Storytelling and Copyright

By Rose Owens


            A discussion of copyright as it applies to storytelling is a bit like comparing apples to oranges.  Storytelling is an oral tradition.  It is fluid.  The words of a story change each time it is told.  Copyright protects the author’s words once they are captured in a tangible form in writing or on some recording media.  This discrepancy is one of the reasons why copyright issues are revisited at frequent intervals on STORYTELL.   

            The copyright law is clear, but how it is applied to storytelling is unclear (Margaret Sheehan).”  Copyright laws are available at .  If you have copyright concerns, looking at what the law actually says has merit.  Traditional tales are in the public domain and are not copyrighted.  However, when an author re-writes a traditional tale, his version can be copyrighted.  Original works are under copyright for the life of the author plus 70 years.  

            Some storytellers  believe that copyright doesn’t apply to storytelling.  Tim Sheppard’s  personal belief is that since copyright protects written or recorded words and since storytellers use different words each time they tell a story, copyright has not been violated.  (See The Storytelling FAQ at   This same philosophy would seem to indicate that telling an authored story is acceptable because you are not using the author’s exact words.  Lorna Czarnota reminds us that “Ethics and Law are not always the same thing.  Is it legal?  That’s one issue.  Is it the right thing to do?“  That is what each storyteller needs to decide. 

            Tim Sheppard and Heather Forest have both reminded STORYTELL members  that a professional storyteller needs to act in a professional way.  Traditional folktales have been passed down orally for generations.  If  a storyteller hears or reads a traditional tale they would like to tell, it has been suggested that he/she research at least 3 versions of the folktale and develop his/her own version.  If an original story or version of a traditional folktale  is copyrighted, permission needs to be obtained from the author or book publisher.  Credit to the author, original teller and the culture of origin should be given as part of the oral storytelling experience.   Finding a story on the Internet with no author listed does not mean that story is not under copyright.  You may need to do additional research.  Tim Sheppard suggests that you “Take a non-cliché sentence from the story, enclose it in double quotes and put that into a search engine.  That will find web pages that have the story, which may give an attribution if there is one.”

            Storytelling ethics demands that a storyteller should ask permission before telling another individual’s personal stories.   In addition to getting permission, a storyteller needs to  credit the owner of the story and tell the listener that even though this story is being told in first person, it is not his/her own personal story.  This is an issue of personal integrity.    A storyteller should choose carefully  the stories he/she will develop and tell.  Telling another’s story may limit when and where a storyteller is able to tell that story in the future.   Obtaining appropriate permissions will free him/her to tell the right story at the right time. 

            Paying attention to copyright is important.  If your intent is to record or write down the story (thereby creating a copyrighted product), you need to research copyright on the stories.   If you share stories on the Internet, this is regarded as publication.  If you omit the copyright notice you may be forfeiting your right to copyright that version of your story or article in the future.  As part of your copyright notice, include information on what permissions are granted to other storytellers.  The title page of “Spinning Tales, Weaving Hope, Stories of Peace, Justice & the Environment specifically gives permission ‘for any storyteller to tell these stories to a live audience’ and adds ‘If you want to publish or record these stories, you must get permission from the contributing storyteller.’  I love the clarity of that. (Judy Schmidt).

“Storytelling is a long path,” Heather Forest says.  She advises developing tellers  You should plan to still be telling in ten, fifteen, or twenty years.  Stories need time to ripen with age.”  If, at some time in the future, you transition from volunteer storytelling to professional storytelling, you will want to be able to take the stories you have learned and developed with you.  It could be frustrating if you were not comfortable telling some of your favorite stories because of copyright concerns. 

            A storyteller’s position on copyright is a very personal one.   Are storytellers taken to court for copyright violations?  At present there is no record of this happening.  Do you need permission to tell authored stories?   Each storyteller determines the   storytelling ethics that influence his/her personal decisions.  Since each storyteller is an individual who tells different stories in different places, each storyteller must ultimately make his/her own decision as to how copyright relates to his/her storytelling.


Copyright 2006

Rose Owens


Published in:

Storyline (Storytelling Association of Alta California Newsletter)   Winter 2006

Grapevine (St. Louis Gateway Storytellers Newsletter)  Jan-Feb. 2007


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