Poet, voiceover artist and school teacher Taylor Mali is no stranger to having his work used and passed around without being given proper credit. His most well-known poem, “What Teachers Make,” has been making the rounds (in various, usually edited forms) as an email forward for the better part of a decade. It’s almost always credited to “Anonymous.”
The poem was cited (without proper attribution) by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman during his 2003 Yale commencement address, and was transformed (without permission) into a children’s book.
Friedman eventually admitted his mistake, and the book’s author learned of Mali just in time to have a “based on the poem by…” message added. But it’s those emails—whose authors have the audacity to edit his work and strip his name from it—that bother him the most. Written in 1999, “What Teachers Make” has been wrongly credited to “Anonymous,” despite the fact that there are numerous videos of Mali performing it on YouTube.
One of those videos is taken from his 2003 appearance on the award-winning HBO special Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, and at least one of those videos has been viewed more than one million times.
“Five minutes of searching for a phrase or two on Google would reveal I’m the author,” said Mali.
According to Mali, the plagiarism started when he published the poem on his website, TaylorMali.com, after writing it in 1999. he didn’t include his name in the text with the poem, because he assumed that readers would know the work’s author by the website’s address.
Given how frequently he’s plagiarized, Mali wasn’t surprised when I called him on Friday, seeking comment about an unattributed use of his work. He was surprised, however, when he learned that his poem had been appropriated and transformed into a song that is currently being marketed to mainstream country radio—a process that requires the involvement and oversight of numerous individuals, from musicians and engineers to publishers and record label executives.
“I Make A Difference,” which is being promoted by an Atlanta-based company called Evergreen Records, is available for streaming on the radio industry website AllAccess, and a search of the BMI song database reveals that the song is registered with the performing rights organization (which tracks royalties owed to songwriters) as having been written by Brad Wolf (the artist on the Evergreen cut) and Donald Goodman, who wrote hits such as “Angels Among Us” and “Ol’ Red.”
However, the chorus and second verse of “I Make a Difference” are lifted almost verbatim from Mali’s “What Teachers Make.”
Wolf, Goodman and Evergreen Records did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story. However, Clearwater, Florida-based Robert “Buddy” Resnik, whose Resnik Music Group controls the publishing rights of “I Make A Difference,” said that he was unaware of any similarities between the song and poem.
“You kind of caught me off guard,” he said during a Friday phone call.
When asked what steps he would take now since he’d been made aware of the issue, Resnik said that his company is “very honest and open,” and that they’re “committed to doing the right thing.”
In addition to Brad Wolf’s version of “I Make a Difference,” the audio player on Resnik Music Group’s website contains versions of the song performed by Linda Davis and Burns & Poe, meaning that the song has been recorded on at least three different occasions. Neither Davis nor representatives from Burns & Poe responded to requests to be interviewed for this story.
Resnik said that he doesn’t believe the song has been recorded by any other artists.
While Wolf’s version of “I Make a Difference” will likely make little impact at radio (due to the tiny size of Evergreen Records), the song is currently available for download in the iTunes music store. Mali may be entitled to some or all of the royalties from public performances (including radio spins) of the song, and from digital or physical sales of the single. To date, “I Make a Difference” has not appeared on an album.
Mali said that he’s surprised by the lack of research undertaken by Wolf and Goodman, and that, pending a conversation with his lawyer, he will likely issue a “cease and desist” letter to the appropriate parties.
“A part of me is honored that my poem moved someone to set it to music,” he said. “But the rest of me is disappointed that someone claimed my words as their own. I mean, the poem is a tribute to teachers. But you can’t claim to stand for that if you are also plagiarizing the words of a teacher.”
Mali said that if Wolf and Goodman had asked him first, he would have given them permission to adapt the poem—presuming they gave him appropriate credit in return.
Now, he hopes that any media attention given to this story of plagiarism will help him reattach his name to a poem that many people assume was written by no one in particular.