J.D. Salinger: "Keep Your Hands Off My Legacy"

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Philip Hall / Sipa

J.D. Salinger's seminal novel The Catcher in the Rye and collection of short stories Nine Stories.

J.D. Salinger may have hated visitors, but he sure loved lawyers. The famously reclusive author fended off all attempts by others to adapt his writings, particularly his masterwork, Catcher in the Rye. He even said "no" to Steven Spielberg regarding a film version of his classic novel. But now that the elusive Salinger is gone, what will happen to his iron-fisted control over his writings?

Precious little, say legal experts. If Salinger had the foresight to invite a good estate planner to Cornish, New Hampshire, it's likely that he will rule his literary empire from the grave. "Legally, his death should have no significance at all, " says Richard Dannay, an intellectual property lawyer in New York City. "His works are in copyright, and remain in copyright."

Those copyrights pass to his estate, say lawyers, and Salinger may have left detailed directions about how to proceed. If his extraordinarily private style held true in his will-making, would-be adapters of the Salinger oeuvre are out of luck. "If he says that he doesn't want a revised work, or a secondary work or a derivative work, or he doesn't want anything related to Catcher in the Rye licensed, then whoever is managing his estate would be bound by that, " says Jon Tandler, a publishing lawyer in Denver. "He can say, 'Thou shall not create a sequel.'"

That's just what a Swedish author calling himself J.D. California (real name: Fredrik Colting) tried to do, in a book named 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye. But just before his death, the ever-vigilant Salinger sent his lawyers after California and his tiny publisher, Windupbird Publishing, suing them in June in federal court in Manhattan. The judge, Deborah Batts, sided with Salinger, indefinitely banning the publication of the book in this country. (It had been published in Britain.) The judge rejected the argument that the book was a parody, which would have been legally permissible. The judge's ruling has been appealed to the Second Circuit, where the case is still pending.

Jessie Beeber, an attorney for Colting and his publisher, says her clients will persist in their appeal. But, she adds, "We don't want to get into the nitty-gritty of the lawsuit right now. We think Mr. Salinger should have an opportunity to be laid to rest in peace, and our thoughts are with his family. We all just really appreciate the effect and influence Salinger and his works have had on our society."

Of course, Salinger's executor or heirs could try to slip around the author's wishes. But, so far, the late author's partisans would seem to have nothing to worry about in that regard. The Salinger ranks are holding tight, albeit as quietly as their famous client. Marcia Paul, the New York City lawyer who represented Salinger in the 60 Years Later case, had nothing to say when contacted. "I really don't have any comment about anything," she maintained. Likewise, his agent, Phyllis Westberg, is a woman of few words: "J.D. Salinger books will stay in print. I have no further comment."

Will stay in print, indeed. With Catcher required reading in every English department in America, sales are only likely to increase in the wake of the author's death. It has already sold a staggering 35 million copies worldwide, 59 years after its publication in 1951.

But even J.D. Salinger isn't above the law. In the future, Catcher in the Rye and his handful of short stories will have to go into the public domain, where they're open game. But don't hold your breath. That will be in 2080. Is that Holden Caufield we hear snickering?