Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Sincerest Form of Lawsuit Bait; New York Times, 8/16/09

Charles McGrath via New York Times; The Sincerest Form of Lawsuit Bait:

"But Mr. Colting’s book has nevertheless become a literary cause célèbre, with a number of legal experts, including one from The New York Times, seeking to overturn the judge’s decision. The argument is that the Colting text is “transformative”: that instead of being a mere rip-off, it adds something original and substantive to Mr. Salinger’s version. This is the same principle Alice Randall appealed to in 2001 when she fought the estate of Margaret Mitchell over her right to publish “The Wind Done Gone,” her parody of “Gone With the Wind,” told from the point of view of Scarlett’s half-sister, a slave. The case was eventually settled when Ms. Randall’s publisher agreed to make a donation to Morehouse College, in Ms. Mitchell’s hometown, Atlanta.

Something similar happened with “Lo’s Diary,” by Pia Pera, which retells Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” from Lo’s point of view and argues, incidentally, that Humbert did not kill Quilty. Dmitri Nabokov, the author’s son and a zealous protector of his father’s legacy, initially objected but then came around for a percentage of the royalties, which he donated to PEN, the writers’ group...

Luckily, “Jane Eyre” was in the public domain, as was “Hamlet” when John Updike wrote “Gertrude and Claudius,” a prequel that re-imagines the “Hamlet story” from the point of view of the guilty couple and explains at last why Gertrude and Claudius got together in the first place: he was master of some sweaty sexual techniques apparently unknown to his brother.

Books that are still in copyright are a more complicated challenge for the would-be writer of prequels and sequels. This is partly because a lot of money is sometimes at stake. The Mitchell estate was so fussy about protecting “Gone With the Wind” because the franchise is a gold mine. Alexandra Ripley’s “Scarlett,” an authorized sequel, was a huge best seller in 1991, even though the critics sniffed at it. Living authors, moreover, are understandably attached to their characters and creations and may not want to think of them as demented, say, or having problems with bladder control. Where do you draw the line between critique or parody and outright exploitation?"

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