Thursday, June 18, 2009

Who Owns Holden Caulfield?

There's an interesting literary legal battle playing out in New York City, with one of American fiction's iconic characters at its center.

On one side is author JD Salinger, whose classic novel The Catcher in the Rye gave us the ultimate paradigm of youthful disillusionment, Holden Caulfield. Salinger hasn't published anything since 1965 and almost more noteworthy now for his recluse status and the vehemence with which he guards his copyrights.

On the other side is a Swedish author, Fredrik Colting, and his American publisher. Colting has written a book, 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, which involves a main character named "Mr. C.," aged 60 years from Caulfield, and a "Mr. Salinger", who keeps trying to off the character he created.

Sound familiar? Salinger has sued to stop the US release of the book (it's already out in the UK), arguing that Colting's book is an unauthorized sequel to The Catcher in the Rye and thus violates his copyright. Colter responds that it's not a sequel at all, but high-end literary metacriticism written in the style of a novel.

Initially, at least, the federal judge hearing the case isn't buying it. She entered a temporary injunction banning the release of Colting's book, but only for ten days until a final decision can be made.

Having had a chance to skim the memos filed by the parties, I'm not sure who has the better claim. Salinger argues (over and over) that the new book is a sequel, which, if true, pretty clearly dooms Colting. To support that claim, the memo quotes blurbs from (apparently) the UK release of the book that calls it a sequel, but Colting's response says it's not. Instead, he seeks safe harbor in the fair use exception for parody or satire. I suspect it's not really possible to resolve the dispute without reading Colting's book.

Legalities aside, even assuming Colting's book is a sequel, it stands in a long line of such works. For example, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead takes characters from Hamlet and retells their story. Is that ripping of Shakespeare? He surely wouldn't mind. Aside from being dead, he knows that he ripped off characters and stories from lots of other sources. It's the execution we find so compelling, after all.

But, Bill was dead long before Stoppard rejuvenated his characters. Salinger is still very much alive and should be able to say, "don't do this to my creation."

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