“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer": a famous quote and the stamp of (in)authenticity

The IPKat welcomes the following guest post from copyright moral rights enthusiast Mira T. Sundara Rajan,  Professor of Intellectual Property Law, University of Glasgow, on a fascinating drama in which the principal actors are two literary ladies and, making a relatively rare appearance centre stage, the United States Postal Service.  This is how Mira unrolls the sequence of events and explains their legal significance:
In a commendable gesture, the United States Postal Service has issued a stamp honouring that most-maligned of modern professionals, a poet. Maya Angelou, an African-American writer, has been described by the Post newspaper in her native St Louis as “star, icon, woman,” and by Michelle Obama as "the master", She died in May of last year, at the age of 86. Her contributions were numerous – and, indeed, they transcended literature and spilled over into dance, music, and drama – but she remained best known for an early autobiography. Entitled I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the book became an internationally-acclaimed bestseller and, as her website notes, continues to be widely read as  “a course adoption at college campuses around the world".

The U.S. Postal Service chose an expressive and wonderfully appropriate quotation to accompany Angelou’s picture on the stamp: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” As noted by Ron Nixon of the New York Times, the U.S. Postal Service explained the choice of the quotation by commenting “that Ms Angelou had cited the quotation frequently in interviews and that it provided a connection to her 1969 autobiography, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.’”

The picture and quotation were a perfect match. The stamp, and the honour intended, promised spectacular results.

Or did they? Life is never so perfect. Despite the best of plans and intentions, something had gone astray: Angelou never wrote the words that appeared beside her picture on the postage stamp. They were actually authored by Joan Walsh Anglund, a writer of “children’s and inspirational books.”

How, then, did these words come to be attributed to Maya Angelou, and to find their way onto the postage stamp?

It seems clear that Angelou loved them. She is said to have quoted this line in “many interviews,” though she never claimed it as her own. At least some part of the public believed that the words were hers. No less a figure than President Obama quoted the line and attributed it to Angelou publicly, at least once – in the course of a 2013 awards presentation honouring artists receiving the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal.

Joan Walsh Anglund
Members of the USPS dealing with the commemorative stamp therefore had reason to think that the quote originated with Angelou. But it is very interesting to consider the reasons why the USPS might have thought so – not because Angelou ever said that the line was hers, but because they heard about the quote in association with her, because she quoted it frequently, because others (including those in authority) said it was hers ... above all, perhaps, because it seemed appropriate. After all, the similarity of image, idea, and sentiment between this epigram and the title of Angelou’s autobiography is both obvious and striking. The attitude of the USPS was not founded on anything that could be called knowledge; it was, rather, based on rumour, belief, received wisdom, myth, or legend.

The USPS made a mistake. There is nothing so extraordinary in that; but, what is extraordinary, is that  the U.S. Postal Service now has no interest in correcting the error. The stamp will go ahead as is. And why? According to an email from David Partenheimer, a spokesman for the USPS, to the New York Times: 
“The sentence was chosen to accompany her image on the stamp to reflect her passion for the written and spoken word. ... [It] held great meaning for her, and she is publicly identified with its popularity.”
And there’s the rub. Anyone who cares about history, culture, literature, or human rights should be given at least a moment’s pause by this explanation. Partenheimer makes two extraordinarily telling points about the choice. First, the sentence was chosen because it was, yes, appropriate: it seems right that Angelou should have written it. This is the way the human mind works – why generations of people thought that the world was flat, or the sun went round the earth. It “makes sense.” But the fact that Angelou didn’t write these words opens up an alternativee universe of interesting possibilities that flow, not from any limited human sense of what is “right” or “fitting,” but from the real world of actual possibilities based on (dare we say it) the truth. One of those possible, interesting implications is that Maya Angelou’s thought was mirrored in similar thoughts and reflections expressed by other writers and thinkers – perhaps she influenced them, perhaps they influenced her, or perhaps they were all influenced by something like Hegel’s world-spirit at work at that time. By recognizing authenticity, we end up with a more accurate, comprehensive, and richer picture of reality. We achieve an awareness of the interconnectedness of things – ideas, thoughts, words, sentiments.

But the second justification noted by Partenheimer is, if anything, still more disturbing – Angelou is “publicly identified” with the “popularity” of the words. Well, he was careful – he did not exactly say that Angelou was publicly identified as the author of the words. But that idea seems implicit in his statement. Since the association with Angelou was the main reason behind the popularity of the quote, according to Partenheimer, that is reason enough to create a commemorative stamp which places her picture alongside an unattributed version of that quotation.

And the combination of image and word seems powerful. What is likely to happen in the mind of a person who sees the stamp? Will the response be to admire the quotation and wonder who wrote it? Or will the eyes travel, quite naturally, if carelessly, to the picture of the writer beside them, the author of a book with a related title – birds that sing and sing again – leading to the natural, if careless, thought, that here, then, is the picture of the author of those words?

The U.S. Postal Service is no ordinary institution: it is an agency of the U.S. government. It represents the government of a country – and not just any country, but the most culturally dominant country in the world. It is empowered to undertake action in support of American culture, and, conversely, it can also create damage. The USPS has power; and with power comes responsibility. Commemorative stamps represent the cultural achievement of a country, and they carry word of that achievement around the world. The United States is only one of many countries to issue them, and to make them an occasion to celebrate writers. Independent India issued them, too; though, as the example pictured here shows, India took the course, perhaps wiser, if less ambitious, of including the writer’s picture and years of life, alone – no words.

But the US Postal Service doesn’t need to care about its mistake, for the simple reason that it has violated no U.S. law. The United States copyright law, which may well be unique in the world in this respect, protects no general right of attribution. It rejected this possibility when Congress decided not to implement generalized “moral rights” for authors at the time of joining the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, in 1989. Nor has the United States compensated for this shortcoming in copyright law by providing a right of attribution for authors elsewhere in its legal system. The only exception to this rule is a limited right of attribution for artists working in the visual arts. This artists’ attribution right has been written into a special statute known as the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, or VARA, section 106A of the U.S. Copyright Act. As American copyright scholar Jane Ginsburg has noted before, attribution for authors at large simply remains unrecognized. No moral rights, no attribution – and, for the USPS, no problem.

Where does this leave us, as far as the one thing that matters is concerned – the preservation of American literary heritage? Future generations will receive a stamp, issued in 2015, with a picture of a poet and an accompanying quotation that is not explicitly attributed to anyone. The picture, itself, may prove to be nothing less than an implicit form of misattribution, leaving an impression in the receiver’s mind that Maya Angelou wrote those beautiful, interesting, and memorable words. In most other countries in the world – India, for example – the issuer of the stamp would be legally, as well as ethically, responsible. But not in the United States.

As for Ms Anglund, the now 89-year old author of the quotation, which dates from a 1967 book – as the U.S. Postal Service might say, “Never heard of her" [Postal Service officials said they had not heard of Ms Anglund’s book, “A Cup of Sun,” until asked about it by The Washington Post, which published an article about the stamp on Monday": New York Times]. Ms Anglund’s reaction to the debacle was that “she was a fan of Ms. Angelou’s and hoped that the stamp would be successful.”  Is life’s greatest beauty to be found, after all, in its imperfections?
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer": a famous quote and the stamp of (in)authenticity  “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer": a famous quote and the stamp of (in)authenticity Reviewed by Jeremy on Sunday, May 03, 2015 Rating: 5


  1. It is really interesting from the psychology/cognitive science perspective as well. Basically, everyone is making connections in their semantic networks between the quote and Angelou because of two principles:
    1. similarity - the two share associations that are common (e.g., the bird-related theme); this is why we mentally associate cars and trucks more closely than cars and apples.
    2. repeated co-occurrence - as you note, Angelou mentioned the quote often, leading to co-occurrence in the world; this is why we associate luggage and airplanes, though they look nothing alike.

    The way the semantic networks operate is that when one "node" in the network becomes activated, closely associated nodes also light up. We measure this with reaction time tasks. It would likely be easier (and faster) to recognize a picture of Angelou after hearing that quote, whereas the actual author may not benefit from that kind of priming.

  2. Neither is it exactly what Joan Anglund wrote. Angelou and the Post Office tidied it up by changing a 'he' to 'it'.
    John Howkins


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