My children and I love the work of Arnold Lobel, who wrote the very well known Frog and Toad series of stories. Lobel’s story, The Letter, in which Frog writes a note to his friend Toad, gives it to a passing snail to deliver and then hurries to Toad’s house so he can witness the joy it brings, has one of the best punchlines in children’s literature. “Four days later…”
A while back, one of my sons asked me why we never meet Toad’s parents in any of the stories. “Doesn’t Toad have a Mama and a Daddy?” he wondered.
We do briefly meet Frog’s parents in one of the scarier stories in the series. In Shivers, Frog tells Toad a story about how he once was lost in the woods after a picnic with his mother and father. The young Frog, wandering lost and alone meets up with a terrifying figure, and must use his wits to save himself from being eaten. But, that’s the only glimpse we get of any “parents” – a somewhat unsatisfying couple who can’t seem to keep track of their young son. I enjoy this tale for its playful treatment of narrative – Toad keeps asking Frog if the story is true, and Frog keeps answering, “maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t.”
Still, the missing Toad parents make my kids uncomfortable, so we’ve written our own Frog and Toad story. In our story, Frog and Toad go on a long walk through the forest in order to visit Toad’s parents. On the walk, Frog stops Toad three different times to ask him if he remembered to bring a certain snack for them (repetition of questions is an important structural element in Frog and Toad stories). First Frog asks about strawberries, and the two friends sit down to enjoy a snack of fresh berries. Later Frog asks about cheese, and they eat cheese. Finally, Frog asks if Toad remembered to bring Timbits® -- my kids love Timbits® -- and Toad reveals that he has forgotten the little donut holes. Crisis!
Luckily, just then, two little boys arrive along the forest path. These boys have the same names as my sons, and they are appropriately dressed as Batman™ and Basil, the Great Mouse Detective™. As well, they just happen to have a box of Timbits®, ten chocolate glazed and ten sour cream glazed (mmmm, sour cream glazed – this preference is my only appearance in the story). They greet Frog and Toad, and everyone sits down to enjoy a final snack before the four of them finish their walk at the house of Toad’s parents.
This “fan fiction” is now a very popular addition to our regular enjoyment of the actual Frog and Toad stories – we listen to the original stories as an audiobook on long drives, usually with some Timbits® nearby. My kids helped me “write” this extra story and they tend to like to change up the details from telling to telling – the costumes in particular switch up according to their latest pop culture fixations.
I report this incident of fan fiction to illustrate how follow-on creativity can and does exist within a strong copyright regime designed to support original creators. I bought the original Frog and Toad stories as written by the late Arnold Lobel. In fact, my family has purchased many versions of them – individual print versions, compiled print versions in a collection of beloved children’s works, and the audiobook versions on CD. I’m very pleased that the family of the brilliant Arnold Lobel continues to benefit from the sale of these works. In fact, I hope they’re raking it in, because these stories provide great value. I’m confident we’ve received more dollars’ worth of entertainment from them than the actual price we paid.
I don’t feel any need to offer Frog and Toad Forget the Timbits® (working title) for sale, and I certainly don’t feel the Lobel family's right to stop me from doing so would be at all out of place within a vibrant, expanding culture. I recognize and celebrate Lobel's originality, and my debt to it in banging together this new story for my children. I don’t consider that I have the right to take the gifts given to me by Mr. Lobel’s text – his characters, his cadence -- and turn them into economic product. To me, that would be wrong – and frankly, as a writer, I would feel very unprofessional doing so. I also don’t feel the need to load the actual text of Frog and Toad Forget the Timbits® here on the Internet. It’s a private story for my children and me. We enjoy it privately, as a family.
But what about Basil, the Great Mouse Detective™, and Batman™ or even the Timbits® themselves? These elements of my fan fiction are controlled, in a way, by Disney, DC Comics and Tim Horton’s respectively, and at least one of these large corporations has a bit of history of very proactively protecting its rights in this regard. Am I not worried about a knock on the door, a lawsuit, or even a cease and desist letter.
Well, no, I’m not worried. First of all, I believe this kind of private use is functionally untouchable by copyright – who knows what I say to my kids in the privacy of my home or car? Secondly, by reporting on it here, I insist on my fair dealing user rights to use these names and terms. And finally, since I continue to happily buy product from all three of these corporations, and try to go out of my way to respect their rights in these transactions, if any one of these corporations were to take action against such private use they would alienate several generations of paying customers for no good economic reason.
Strong copyright protection for the rightsholders of economically active creativity need not be in conflict with use. We just all have the responsibility to get better at understanding where the intellectual property lines have been drawn, why these lines are necessary in the first place, and what we are more than free to do on our side of them.
Thank you Arnold Lobel for your very affordable and very available Frog and Toad stories. And thanks to Disney, DC and Timmy’s as well.