If words do in fact last forever, does the person who put them to paper have any rights to them once they're dead?
On July 14th, Scribner's is republishing Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast; a book that was originally released in 1964, three years after Hemingway committed suicide. This newly "Restored Edition", edited by his grandson Sean, purports to "set the record right". Whose record? Surely not the author's as the manuscript was unfinished at the time of Hemingway's death and his fourth wife Mary edited it as she saw fit, adding fragments of chapters and deleting others. Here now we have two editions of a book that the author himself felt wasn't ready for publication.
Recently J.D. Salinger, who Hemingway called "a helluva talent", is back in the news. The reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye -- who by the way isn't even dead -- is in court battling over the rights to his most famous character, Holden Caulfield. Swedish author Fredrik Colting, using the weirdly unoriginal name J.D. California, hopes to publish an unauthorized sequel entitled 60 Years Later: Coming through the Rye which envisions Holden in his 76th year. Among Salinger's many objections is the fact that had he wished to see a sequel to Catcher, he would have written it!
This fall, 30 plus years after he commanded it burned, Vladimir Nabokov's The Original of Laura will be published. Despite his final wishes, his son and executor Dmitri has stated the work "would have been a brilliant, original, and potentially totally radical book". Would have been? Would have been had Nabokov wished for it to be published in the first place?
While you could certainly argue that had Max Brod followed Kafka's orders, the bulk of the great author's work would have been burned, but does that give carte blanche to simply ignore an author's wishes? Should an author have perpetual rights to their creations and characters?