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Copyrighter in the Rye - J.D. Salinger Stops Publication of Alleged Sequel To Famous Work

July 9, 2009

J.D. Salinger, author of the seminal teen angst novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” recently filed a lawsuit in United States District Court in Manhattan for copyright infringement against the author of a purported “sequel” to Salinger’s classic work entitled “60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye.” Salinger’s lawsuit sought a permanent injunction against publication of the new work in the United States.

The new work was written by Fredrick Colting, a resident of Sweden who writes under the pen name “J.D. California.” The novel is described as “An Unauthorized Fictional Examination of the Relationship Between J.D. Salinger and his Most Famous Character,” and portrays a 76 year old “Mr. C” wandering the streets of New York after having escaped from a retirement home. Although the name “Holden Caulfield” never appears in the book, Mr. Colting’s prose makes clear that “Mr. C” is the famed protagonist, aged 60 years from his first appearance in The Catcher in the Rye. Describing his work, Mr. Colting said: “To me, this is a story about an old man. It’s a love story, a story about an author and his character.”

J.D. Salinger vehemently disagreed with Mr. Colting’s description, stating in his lawsuit: “The Sequel is not parody and it does not comment upon or criticize the original…It is a ripoff pure and simple.” Mr. Colting countered by claiming that his novel was a permissible “fair use” of the classic work which “explores the famously reclusive Salinger’s efforts to control both his own persona and the persona of the character he created.” Mr. Colting added: “In order to regain control over his own life, which is drawing to a close, ‘Mr. Salinger’ tries repeatedly to kill off Mr. C by various means: a runaway truck; falling construction debris; a lunatic woman with a knife; suicide by drowning and suicide by pills.” According to Mr. Colting, his work did not violate copyright laws because it amounted to a critical parody that had the effect of transforming J.D. Salinger’s original work into a new work distinguishable in its own right.

Judge Deborah Batts of the United States District Court in Manhattan rejected Mr. Colting’s arguments. In a strongly worded 37-page decision granting Mr. Salinger’s requested injunction against publication of the purported sequel, Judge Batts stated: “To the extent [Colting] contend[s] that [his work] and the character of Mr. C direct parodic comment or criticism at Catcher [in the Rye] or Holden Caulfield, as opposed to Salinger himself, the Court finds such contentions to be post-hoc rationalizations employed through vague generalizations about the alleged naivety of the original, rather than reasonably perceivable parody.” Judge Batts added: “In fact, it can be argued that the contrast between Holden’s authentic but critical and rebellious nature and his tendency toward depressive alienation is one of the key themes of Catcher [in the Rye]. That many readers and critics have apparently idolized Caulfield for the former, despite – or perhaps because of – the latter, does not change the fact that those elements were already apparent in Catcher [in the Rye]. It is hardly parodic to repeat the same exercise in contrast, just because society and the characters have aged.”

While the case could still go to trial, Judge Batts’ ruling means that Mr. Colting’s book cannot be published in the United States pending final resolution of the litigation, which now appears likely to be in J.D. Salinger’s favor. Reacting to the unfavorable outcome, Mr. Colting stated to the New York Times: “I’m pretty blown away by the judge’s decision…Call me an ignorant Swede, but the last thing I thought possible in the U.S. was that you banned books.” As Mr. Colting now undoubtedly realizes, copyright law in the United States can be a potent weapon for copyright owners against would-be infringers, and prior legal consultation may have averted this result. Paraphrasing Holden Caulfield himself, “What [copyright lawyers] have to do, [they] have to catch everybody [like Mr. Colting] if they start to go over the cliff— I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going [copyright lawyers] have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all [they’d] do all day. [They’d] just be the catcher in the rye and all.” Unfortunately, there does not appear to have been a “catcher in the rye” looking out for Mr. Colting, and his novel is now unlikely to be available to readers in the United States.