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50 Cent outclasses Chinua Achebe in conflict over book, movie title.

September 14, 2011

50 Cent, aka Curtis Jackson

The spectacle of a thuggish rap star showing more poise and grace than a venerable Nobel novelist apparently leaves confused journalists to find new ways to misplay the story.

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According to the usually reliable U.K. newspaper, the Guardian, Chinua Achebe, Africa’s most distinguished novelist, unleashed his lawyers on American rap star 50 Cent over the title of a new movie entitled Things Fall Apart.

Of course, that’s also the title of Achebe’s 1957 novel, regarded today as a masterpiece of post-colonial world literature. 50 Cent’s movie, written and financed by the rapper, is the uplifting story of a football player who struggles to overcome cancer.

50 Cent attempted to appease Achebe by offering a million dollars for the use of the title, but the author spurned it as an insult, saying the novel was published 17 years before the rapper was born. It’s “listed as the most read book in Africa,” Achebe said, “and won’t be sold for even one billion dollars.”

In the end, 50 Cent capitulated, changing the title of his movie to All Things Fall Apart.

Now this may look like a triumph of high art over low, of a distinguished novelist thumping the head of an upstart pop star. This would be entirely misleading. Instead, it’s a case of a fabulously wealthy and influential popular entertainer generously recognizing the claims of a revered elder — even when he does not have to.

The problem with the way the Guardian plays the story is its use of that word “forced,” coupled with the strong implication that 50 Cent caved in under threats of legal action.

In fact, titles cannot be copyrighted. Achebe has no legal standing to challenge 50 Cent’s use of the title in a court of law — where such a challenge would be summarily tossed out. I’m not a lawyer (thank God!) and I don’t play one on TV, but check out the United States Copyright Office FAQ and see if you can come to any other conclusion: “Copyright does not protect names, titles, slogans, or short phrases.”

Furthermore, Achebe did not originate the phrase “things fall apart,” but borrowed it from William Butler Yeats’ famous poem, The Second Coming — making his claims of ownership more than faintly ridiculous.

So who comes off better in this contretemps — the elderly chest-thumping author, or the pop star who respectfully abandons a title to which he is clearly attached, even though he cannot be compelled to do so?

As for the headline writers at the Guardian: I am very, very disappointed.

This may sound absurdly high minded, but I believe most readers learn more from newspapers, magazines, and books than they ever do in the classroom. Writers — journalists especially — have a professional obligation to get things right, even the little things.

By using the word “forced” when “persuaded,” or “pressured,” or even “shamed” would have been more accurate, the Guardian badly leads astray any reader who has not yet learned the facts of copyright law, which is likely a large portion of its readership.

As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”


12 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2011 2:44 pm

    There might be some gray area here as to the question of whether the TITLE can be copyrighted. As I understand it, some countries do protect titles. When my last book was translated into French, I was told by my French editor it could not bare the same title (ie a literal translation). They had to add an extra word, much like Mr. Cent did.

    Just the same, the author in question here comes across as petty.

  2. Klas U permalink
    September 14, 2011 5:14 pm


    The US is not the world AND his advisors probably asked him to back off in order not to ruffle any feathers…… I WON’t be watching the lame movie anyhow and 50 could have done better than offer money to a venerable writer….. The Roots had no trouble

  3. September 21, 2011 10:04 pm

    Nice article. It does seem as though they wanted to paint 50 cent as an irrational thug, not worthy of using a title from “such a great novel.” I think as you said, he showed poise and offered a more than acceptable offer to use the title, even when he could had said, suck it’. Despite his upbringing and public persona, I imagine 50 cent has more lawyers than most CEO’s and I’m sure one of them was wise enough to let him know he could just use the title without future legal issues. Strangely enough, I raise my glass to you 50 cent, rap is not my thing, but I appreciate seeing a person such as yourself proving the stereotypes wrong again.

  4. Valleri permalink
    October 2, 2011 9:47 am

    Well, I’m Nigerian and I’ll tell you that copyright here does not protect titles too. It hardly even protect the whole book say nothing of a title. And it wouldn’t have helped Chinua that 2 of his book titles including the one in contention were borrowed from poets too. I think what 50 cent did was respectable. I spotted the 2 foul above the first time i saw the article. I’m sure 50 cent’s lawyers would have told him it would have been an easy win. so for him to do that, i think it’s respectable.

  5. October 9, 2011 4:28 am

    There is no course for alarm. The name has been changed to “All things fall apart”. 50 cent should not panic at all because people still get the message. Thanks…

  6. Victor Dammie permalink
    June 1, 2012 3:26 pm

    HIGH 5! .::

  7. benjamin, wisdom.o permalink
    August 4, 2012 5:22 am

    50 cent has no right to copy a title from another distinguished autor,because it is a fringe of ownership against right of ownership.knowledge is power and when a book is destroyed a community is destroyed according to departmental slogan.

  8. Dave sobo permalink
    November 5, 2012 3:09 am

    Achebe does not own the title Things fall apart because it was a phrase from W.B Yeats poem? Hmmm how does that play out. Yahoo can’t use or claim ownership of the name because it has appeared on songs in the past.

  9. March 15, 2013 4:43 am

    I think mr 50 displayed himself respectedly by offering mr Achebe some gift as an indication of honour , as some researches suggested in this article that mr william Butler yeats was the coining emperor of the title, mr Achebe should not have squarshed the offer of respect because the gift rejected turns evil as saying goes, it mentioned many times not once in this article that copyright law protects not title, slogan, name,and so on, ok what is the essence of over zealousness of mr Achebe, and for those that insinuated saying ,fringe ownership against right ownership, should be enough wise!, for the last don,t ever quest the truth in the valley of doubth. ,,BY CHRISTOO D GREAT,,

  10. patosky permalink
    March 24, 2013 11:14 am

    I think we have to start from what the book ”THINGS FALL APART” meant for Africans….Let me say before this book came out, Africa was viewed as the dark continent populated by unintelligble and backward people. With the stroke of his pen (or should i say typewriter), Achebe changed that. This book is an absolute classic and lets say I agree with Achebe that it just doesnt seem right for 50 cent to use the title of the same book in his movie….whether Achebe can sue in US or Nigeria is irrelevant…(I believe he can forum shop and sue 50 cent in Europe or other countries in the world)…though in fairness the compromise reached, is the best for all.

  11. November 16, 2017 4:19 pm

    Can’t copyright phrase or title period. Author is a dickhead.

    • Tre Mendes permalink
      November 16, 2017 6:04 pm

      Really, a dickhead? The man achieved so much and has contributed greatly to his country (and ours), his continent and his people, and you insult him over his fight to defend his work? Have some respect for the man, if for nothing else than that he’s deceased.

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