Third Screen: J. D. Salinger Sues

Just wrote about a contest in which people write sequels to great books. In jest. And now comes the news from Reuters that the ultra-reclusive J.D. Salinger is suing the author of an unauthorized sequel to Catcher in the Rye, to be published by Nicotext: "J.D. Salinger on Monday sued the writer and publisher of a book billed as a sequel to his classic novel "The Catcher in the Rye," saying the work infringes on his copyright. Salinger is asking a judge to block publication of "60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye" written by an author identified as J.D. California."

Reminiscent of both the recent Woody Allen suit in which the shy filmmaker went to court to stop a clothing manufacturer from using his likeness and the likeness of his film, Annie Hall, to sell garments and the Maureen Dowd debacle, in which the light-fingered lifting of words, verbatim, for a secondary use, brought her shame, the question becomes this --

When does an iconic image, a shared artistic experience, or a germane public idea shift shape from private and protected to public and open to fair use?

Dowd was easy. She was just dowdy and wrong and apologized, leaving us to consider if we want to prize writers who don't think their own thoughts and act as if they do.

Allen was easy, because the clumsy profit motive substantiated a pretty basic misuse.

But the Salinger? The title and play on author's name both suggest an element of attribution and tribute. And why is this less acceptable than the recent unauthorized tell-all book on Salinger by Joyce Maynard in which she played no direct role in the author's life but propped up a "relationship" with him in order to support an entire approach to his work? If sleeping with the guy is fair use for a book, why isn't reading the guy? Isn't reading the guy a "relationship," too?

Laws will prevail, but the more interesting questions are the ethical ones. Catcher in the Rye is a touchstone. It is published. It is no longer wholly and only the author's. Beyond this, general feeling among readers is that books 50 years or older naturally lean into fences of privacy until they pretty much touch down on public domain.

When Woody Allen played a conscious cinematic game -- you know, created something original out of existing pieces -- in Zelig, a film in which one of the most entertaining running gags is that he inserted himself into historic scenes, with all of us in on the joke, was that infringement or art? When Salinger himself inserted recognizable locales and occasions into his fiction, was that infringement or tribute? Where is the harm, unless in lack of attribution, which is not the case, or lack of proper compensation, which doesn't seem to be the issue, either?

Personally, I find the "I slept with Jerry" school of biography far more offensive than a riff on Catcher in the Rye. My only gripe would be if there is direct, extensive, wholesale and verbatim lifting of the old text with no additional perspective or art.

In any case, I question the value of literary protectionism of any kind when it comes to "intellectual property" -- for any reason beyond fair compensation to the original author.

What do you think?

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