So I'm sure many of the three of you who read this have heard about the case that J.D. Salinger has brought against a Swedish author who has written an unauthorized sequel to Catcher in the Rye. As of this writing, the publication of the book has been enjoined, but the case is on appeal and the decision to stop the publication may be reversed because, simply, the new work is a fair use of the ideas contained in Catcher in the Rye.
I'm of two minds about this.
As a lawyer, I think the district court was wrong.* The "sequel" to Catcher, if it is as it's been described, is a transformative work that plays on the ideas of the original by aging the character of Holden Caulfield. This type of adaptation and enhancement are what the copyright laws are meant to protect. The law doesn't protect ideas, or themes, or even characters--they only protect the work, as written down. From a legal perspective, Salinger doesn't really have a leg to stand on.**
As a writer, though, I'm appalled. How awful must it be to see someone take your characters, characters that have become iconic classics of American literature, and turn them into something else? Something, frankly, less. Holden Caulfield is perfect the way he is, depressive, lonely, messed up, annoying, fierce, independent, and a hundred other adjectives. The only version of Holden Caulfield I want to know is Salinger's.
And it only adds insult to injury that it is Salinger's work that's being mauled this way. I would be horrified no matter which author was being abused like this, but the fact that it's Salinger makes it a slap in the face.*** I hope Salinger has a very persuasive lawyer. At least he's got a sympathetic court.
* This is based on what I've heard about the contents of the sequel--obviously, I haven't read the new book.
** Salinger's main legal argument appears to be that the publication of this work would diminish the market for a sequel as published by Salinger, but the problem with that argument is two-fold: (1) Salinger's not ever going to publish a sequel to Catcher and everyone damn well knows it (although the right to derivative works is still his, of course); and (2) this book would actually probably enhance the market for a "real" sequel to Catcher. I hope it works, but the economic argument is not a great one, as far as fair use goes.
*** Apparently the book sucks, too. One of the appeals court judges called it "dismal."