Dynamist Blog

Robert Frost's Estate Does Use Copyright to Crush Use of "Stopping by Woods..."

In response to my Bloomberg View column on copyright excesses, my college classmate Joanne Karohl posted the following comment:

Since Frost poems were mentioned in the article, I wanted to mention an interesting use of copyright to prevent someone from using specifically "Stopping by Woods..." A well known composer, Eric Whitacre, wrote a piece for chorus which now goes by the title "Sleep" but was originally written to set "Stopping By Woods" to music. I am not sure if the poem had briefly passed out of copyright in between congressional extensions, or if he believed that he had permission, but in any case after a couple of performances, he was stopped from using the poem by the estate of Robert Frost, and had to have a friend write another poem especially for the music. You can actually find the original work with the Frost words on You Tube...it is much better in my opinion than the final version with the new words.

The story was not only news to me, but actually contradicts a claim, which Tom Bell pointed me to at the last minute, that the copyright on the poem, as opposed to the book in which it appeared, was never properly renewed. Since the Poetry Foundation and others behave as though the poem is under copyright, I decided not to raise the issue in the column and only modified the language slightly--a good call, since the Frost estate does, as Joanne pointed out, go around enforcing the copyright against people making commercial use of the poem.

On his website, Eric Whitacre tells the story of his clash with the estate. He had written a choral work, setting the poem to music, at the request of Julia Armstrong, an Austin, Texas, lawyer and professional mezzo-soprano who sings with the Austin ProChorus. He writes:

The poem is perfect, truly a gem, and my general approach was to try to get out of the way of the words and let them work their magic. We premiered the piece in Austin, October 2000, and the piece was well received. Rene Clausen gave it a glorious performance at the ACDA National Convention in the spring of 2001, and soon after I began receiving letters, emails, and phone calls from conductors trying to get a hold of the work.

And here was my tragic mistake: I never secured permission to use the poem. Robert Frost's poetry has been under tight control from his estate since his death, and until a few years ago only Randall Thompson (Frostiana) had been given permission to set his poetry [to music]. In 1997, out of the blue, the estate released a number of titles, and at least twenty composers set and published Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening for chorus. When I looked online and saw all of these new and different settings, I naturally (and naively) assumed that it was open to anyone. Little did I know that the Robert Frost Estate had shut down ANY use of the poem just months before, ostensibly because of this plethora of new settings.

After a LONG legal battle (many letters, many representatives), the estate of Robert Frost and their publisher, Henry Holt Inc., sternly and formally forbid me from using the poem for publication or performance until the poem became public domain in 2038.

I was crushed. The piece was dead, and would sit under my bed for the next 37 years because of some ridiculous ruling by heirs and lawyers.

He salvaged the work by getting a poet friend, Charles Anthony Silvestri, to write new words for the music. In another blog post, he writes that he prefers the new version and that Silvestri "not only replaced the poem, he saved the piece. He actually made my music much, much better, on every level."

Here's the original. (Apparently the Frost estate hasn't discovered YouTube.)

Here's a video with the new version (and, as the commenters note, a rather anomalous Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj promotion around it):

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