Monday, June 8, 2009

Catcher in the Lie?

There's a long tradition of dusting off the typewriters of the fallen and carrying on in their guise. There's a sequel to Hitchhiker's Guide coming, penned by Eoin Colfer. Sebastian Faulks was retained to write Devil May Care "as Ian Fleming" by Fleming's family. And it's not a new phenomenon: Sherlock Holmes never got any rest during Arthur Conan Doyle's life and the sleuth has hardly paused to catch his breath since, and it's almost comical the attempts to postulate a finish for Edwin Drood. As a society we are not well-disposed toward letting go of our literary heroes, despite the mortality of the authors. It's almost heartwarming when it isn't creepy and depressing. Some few of these have been profound tributes and expansions upon the source material (Laurie King's delightful take on the retired Sherlock Holmes and his wife, Mary Russell comes to mind) but most have been rather banal and forgettable (Betancourt's "Dawn of Amber" series leaps into mind). It's an inescapable truth that some characters had a story to tell and those stories were finished with the final page that passed beneath the pen of the original author. Which brings us to the counter-culture icon Holden Caulfield who has decided to go for another walk... this time tiptoeing through the intricacies of copyright law. If you follow me on Twitter, back in May you saw my reaction to the news that there's a "sequel" to Catcher In the Rye coming out that wasn't written by JD Salinger. Not a parody, not a critical work, an out and out sequel to the original book. Which on the surface isn't really all that surprising unless you take into account the fact that Mr. Salinger - whatever else can be said about him - is most definitely still alive. My initial reaction to this was dismay. Holden hails from the halls of the literary protagonist with but one story to tell. The eternally misunderstood youth, the personification of alienation and angst. He forever stalks the streets of our shared imagination, scowling at ducks and toying with his hat. Copyright is a funny thing and I recently bemoaned the fact that it stifles works that are tangential to or inspired by the original work. If I wrote a character who was strongly inspired by and referred to Disney cartoons it would probably never see the light of day because Disney would likely insist upon an endless list of licensing fees or litigation that would tie up publication in lawsuits to the extent that no publisher would be interested in looking at it. Unless I'm writing a parody making fun of Disney or a critical work examining Disney, their material is off-limits. Such is the nature of current copyright law. Likewise, I can quote Shakespeare, Robert Frost and Arthur Conan Doyle to my heart's content and write all the books I like using their characters because those authors are no longer living or their works protected. Othello meets Moriarty on a path that diverges in a wood? No problem. But I can't write a sequel to The Shining no matter how much I might want to. I cannot write and publish a sequel to The Highlander no matter how greatly I desire to put right the travesties of the authorized sequels. And that's fine. I wouldn't want to have someone appropriate my characters and have them haring off in rogue adventures and expect to profit from the venture. That's why we have copyright laws. It's mine, you can mess with it when I'm good and gone, but hands-off for now! Why would anyone think it's ok to write a sequel to Catcher In the Rye whilst Salinger draws breath? When my local NPR station asked that question, I responded with a more emphatic statement than this because - even on NPR - there's little room for nuance in a soundbyte. The truth is, I've been watching this thing unfold with a jaundiced eye, wondering if - in fact - the jokesters at the Swedish printshop trying to foist this thing off on the world aren't engaged in some sort of hijinx. They readily-admit that they're jokesters out to poke the world in the eye. The ascendancy of the copyright-protest "Pirate Party" in Europe and especially Sweden makes me wonder if this may simply be an attempt to make some sort of elaborate point. It's gratifying to note that I'm not alone in wondering if this isn't the first prong of a cinema verite copyright protest. By tweaking the nose of one of our most famous living literary figures, this hitherto unremarkable Swedish printhouse has drawn international focus. By drawing a notorious literary curmudgeon out of hiding and into a mudslinging match, they've generated a LOT of publicity from the self-appointed cultural commentators and blogs (myself included). Up to this point, aside from the mention on Twitter, I've refrained from commenting because bandwagons make me carsick. But whatever their intentions or whether or not the book exists outside of the Amazon description that sparked the controversy, a worldwide discussion has begun. A debate on the nature and reach of copyright and intellectual property. For good or ill, they've let the genie out of the bottle, dragging this debate out of the blogosphere and into the so-called legitimate media. There's no doubt in my mind that a sequel to a copyright-protected work is a violation of copyright. There must be some protection for creators or we're on a roadtrip back to the days when Charles Dickens was the bestselling author in America without ever seeing a dime from the sales of his books. Nevertheless, this is a valuable discussion and one that is overdue. Let us hope that what comes out the other end is going to encourage innovation, allow for creativity and fall well short of someone reading over your shoulder has to deposit $.50 for the privilege.

1 comment:

  1. Surely a hoax, or as suggested publicity stunt, or possibly carrying fanfic to far?


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).