The pranksters behind the Catcher in the Rye sequel and the fight over who owns fictional characters.
J.D. Salinger, the reclusive author of beloved novels, is suing an author publishing a novel, 60 Years Later: Coming Through The Rye, due to be published in September by Nicotext, for violating his intellectual property rights. Salinger, who has been in hiding in New Hampshire for as long as many of us have been alive, is litigious: he sued to prevent the publication of the British literary critic Ian Hamilton's biography in 1986, and copyrighted all his letters to prevent them from being included in the biography. He tried to block Joyce Maynard from selling the letter he wrote her when they were romantically involved in 1999 (he lost).The new book is written by an equally shadowy writer, who writes under the pen name John David California ("J.D." for short, I guess), and is described in the legal documents as "an American living in Sweden." The plot revolves around a 76-year old Holden, who escapes from a retirement home (boarding school for the elderly) and wanders the streets of New York (equally appealing to teens and seniors).In his suit, Salinger claims the defendents are "acting in bad faith to confuse the public, which is likely to think he wrote the sequel. He wants publication enjoined, all copies of the book destroyed, damages and costs."The defendants are also, apparently, a bunch of jokesters and the notion that the sequel is a well-meaning homage to The Catcher in the Rye is most likely, a hoax. As Galleycat revealed, J.D. California's Wikipedia entry lists his birthday as April 1. His bio at Amazon.com is starkly at odds with the staid "American in Sweden" tag from the court documents:"The former gravedigger and Ironman triathlete has been captivated by the story of Holden Caulfield for years. After finding a well-travelled [sic] copy of The Catcher in the Rye in an abandoned cabin in rural Cambodia, the iconic characters within saw John through the most maniacal of tropical fevers and chronic isolation."And the publisher? Nicotext's mission statement is as follows: "Hi! We are Nicotext...[W]e make books whose sole purpose it is to make you giggle. While thumbing our collective nose at the literati, we have found our niche amongst the useless, the trivial and the potentially offensive."Now if this J.D. and his nose-thumbing pals had done the obvious thing and written a Catcher parody, they could not have been sued. A parody comments upon the original work, and transforms it. So being critical and altering the original actually lands you in better legal shape than being honorific and faithful, which this new book, which no one has read yet, is described as being.In their complaint, Salinger's attorney writesnot publishing a parody, they were hoping for just this response, from the press and from Salinger, so the courts and the public would wrestle with vexing (and, perhaps, nap-inducing) yet important questions about intellectual property and literature.In other words, hoax aside: should Salinger win?I would be on Salinger's side of courtroom were the case to rest on the question of "sequel." The term sequel connotes a work that is approved of, if not written by, the author. This book is not a sequel, and the law should stop unauthorized works claiming to be one.But as for his using the same character as in the original, the legal question is murky. Can one copyright a character? Mickey Mouse is copyrighted, sure. (For a good discussion of copyrights and characters and the legalities of this suit, see this piece from The Wall Street Journal.) But Holden? Even if the law would say yes, should we not change it?In this age of riffing and sampling and linking and, well, playing around and having fun with "content"-do we really want copyrighted characters?Some would claim that Salinger might be writing a new story or novel featuring Holden, and thus he should retain the rights to the character. Okay, I see that point. But it seems to me that for the most part it is publishers who have the vested interest in copyrighted characters rather than authors. And readers? Readers want to be free.Photo for illustration by flickr user (cc) NoTramsToLimeStreet