at great financial risk from Richmond Wight, nephew and heir to the Ehrmann works in 1967, sued Combined Registry Company, lost and then lost his appeal on 14 May 1976 in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

The conclusion of abandonment rests upon a finding of Mr. Ehrmann’s long-term intent to contribute Desiderata to the public and whether or not this poem is in the public domain depends upon your point of view and your place of residence.

In Australia, a (©) is not required on a work to gain copyright. Only the copyright owner is entitled to place a notice and in an idle moment, I wonder if I need to proclaim my copyright here.
© Lesley Dewar 2008

About Lesley Dewar

Passionate about story telling and getting kids involved with their parents to improve literacy. Blogger, Author, Networker, Social Media, Activist.
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