This thing of reversioning other people’s books is so complex and varied, it’s hard to have a consistent opinion on it. If it was down to me I wouldn’t want a rule barring all books of this kind but for each work to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. If it had genuine merit in its own right, let it pass; if not, then not. Only, who would decide?
Once upon a time, good taste or a good editor took care of this sort of thing and saved the rest of us from exposure to it. Now, where is either when you want them? That just isn’t how it works any more. Self publishing and web publishing leave the decision in the hands of the punters, who vote with their cash or their cursors.
But if JD Salinger cared enough to sue over ‘Sixty years later: Coming through the rye’*, the recent unauthorised “sequel” to his classic ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, then part of me is glad he won. And part of me wonders, would it have sunk without trace had he not bothered?
The supposed sequel features as central characters one Mr Caulfield and one Mr Salinger, and its writer, perhaps as a marketing aid, took as his pseudonym the name JD California. It may be unfashionable to stand up for copyright just at the moment, but without wading around in the mire of side-taking I can say this – what is so wrong with originating your own creative work and taking your chances on whether it sells?
This applies as much to music as to fiction. So much ‘new’ music consciously emulates sounds that are 15, 20, or 30 years old (mostly between 27 and 32 years old just at the moment, but it all depends on what is selling). The trouble is, it can be hard to know if you’re listening to a recent remix or to the original. It is one thing to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’, another to piggyback-ride them to death.
Death is of course an important consideration. It is a very fine thing for publishers if the author whose work is being revisited [or remixed, or mashed up, or perhaps as some might say, ripped off] is dead. Ideally they will be very dead, so dead in fact that copyright is no longer a concern; this reduces the risk of a court case somewhat. So, Quirk books will follow up the literary mash-up ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ with ‘Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters’ — ‘60% Austen and 40% tentacled chaos’. Other publishers have joined the goldrush and plan to release titles such as ‘Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter’ (subtitled ‘She Loved Her Country; She Hated Demons’) and ‘I am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas’. See the Guardian for more.
The Salinger case proves that when borrowing heavily from another writer’s work, it’s not enough for the author concerned to be merely old and reclusive. They really do have to be dead. And preferably, they should not have a powerful estate taking care of how posterity perceives their work.
What would reduce the risk further, I’d suggest, both to publishers and perhaps to readers, is for the writer to bring enough new material to the project for it to genuinely “belong” to them as author. Reviewers of the 2007 Booker shortlisted novel Mr Pip as “Lloyd Jones’ imaginative riff on a classic Dickens novel”, did so safe in the knowledge that Great Expectations was just one of the many flavours running through the novel. Lloyd Jones did not rely upon it so heavily that his readers needed to have read Great Expectations in order for Mr Pip to make sense.
Rendered as a percentage? Hard to say, but not more than 2 or 3%.
Personally I’m not sure a 60:40 ratio of old to new is fair, even if on the face of it, it’s legal. The author (or publisher) doing the borrowing ought to bring more collateral to the equation than that.