J.D. Salinger, Cornish, New Hampshire
His copyright suit would limit artistic creativity
Since 1965, for precisely half his long life, J.D. SALINGER has maintained his literary silence. His legal silence, not so much. The reclusive sage of Cornish, New Hampshire, has gone to court several times in attempts to prevent an ex-lover, would-be biographers, and the like from writing about him and thus intruding on his isolation.
Now, though, Salinger has taken his intimidation tactics to a new level. Recently, he filed a breach-of-copyright suit that would, if successful, do incalculable damage to the right of artists to transform and comment on someone else's work. Salinger's target: a Swedish humorist known as J.D. California, whose book, 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, is a takeoff on Salinger's most famous work, the 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye.
At issue is the "fair use" provision of copyright law, which allows for the unauthorized use of copyrighted material as long as certain conditions are met. Among them is the right of parody — recognized in cases ranging from a Gone with the Wind sequel to 2 Live Crew's hilarious riff on Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman."
This is bullying on Salinger's part, aimed at making artists think twice before tangling with him. Unfortunately, he could cause a lot of collateral damage. Last week, US District Court judge Deborah Batts issued a preliminary injunction banning 60 Years Later in the US, thus ensuring — at best — a protracted legal battle.
In Slate, Ron Rosenbaum asked, "Wouldn't it be a brilliant jest on us all . . . if Salinger himself had actually written the Holden Caulfield sequel 60 years later, hired this (apparently) Swedish guy to impersonate the pseudonymous author, then sued himself to insure no one would guess the real author?"
It is a tribute to Salinger's reputation for eccentricity that Rosenbaum could ask such a question, even in jest. But the implications of Salinger's suit are no laughing matter.