On Monday, reclusive author J.D. Salinger emerged to file a copyright infringement lawsuit against the author and publisher of a forthcoming book that purports to be a sequel to Salinger’s 1951 novel, “The Catcher in the Rye.” The new book, “60 Years Later: Coming Out of the Rye,” is authored by the pseudonymous J.D. California.Salinger’s lawsuit claims copyright in the “Holden Caufield character,” the protagonist in both books, as well as the “exclusive right to create works derivative” to “Catcher.” Of course, Salinger has no interest in creating such works. He just wants to prevent others from ever doing so:
For over fifty years, as has been extensively reported in the media, J.D. Salinger has been fiercely protective of both his intellectual property and his privacy. He has not published any work since 1965 and, other than a 1949 short film of one of his early short stories, Salinger has never permitted any adaptations of any of his works. He has publicly disavowed any intention of doing so during his lifetime.
Salinger refuses to allow any derivative works based on the Holden Caufield character: “There’s no more to Holden Caufield. Read the book again. It’s all there. Holden Caufield is only a frozen moment in time.”
Salinger’s lawsuit makes three claims: First, that “Salinger’s copyright registration for ‘Catcher’ grants him copyright protection for its principal character and the narrator thereof, Holden Caufield.” Since the main character in the California novel — identified as “Mr. C” — is “substantially similar” to the “fully delineated” Holden Caufield character, Salinger’s rights have been violated.
Second, Salinger claims the right to stop the publication of the California novel since Salinger alone has the “exclusive right to create, or authorize others to create, derivative works based on ‘Catcher’” — even though, once again, Salinger has no intention of ever creating or authorizing such works.
Third, Salinger claims the sale of the California novel amounts to “common law unfair competition.” The California novel, Salinger says, is an attempt to “deceive and confuse the consuming public into believing that the Sequel emanates from Salinger, when in truth and fact it does not.” Of course, Salinger claims that he is the injured party rather then the “duped” consumers.
There’s certainly no question that Salinger owns the legal copyright to “Catcher in the Rye.” But it’s interesting to see how copyright has mutated from its utilitarian, constitutional origins. The Constitution allowed Congress the power, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors . . . the exclusive Right to their respective Writings . . .” Salinger’s already enjoyed nearly 60 years of copyright protection — hardly a “limited Time” — for his novel. And now he’s proposing to use his copyright to prevent the “progress” of “useful arts” by forbidding any derivative works based on his story.
Furthermore, he’s claiming a right to control a specific character from his book as opposed to the entire work. How far can such a right extend? Salinger’s own lawsuit notes Holden Caulfield’s “place in American culture, referring to such things as a movie reviewer’s description of Harry Potter as the “Holden Caulfield of wizards.” Could Salinger sue to prevent such comparisons if he disagreed with them?
Salinger wants to have it both ways. He wants to continue making money from Holden Caulfield while simultaneously preventing anyone from expanding upon or offering their own interpretation of the character. If Salinger really wanted to freeze Caulfield in time, he would have locked the original “Catcher” manuscript in a desk drawer and never published it. Once you publish your ideas to the world, however, it’s hypocritical to argue nobody else should be allowed to offer their own take on those ideas.