Ye gods! Copyright clashes as old as Homer's 'Odyssey'

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The public's growing infatuation with heroic warfare, anthropomorphic gods, Greeks bearing gifts, overweening hubris and all other things associated with the new movie "Troy" have made their way into a battle zone 8,000 miles away from the real Troy: a Manhattan courtroom.

There, attorneys for Homer, his alleged transcriber, several translators, and two women who claim to be his muses are arguing over copyright ownership for the Warner Bros. epic, for "The Iliad" and the "Odyssey," and potentially for the literary concept of long, drawn-out battles among sexually ambiguous warriors.

Some intellectual property experts even believe the future of the road movie may be threatened.

Homer, it turns out, cannot write. He sings his stories, and someone else transcribes them. A Smyrnan chiseler named Piscus has claimed that he hammered out the actual lines of dactylic hexameter, even adding some of the famous epithets-including both "clear-headed Telemachus" and "rosy-fingered Dawn"-that today are known generically as "Homeric verse."

Because neither Homer nor Piscus are members of the Screenwriters Guild of America, the Hollywood union has refused to arbitrate the dispute, a Guild spokesman said.

Recent legislative changes have lengthened copyright protection from 95 years to 11,447 years. With such extensive coverage, the stakes in this legal conflict are huge. Some attorneys argue that copyright, patent, and trademark laws together encompass not only the period in which Homer composed his poem, but the earlier epoch when Cro Magnon men hit each other repeatedly at short distances with very big rocks.

With the potential payoff so enormous, three literary estates recently joined the fray. The heirs of Alexander Pope, George Chapman and Richmond Lattimore are all claiming ownership of portions of Homer's oeuvre. Pope's case is especially poignant, his attorneys say, since during his life he frequently was referred to by his own Homeric epithet, "hunchbacked poet."

Also in court are two women, each of whom says that she alone is Homer's muse, and thus holds all the rights to the professed poet's purported property.

One, known eponymously as "Mousa," says she owns the entire "Odyssey," which she told to Homer several centuries ago when the two met during a visit to an oracle in Asia Minor. For evidence, she points to the first line of the epic, which, in the English translation, clearly states, "Tell me, Mousa, of the man of twists and turns."

Both Homer's attorney, Floyd Abrams, and his publicist, Leslee Dart, refused to comment.

Nor would they respond to a complementary claim by a woman named "Thea," who (in an allegation reminiscent of the charge made by the Chiffons against ex-Beatle George Harrison over the provenance of "My Sweet Lord") says that she once sang the entire "Iliad" to Homer. She, too, says the first line of the poem-"Sing to me of the anger of Achilles, Thea"-vindicates her claim.

Attorneys for the estates of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour, and Jack Kerouac, as well as lawyers for the Coen Brothers and Road and Track magazine, say they are following the "Odyssey" portion of the case closely.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton. He blogs ocassionally at randallrothenberg.com.

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