60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye by Fredrik Colting is getting the once over in a New York court right now, and it's a case I'll be following very closely.
A quick primer (and hey, they use Catcher as an example) on what I've learned so far: copyright (for a work first published in the USA by an American) used to expire after 27 years, if not renewed. If copyright was renewed, it extended 47 years past the renewal. This was then extended a further 20 years.
Of course, this extension almost never benefits the author personally, unless exceptionally long-lived-- Methusaleh, maybe; do the math. The change in law is designed with heirs and estates in mind, rather than the artists and writers actually responsible for the copyrighted material. Maybe a cynical way to look at it, but honest at least. Other countries have a lifetime plus 70 years term: even longer, and not even liable to the renewal process, which at least keeps the heirs honest. But the catch is that, at this time, copyright only really matters if the country in which the work is published is the same country where the infringement occurs. Colting's novel was first published in Britain-- they had no problem with it there. And the work changes not at all in its move to these shores, yet Salinger is suing and has cause to think he will prevail, if statements from a very literal-minded judge are any indication.
But pretty soon, Colting won't be alone in claiming a re-imagination as something totally different from the original. In fact, given some of the books (albeit working from the public domain) appearing on shelves just in the last couple of months, I would say that the tide may finally be turning against the Salingers of the world. The visual arts, despite the occasional Jeff Koons blip now and again, have long accepted this as a fact of life; Hip Hop has made its uneasy peace with the world of the past. High time for literature to play a little catch up.
I would never say that there should be no protection against commercially-motivated imitation. The problem is that there are seldom qualified arbiters to decide what is commercially-motivated rather than worthwhile criticism and creation. There must be room enough for interesting art to be created and exhibited, instead of being relegated to the margins and punished by frivolous lawsuits brought, as the copyright laws stand now, by people interested only in the commercial viability of the material, not its artistic legacy. Salinger, in that, is maybe an exception. Maybe.
Update, 6/25/09: here's a very brief and frankly sort of insubstantial interview with Colting at the Village Voice blog. Seems like he might have something more interesting to say (than what's there), but then again, maybe not.
And here's an interview with Jeff Koons, much more substantial and intelligent, from the Journal of Contemporary Art.
Finally, here's Richard Prince's website. The work is always the best argument.