J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye & Intellectual Property Rights

I first read The Catcher in the Rye during my junior year of high school.  It was so unlike any book I had ever read previously because its main character, Holden Caulfield, was an anti-hero protagonist.  The influence of J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield cannot be 


denied.    Author J.D. Salinger died on January 27, 2010 at the age of 91.

In the field of intellectual property law, Salinger is also remembered for two landmark copyright cases, one of which is still pending.  The first case, Salinger v. Random House, Inc., involved the right of the author of unpublished letters to keep direct quotes and close paraphrases of those letters out of an unauthorized biography.  In 1983, biographer Ian Hamilton approached Salinger about his intent to write a book about Salinger’s life.  Salinger voiced his opposition to the project, but Hamilton proceeded nonetheless, completing the book J.D. Salinger, a Writing Life in 1986.  Hamilton drew heavily from Salinger’s unpublished letters, which were held by libraries at Harvard, Princeton and the University of Texas.  In order to gain access to these letters, Hamilton signed form agreements restricting his right to publish the contents of the letters.  When Salinger reviewed the galleys of Hamilton’s book in May of 1986, he registered 79 of his letters with the U.S. Copyright Office and had his attorney instruct Hamilton to delete the quotes from Salinger’s letters.  Hamilton and his publisher, Random House, revised the galleys, but retained some quotes from the letters.  As a result, Salinger sued Random House in October 1986, seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent the publication of Hamilton’s book.

The federal district court awarded Salinger a temporary restraining order but denied him the preliminary injunction.  Salinger in turn appealed the decision.  Using the four statutory fair use factors (purpose of the use, nature of the copyrighted work, amount and substantiality of the portion used and effect on the market), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Salinger and directed the trial court to issue a preliminary injunction barring publication of the biography.

The second case, Salinger v. Colting, involves the publication of what some believe to be a sequel to Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.  The book in question, entitled 60 Years Later:  Coming Through the Rye, was written by Swedish author Fredrik Colting under the pseudonym “John David California.”  In June 2009, Salinger filed suit against Colting, his publishers and distributors, and in July 2009, the U.S. district court granted Salinger a preliminary injunctionenjoining the Defendants from advertising, publishing or distributing Colting’s book.

Colting, his publishers and distributors appealed the ruling to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that 60 Years Later:  Coming Through the Rye was not a sequel to Salinger’s novel, but “a critical literary commentary about Salinger’s famous work.”  Rather than a continuation of The Catcher in the Rye, they claimed that Colting’s book merely examines the relationship between Salinger and his fictional character, Holden Caulfield.  At the time of Salinger’s death, Salinger v. Colting is still pending in U.S. District Court.

In literary circles, J.D. Salinger will always be remembered for the novel The Catcher in the Rye.  But in the legal field, we can also say that Salinger zealously defended his intellectual property, both published and unpublished.

Leave a Reply