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?

by Moderator Melissa_W on ‎07-01-2009 12:37 AM
I think of this every time a new Austen "sequel" or "diary" or parody comes out and think that JA must be spinning in her grave - mostly because she's not the one making any money off of it!
by on ‎07-01-2009 04:46 AM

Right. And that introduces the whole public domain question. How long do you have to be dead before your creations are up are for grabs?

by Blogger Albert_Rolls on ‎07-01-2009 10:55 AM
How could the dead impose their wishes? Only an estate can do that, and as your article illustrates, estates, or those in control of them, do what they want. You have to be dead 75 years in the U.S.; before that those in control of the estates are in control. However, trying to give an author complete control of his creation is impossible and a bad idea. How can you stop interpretation? Joyce's grandson tried his best to prevent interpretations of Joyce's work that he thought thwarted his grandfather's intentions, but what right, beyond legal control of the estate, did Joyce's grandson have to assert that he knew what his grandfather intended? It's not even a good idea to stop a writer from taking others' characters: we wouldn't have Shakespeare's Hamlet or a bunch of other Shakespeare plays if copyright worked in the sixteenth century as it does today. Bad uses of an author's work will just disappear but won't hurt the reputation of the original. Nobody, or almost nobody, for example, reads Aaron Hill's adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V today, and Hill actually quotes whole passages of the original, whereas most are happy about Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
by RTA on ‎07-02-2009 05:02 PM

Last year, Slate's Ron Rosenbaum did a three part piece leading up to Dmitri Nabokov's critical decision.  I thought the pieces were fairly amusing.  "Dmitri's Choice"; "The Fate of Nabokov's Laura"; "The Fate of Nabokov's Laura II."

by on ‎07-02-2009 05:07 PM

Thanks, RTA. I'll have a look.


Incidentally, today marks 48th anniversary of Hemingway's death.

by on ‎07-20-2009 09:38 AM
Take a look at A.E. Hotchner's Op-Ed in today's N.Y. Times.
by Blogger Albert_Rolls on ‎07-20-2009 05:46 PM
Interesting article. The new edition will hopefully die when the book becomes public domain, or even better, after it fails to sell. 
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