A to Z Challenge 2013

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Copyright Woes

I stumbled on a news article this morning that was interesting. I'm sure most (if not all) of you are familiar with the novel The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger. I mean seriously, who hasn't at least heard of it (even if you haven't read it, something I'm almost ashamed to admit)? A new novel has come out called 60 Years Later - Coming Through The Rye, written by John David California (which may or may not be his true name). This novel begins telling the story of the MC in Catcher as an old man, but unfortunately the author evidently did not contact or get approval from Mr. Salinger. The reclusive author has come out of hiding to rectify the situation, via a lawsuit of course.

You can Google the story to get more details, which I won't go into here. The question that occurred to me however, is how should a writer deal with a novel they want to write that has direct ties (or even subtle ties) to a previous work? Obviously if you are plagurizing someone else's work, you should be tied to a horse and dragged for an undetermined amount of time through rough terrain. It's just common sense at this point, so I don't have much sympathy for the guilty. But what about using someone else's ideas as a launching point for your own? This is not a new phenomena, as any reader of fan-fiction will tell you. And on the surface, I don't necessarily have a problem with being inspired by someone else's work. But how much do you owe the author of such works?

Here's my uninformed take on the subject, and I'm more than happy to hear your own thoughts as well. At the very least, any writer wishing to expound upon or advance the story of a previous work needs to contact the author. There should be some attempt to get permission or even coordinate the work with the author. For all you know, the author could already be working on a followup. Particularly in the fan-fiction realm, you have to be careful what ideas you decide to put on paper since it's possible the author has their own rendition brewing somewhere. This should include multiple attempts to contact the author, not just a simple email that never gets answered. So what happens if you cannot get ahold of the author or if the author is deceased? I am not going to try to state what the legal requirements are (if anyone knows, feel free to write a post on it or let me know please), but you may just have to take your chances and begin writing the work. I can say this much. If you have documented attempts of you trying to contact the author, it will go much easier for you in court later should a lawsuit arise. That doesn't necessarily mean your book will be accepted by the author and all will be well. I'm just saying it will help present you and your work in a better light. I would hope also that reputable agents, editors, and publishers would not put out a work that clearly is illegal or borders on copyright infringement. Or am I wrong here? How much work do agents, editors, and/or publishers put into making sure they are not pumping out something of this nature? Maybe the assumption is that the author did his/her homework.

My final thought is that it's better to write as unique a story as you can. Not only does it help you garner your own following (as opposed to fans of someone else), but it avoids the pitfalls of copyrights. Fan-fiction has its place to be sure, but there are definitely steps you should take to make sure you're going to be able to publish the work without problems later. Now I'll open the floodgates for comments, questions, etc. If you want to take this post and run with an aspect of it, let me know, blog about it, and I'll link to it.


WindyA said...

I agree with your last paragraph. As writers, reading is our research and some of this may reading may influence our work. It's a simple fact of life. But if we take care and realize this already, there is no reason we cannot create unique stories of our own without stepping on anyone else's toes.

As for your statement regarding how to gain permission from a deceased author, almost all that I am aware of have estates that manage their affairs, usually run by family members or attorneys.

Icy Roses said...

Er...as far as I'm concerned, John David California is writing a piece of glorified fanfiction. I have written many years of fanfiction, and gee, if I could get published using other people's work as a launching pad, I WOULD. If you want to do that, use something that doesn't belong to anyone. Like fairy tales. Like Greek mythology (in my case). I've read a lot of amazing fanfiction (there are a few instances of non-crap out there, I promise), but that's all it is in the end. Fanfiction. That's why we fanfiction writers all put disclaimers at the beginning of our stuff. The characters, setting, and sometimes plot do not belong to us.

I'm not a fan of seeing sequels written by people other than the original author anyway. Case in point: Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley. Not a fan. Also not a big fan of all those Pride and Prejudice spinoffs. Fanfiction is all good and fun until someone gets smacked with a lawsuit.

Anonymous said...

You know its funny you mention this because there's another author doing the same thing with Jane Austen's work. It's Pride, Prejudice and Zombies. I'm not sure if this was due to the high mark when they produced a movie but I've never read a novel written with original and new work. Perhaps I should try it out though since that one is making a fuss.

I agree with crafting your own story. Some books are just so well written you simply cannot add anything to make them better. This is what we should all strive for.

beth said...

When I first heard about this book, I thought it was creepy. JD Salinger isn't even dead yet! It's one thing to take a classic and update the story (as with many Austen books) or to make it a parody (i.e. Pride & Prejudice & Zombies), but I think this new Rye book is a bit too close for comfort.

It's, imo, essential fan fic out for money.

Lynnette Labelle said...

Interesting post. I had no idea this lawsuit was going on. I think publishers do expect the author to do his homework. They have enough to worry about.

Unless you write romance (or at least romantic elements), I don't think you'll be too excited about my contest. I'm not sure what you write though...

Lynnette Labelle