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In World of Literary Satires, Just How Far Is Too Far?

Books * A lawsuit over a new novel that parodies the classic 'Gone With the Wind' raises questions about copyright laws.

April 04, 2001|HILLEL ITALIE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — From "Moby-Dick" and "Rebecca" to "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "Lolita," classic books have been satirized, sequelized and retold. Now an upcoming satire of "Gone With the Wind" will test how far a writer can go without violating copyright law.

Representatives of the late Margaret Mitchell recently sued a novelist for borrowing from "Gone With the Wind." The Stephens Mitchell Trusts want a court to block the publication of Alice Randall's "The Wind Done Gone," scheduled for release in June.

Tom Selz, an attorney for the Mitchell trusts, said Randall commits "wholesale theft of major characters."

Randall and her publisher, Houghton Mifflin, argue that "Wind Done Gone" simply parodies a famous book and does not run afoul of copyright law. " 'Gone With the Wind' has mythic status and we're trying to make an important critique of the original," said Wendy Strothman, executive vice president of Houghton Mifflin.

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A federal judge in Atlanta will decide whether Randall's work relies too heavily on Mitchell's romantic saga.

In "The Wind Done Gone," the narrator, Cynara, is the offspring of the white master and a black woman on the plantation Tata. The book includes phrases and settings from "Gone With the Wind" and allusions to that novel's characters. The physical description of Cynara's half-sister, Other, matches that of Scarlett O'Hara. The couple Dreamy Gentleman and Mealy Mouth are clearly Ashley and Melanie Wilkes.

"This is clearly a parody, a very biting, sarcastic angry book," Strothman said. "There are legal definitions of parody, and this falls smack into that category."

But an expert on copyright law, Columbia University law professor Jane Ginsburg, said parody is traditionally only protected for brief works--a television sketch, or a short story, for example. For a full-length book, she said, the parody defense is "a little strained."

"Courts talk about taking enough to recall or conjure up the original," she said. "The measure is how much you need to take to let people know what you're making fun [of]."

At least one other attempted parody of "Gone With the Wind" has been halted. In 1979, a federal judge in Atlanta ruled that the stage musical "Scarlett Fever" infringed on the copyright of the movie and the book. The show never officially opened.

The idea of "owning" a story is relatively modern. In the oral tradition, for thousands of years, stories changed with every telling; they belonged to no one. But as stories were written down, authorship was established. By the 17th century, even the likes of Dryden and Milton were charged with plagiarism.

Legal action often involves allegations of stealing language, but sometimes story and characters are cited. In 1998, the son of the late Vladimir Nabokov sued over the novel "Lo's Diary," an irreverent retelling of Nabokov's "Lolita" from the nymphet's point of view. The two sides eventually reached a deal to share royalties.

A number of recent novels have relied on works that are in the public domain, either because they were never copyrighted or because the copyright ran out long ago. Some of the new books feature women who were minor figures in the original works.

Anita Diament's million-selling "The Red Tent" is based on an obscure biblical figure, Dinah, daughter of Jacob. "Ahab's Wife," by Sena Jeter Naslund, builds a long novel out of a few lines from "Moby Dick." Jean Rhys' "Wide Sargasso Sea," a response to "Jane Eyre," was an acclaimed novel in its own right.

Peter Carey wrote "Jack Maggs," a tale told from the viewpoint of Magwitch, a character in Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations." John Updike wrote the novel "Gertrude and Claudius," a prelude to "Hamlet."

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The estate of Daphne du Maurier has authorized Sally Beauman's "Rebecca's Tale," which focuses on the mysterious title character of "Rebecca." "I feel it's a story that needs to be told, but I wouldn't have done it without the approval of the Du Maurier estate," Beauman said.

Some authors have worked from copyright material without permission--and without being sued.

T. Coraghessan Boyle's comic short story "Me Cago en la Leche (Robert Jordan in Nicaragua)" features the grandson of the main character in Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls." Raymond Carver's "The Train" continues the plot of John Cheever's classic "The Five-Forty-Eight," in which a secretary avenges the boss who slept with her and then had her fired.

"My father would have never sued Carver," said Susan Cheever, the late author's daughter. "First of all, he was a gentleman. Secondly, he liked Carver's work. He wouldn't have minded. In fact, I think he would have written him a fan letter."

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