Saturday, September 12, 2009

Let's Leave JD Sleeping...

John Ramsey Miller

This week I was reading about a famous photographer with serious financial problems and I was thinking about how her dilemma is really nobody’s business but hers and the people she owes the money to. She collateralized a loan with the copyrights of every photograph she’s ever taken or will take. Other than the fact that it’s a cautionary tale of reversal, it’s just another story about someone who got in over their head. Why do we thrive on other people’s problems and especially their failures? There’s a German word for it that I can never remember how to spell and have to look up. It’s Schadenfreude. I don’t know why we don’t have a word in English for it. We watch fascinated like we’re getting paid for every Icarus that flies too close the media’s headlights. This incident with the photographer got me thinking about copyrights. It’s something authors should think about, become familiar with. I checked on the Net.

How long does a copyright last?
The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors. Of course it's complicated, and I don't really know much about it. I guess we might all do to know where we stand legally speaking.

How familiar are we with the laws that protect us. And do you understand the Google Settlement? How pissed are we to get if our copyright is violated?

I started a new work this week and I'm excited about it because I've been doing a mental dance with the protagonist for a couple of months getting to know him, his cadence, his backstory. It's not a thriller, it's a story and I want to tell a story that isn't a chase against the ticking clock. I don't want my characters wearing their shoes out twice from the front cover to the back. I just want to once be able to peel an onion layer by layer and build suspense differently. I wonder how I would feel if somebody took this character after I am dead or have wandered off into the woods or am living with my chickens and dogs and put him in a book they wrote. I think I'd be weirded out.

A question comes to mind from a recent lawsuit. If I want to write a book that includes characters from Salinger’s book, CATCHER IN THE RYE, can I do it? Say you want to write a book that takes Holden Caufield thirty or forty years beyond where Salinger left him, can you do it? Why pick up something Salinger dropped? Can you do it if you get Salinger’s permission? Why would anybody write a book, spending a couple of years laboring at it using someone else’s character or characters?


  1. Copyright law is a murky thing and many times the only way to know the right answer is to survive litigation. There was a famous case some time back concerning the novel "The Wind Done Gone," which reinterpreted "Gone With the Wind" through the eyes of the slaves. The Mitchell estate sued to stop publication, but a federal appeals court held that the book was a "parody" meant to offer a criticism of the original work. That gets protection, whereas a straight sequel does not.

    Salinger, of course, sued to stop publication of "60 Yeas Later" (a Holden Caulfield update) and last I heard won a temporary injunction because, the district judge held, it was NOT a parody.

  2. "Why would anybody write a book, spending a couple of years laboring at it using someone else’s character or characters?"

    In a number of cases, it's done because there's still a hungry audience and money to be made. With permission, the Jason Bourne series is alive and well through the words of Eric Van Lustbader as is James Bond through the talent of Raymond Benson. But doing it on your own without a commission could turn out to be a labor of love with no place to go.

  3. The closest I've come to laboring seriously with other people's characters was a some screenplay adaptations, most notably for works by Nelson DeMille (WORD OF HONOR), Norman Maclean (YOUNG MEN AND FIRE) and Thomas Harris (RED DRAGON). It was work for hire, well-paying, and fun--though creatively unsatisfying. (And before you run to IMDB, no my name is not attached to RED DRAGON--a still-raw sore point that served as my harsh indoctrination to the Real Hollywood.)

    It was fun to re-structure the stories and create something new out of something old, but at the end of the day, the sense of ownership over the work was diluted tremendously by the fact that my vision would not necessarily survive to the end of the project. More than that, though, when dealing with characters created by others, it's a little like writing with one part of your imagination at bay. There are other elements of the process that are very gratifying--enough so that I'm anxious to climb back into the saddle, but character development is not the most fun element.

    For all of that, at least the adaptations were under contract; it was my job to do what I was doing. I can't imagine why someone would set out on spec to dedicate the time necessary to write a book using other people's characters. There are whole websites devoted to "Fan Fic", stories based on Star Wars and such. To each his own, I guess.

    John Gilstrap

  4. I haven't read EV Lustbader's Bourne books, but I plan to. I enjoyed the first Godfather as written by someone other than Mario Puzzo. Fact is The Godfather is a book I still read it every few years. I love gangster books, and few are as good as GI. I am of course familiar with John Gilstrap's work on the scripts, and that's a story of whether or not the Screenwriter's Guild is worth the admission price. It seems to me that if you are arbitrating against the powers that rule Hollywood, you might as well be Jewish and appealing a case to Hitler's high courts in say 1939 Germany.

  5. My distributor is involved in the lawsuit so won't comment on that, but the word you were looking for is

  6. I had to look up "The Wind Done Gone" after that introduction--previewed a couple of pages and it looks pretty good! As a former southern gal who made a yearly pilgrimage to the town theater to see "Gone with the Wind," I feel I must read it now! Personally, I wouldn't want to write anything based on another writer's work. I would feel :)

  7. All of my thrillers are based on scripts from the Regis & Kathy show combined with the plot lines from Sham-Wow commercials.