Heres a quiz, and a wrong answer could
cost you thousands of dollars. Who penned the line: "When
all else fails
(a) Will Rogers. (b)Your Aunt Millie. (c) Who knows? (d) Ashleigh Brilliant.
If you answered (a), (b), or especially (c), the copyright lawyers will see you later. The Correct answer is Ashleigh Brilliant, who lays claim to being historys only full time, professional published epigrammatist. As for Francois de la Rochefoucauld, the 17th century author of "Maxims," and Oscar Wilde, who observed in "Aphorisms" that anybody can make history but only a great man can write it, Mr. Brilliant sniffs: "They werent full time."
A Rigid Code
Mr. Brilliant has dreamed up and copyrighted thousands of one liners. The result: When the Funny Side Up catalog offered underwear emblazoned with the uncredited epigram "I May Not Be Perfect, But Parts of Me Are Excellent," he threatened to sue their pants off. But before Mr. Brilliant could file any briefs, the company sent him $1,000 and agreed to stop selling the offending garment. Funny Side Up declines comment.
A former college history professor and one-time
Haight-Ashbury hippie, the 58 year old Mr. Brilliant has copyrighted
such lines as "Even weeds have needs" and 5,631 others,
which he markets on hand lettered postcards, on a few licensed
products, in books and in a syndicated panel carried by about
a dozen newspapers.
Since 1967, when he came up with "Lets keep the Christ in Chrysler" (never a best seller, he concedes, but "very popular in Detroit"), Mr. Brilliant has produced an average of one Brilliant Thought, as he dubs them, every 36 hours. To qualify as a Brilliant Thought, an epigram must conform to a rigid code: no reference to fads or fashion, no rhyme used for its own sake, no puns, and nothing that isnt easily translatable. "Nothing that poets use," he says. Theres also a limit of 17 words, a tribute to the number of syllables in Japanese haiku and an early observation that hed never used more than 16 words anyway, but wanted a spare for emergencies.
Mr. Brilliant likes to take a common phrase, break off the stem and graft on something that twists in a new direction. "I start with something and then try to complete the thought in a totally unexpected way," he says. One example: "No man is an island, but some of us are long peninsulas."
If Mr. Brilliant -- thats his real name -- sounds a bit eccentric, you wouldnt get an argument from locals. He conducted an unsuccessful campaign for the Santa Barbara city council entirely in song in 1977, and got 2,000 votes, placing him eighth in a field of 11. He won a contest to write new lyrics for the Chiquita banana song, "the supreme creative achievement of my life," but became incensed when the winning entry wasnt actually used. Sample lyrics:
"Life, no matter what your plan is,
Can be better with banan-as. . . .
But its dangerous and unsightly to be careless with the peel of a banana,
So my proposal is disposal in an appropriate mann-ah."
Two years ago, Mr. Brilliant reviewed 14 months of entries in Readers Digests "Quotable Quotes" and found hed edged out Mark Twain for first place, with five. A magazine spokesman notes that since Mr. Brilliants first saying appeared in 1980, he actually trails Mr. Twain 21 to 13, but leads Will Rogers by two. The magazine paid Mr. Brilliant $50 for each.
While Mr. Brilliant attempts to make the prose timeless, it wasnt until 1979 that the legal system helped make it profitable. In a case against a heat-transfer decal company that appropriated three expressions (including "I have abandoned my search for the truth and am now looking for a good fantasy"), a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that Mr. Brilliants works were "epigrams" entitled to full copyright protection, as distinct from mere "short phrases," which cant be copyrighted.
That decision, and an $18,000 damage award, encouraged Mr. Brilliant to demand money from others. Hes written more than 350 threatening letters to alleged infringers, and has filed and won a half dozen copyright cases.
Universal and Perpetual
Mr. Brilliant caught 3M using epigram No. 212, "All I want is a little more than Ill ever get," on its pads of Post-it Notes. He sent a letter to the company, which paid a $6,000 license fee and promised a share of royalties. The company says it isnt using the saying anymore.
In October, a local restaurant, Cliffs & Co., distributed a newsletter bearing an unattributed saying, "I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes several days attack me at once." Mr. Brilliant fired off a letter to the restaurants owners pointing out that he is the registered copyright owner. The restaurant promised to print an apology and never use the epigram again. Reached by telephone, a man who would identify himself only as part-owner of the restaurant says the matter was settled to avoid bad publicity. "No way did Ashleigh Brilliant make that up," the man says, "I was there when a customer at the bar made it up, and he told it to me."
Mr. Brilliant says he has never pirated others works. "If I think theres any likelihood that anyone said it first, I wont use it," he says.
Occasionally, outsiders submit unsolicited suggestions for Mr. Brilliants line of "Pot-Shots" postcards. But he hasnt liked a single one. He even tried to train his wife of 23 years, Dorothy, to think Brilliant Thoughts, but it didnt work. On some private gauge, no one else measures up. "It should sound like something that somebody might say, but it should be something that nobody has ever said before," he says. "Its got to be universal and perpetual."
But an untrained eye cant always distinguish between high art and a bumper sticker. "Are we having fun yet?" isnt one of his. But "I think Im enjoying what I think is happening," just happens to be Brilliant Thought No. 1942. Whats the difference? "The reason thats on a bumper sticker is that its a take-off on what kids say, whereas, I think Im enjoying what I think is happening this is a profound comment on the nature of reality." Mr. Brilliant explains. "Surely you can see the difference."
Slight, Stooped and Shy
Every morning, Mr. Brilliant takes a two to four hour stroll. Hr carries a pen and paper and tunes his headset to talk radio, a source of ideas. Sometimes hes inspired by chance encounters or fragments of an overheard conversation. Recently, Mr. Brilliant happened upon a young couple arguing in the parking lot of the Jolly Tiger restaurant. "The woman shouted, Im not going to answer you if you talk to me like that!" Mr. Brilliant recalls. He immediately jotted: "If you want a kind answer, you should ask a kind question." Later he modified it further: "If you must ask an unkind question, at least try to ask it in a kind way."
Mr. Brilliant is slight and a bit stooped, with a fuzzy beard and a habit of gazing shyly downward while speaking. He has the reedy voice of an old man, and doesnt use it much without being prompted. But open-ended questions often elicit a new epigram. Explaining his behavior in an interview, for instance, Mr. Brilliant responds: "If Im maladjusted, I guess Im well adjusted to my maladjustment."
Might that off-the-cuff quip become a copyrighted Brilliant Thought? No, says Mr. Brilliant: "Its the sort of thing that clever people say all the time."
William Safire, the author and columnist, questions whether a phrase maker should seek lucre along with credit. "Everybody who coins a short, pithy saying should be delighted to be quoted and not object to what lawyers call fair use, " he says, "It seems to me that nobody should be able to copyright T-shirtisms like Because Im the mommy, thats why. "
Replies Mr. Brilliant: "My response would be that its my total livelihood, and he has all his columns and books and miles and miles of prose." Mrs. Brilliant, who handles the couples finances, says the business generates about $100,000 a year, with about half coming from the sale of the brightly colored postcards for 25 cents each. She says her husbands words now appear on about 100 million items.
Mr. Brilliant doesnt always charge for his work. Take the case of Joe A. Fear of Leadville, Colo., who asked for permission to carve Brilliant Thought No. 1041 on his wifes gravestone. Mr. Brilliant granted it without charge but with one condition: The words had to be accompanied by Mr. Brilliants full name and copyright symbol. "These could be in quite small lettering and in an inconspicuous position," he wrote.
"I didnt mind at all," Mr. Fear says. And thats why theres a copyright symbol today on a headstone in the southeast corner of the Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Buena Vista, Colo. "Frances G. Fear," it reads. "Before I knew the best part of my life had come, it had gone."
(From page 16 of my book I WANT TO REACH YOUR MIND -- WHERE IS IT CURRENTLY LOCATED? where this article appears by permission of the Wall Street Journal. Copyright 1992 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All Rights Reserved.