Shrapnel from the Salinger Bill

I don’t know whether the examples below would have been unintended, or intended, consequences of the bill that Senators Odell and Houde introduced at the urging of Matt Salinger and others in J.D. Salinger’s family. Governor Lynch vetoed it, and in a sane world the veto would be sustained unanimously.

The bill says that the use of a person’s name – even a public person’s name – is a property right, and the descendants own that right for 70 years after the person’s death.

The example that son Matt gives is coffee mugs with his father’s image on them, but the use would extend much more broadly. I don’t think the motivation here was money – wanting an extra dollar for each mug – but rather the right to suppress such “exploitation” completely.

Here are a few other examples of “exploitation” that the bill would suppress.
The bill controls speech regarding deceased New Hampshire residents only, I am giving examples that assume a nationwide law.

  • Forrest Gump. The movie would grind to a halt as every public figure who was alive in or after 1924 got a veto. Woody Allen’s Zelig, same deal.
  • Speaking of Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris. Hemingway, Dali, Cole Porter – no movie until all the agents and lawyers agree, fella.
  • Angels in America. Kushner’s play uses Roy Cohn as a central figure – Ethel Rosenberg, too. Cohn is an interesting case here. The Army-McCarthy hearings give us the great “At long last, have you no sense of decency?” challenge to McCarthy over his dragging a staffer’s name into the proceeding.  Whether or not Fred Fielding was a public figure in 1954, Roy Cohn was one in 1985.
  • Fall of Frost. Brian Hall’s fundamentally sympathetic novel based on the life of Robert Frost – which I recommend highly, and which some Frost family and friends detest – would never have seen the light of day.
  • For that matter, any unauthorized biography: not just Kitty Kelly stuff, but Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson or McCullough’s life of Truman.
  • Ragtime. Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, Evelyn Nesbit: no way.
  • The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Ontario’s lawyers, it’s said, never give up the dead…
  • e. e. cummings’ buffalo bill’s defunct. Published right after William Cody’s death; no permission sought.

W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, which was the basis for Field of Dreams, isn’t addressed by the bill. The Terrence Mann character that James Earl Jones plays, a fictional late-sixties writer with a cult following, was named J. D. Salinger in the book. But both book and movie came out in Salinger ‘s lifetime, a situation not addressed by the bill. Salinger didn’t want to appear in either – he was able to avoid the use of his persona in the movie.

I was going to include some sympathetic noises about how the family deserves some privacy. But the more I look at the damage they were prepared to do to the arts, the less sympathy I have. It’s really embarrassing that our legislators even introduced this bill, let alone gave it their votes.

State control of speech isn’t American.

7 Responses to Shrapnel from the Salinger Bill

  1. elwood June 17, 2012 at 7:17 pm #

    it doesn’t trump the federal or state Constitutions.

    Then it leaves it up to the courts to decide what is left, while the legislators complain about activist judges.


  2. GreyMike June 17, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

    More astounding resource-and-time wasters from the most embarrassing legislative biennium in memory.

    Well, at least the teddy bear would be safe from litigation by the Roosevelt descendants.

  3. TimothyHorrigan June 17, 2012 at 9:06 pm #

    I actually know Matt Salinger, who is a great person— and I even met his father once in (of all places) the Midas Muffler shop in West Lebanon.  I will regretfully be casting a vote against SB 175.

    Ironically, JD Salinger made himself more legendary by pretending to be a recluse.  Matt father’s Jerry actually got around a lot: he was indistinguishable from any one of many other somewhat familiar-looking people who make a little money and achieve a little fame somewhere else and retire quietly to the Upper Valley.  

  4. Vis Unita Fortior June 18, 2012 at 1:08 am #

    So does Mr. Salinger think that if I want to make mugs that say “William Loeb was an assclown” Loeb’s heirs and assigns should be able to prevent me from doing that?  If so, I defy him.

  5. susanthe June 19, 2012 at 3:53 am #

    for those mugs, Vis Unita Fortior.  

    • GreyMike June 19, 2012 at 4:50 am #

      I will set it on the shelf right next to my dog-eared copy of “Who the Hell is…”.

  6. SethCohn June 20, 2012 at 9:27 am #

    I completely agree… bad bill, glad the Governor vetoed it.

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