Submitted by Jim Brown on July 3, 2009 - 8:11am
J.D. Salinger apparently owns Holden Caulfield. A U.S. federal judge has barred publication and distribution of a recent novel by a Swedish author that tells the story of a 76 year-old Caulfield.
It's bad enough that J.D. Salinger and his team of lawyers can exert complete control over his works until 70 years after he's dead. But regardless of the important strides of the Free Culture movement (free as in free speech...not free beer), things seem to continue down the path of idiocy. Under the "logic" of current copyright law, Wide Sargasso Sea or The Hours might be considered illegal.
The real kicker here is that the judge in this case has put on his literary criticism hat (not a new development...but still a bit infuriating):
The judge’s ruling weighed literary arguments made by both sides in the dispute. “To the extent Colting claims to augment the purported portrait of Caulfield as a ‘free-thinking, authentic and untainted youth,’ and ‘impeccable judge of the people around him’ displayed in ‘Catcher’ by ‘show[ing] the effects of Holden’s uncompromising world view,’ ” Judge Batts wrote, citing a memo submitted by Mr. Colting, “those effects were already thoroughly depicted and apparent in Salinger’s own narrative about Caulfield.”
Judge Batts added: “In fact, it can be argued that the contrast between Holden’s authentic but critical and rebellious nature and his tendency toward depressive alienation is one of the key themes of ‘Catcher.’
“It is hardly parodic to repeat that same exercise in contrast, just because society and the characters have aged.”
"Fair Use" is a notoriously complicated calculus, and it often means that judges have to interpret and judge cultural products (so much for strict construction). But the judge's "interpretation" seems to completely miss the point here. I haven't read the novel, so I can't say much about whether or not it's sufficiently parodic. However, I do know that I would never teach Colting's 60 Years Later as a replacement for The Catcher in the Rye. And I also know that the the former in no way diminishes the value of the latter. I don't know anyone who would buy Colton's book instead of Salinger's. In fact (Do we really have to continue to make this argument?), Colton's book might actually cause people to (read or re-read) The Catcher in the Rye.
But this is the system that we have all decided that we're okay with. If you're thinking about mentioning Holden Caulfield in your own work in the near future, you'll have to wait until at least 2079. And if you think scholarship about Salinger is off the hook here, I suggest you check out the multiple lawsuits initiated by the James Joyce estate.
Sidenote: I wonder if the problem is that Colting's previous publication was the ridiculous The Macho Man's Drinkbook: Because Nude Girls and Alcohol Go Great Together...