What Every Kindergartener Needs: A Study Guide for Jack Kerouac’s On the Road?

kinderguides-2

Recently, Moppet Books, led by Frederik Colting and Melissa Medina, launched a series of so-called “learning guides” for children based on classic novels for adults. Known as KinderGuides, the books contain illustrations and simplified versions of the original classic plots.

These derivative works would be fine if the classic books were in the public domain, like L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, a source of inspiration for Anusha of Prospect Corner (Modern Middle Grade), and Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the basis for Amelia Elkins Elkins (Contemporary Fiction).

While at least one forthcoming KinderGuide is based on a public domain work–Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice–the majority are based on books that are still under copyright. The first set of KinderGuides includes the following copyrighted works: Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Moppet Books does not have a license to borrow from these novels, prompting the literary estates of Capote, Hemingway, Kerouac, and Clarke, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster to sue them for copyright infringement. The plaintiffs filed the complaint–available here (PDF)–in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York on January 19, 2017.

According to the complaint:

Although defendants call their Infringing Works ‘guides,’ the Infringing Works do not purport to be companion reference books or study guides for readers of the novels, such as those commonly used by college students. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a situation in which a 6-year-old child would have the need for a ‘study guide’ to inform his or her understanding of the adult novels.

Yes, it is hard to see a Kindergartener using a “study guide” for these classics, but the derivative works could still be “fair use” (and therefore not copyright infringement) depending on its (1) purpose, (2) nature, (3) the “amount or substantiality of the portion” of the original work used; and (4) the impact of the use on the original work’s market. Copyright Act, 17. U.S.C. § 107.

Without examining the allegedly infringing work against the original novel, I can’t say whether I think these KinderGuides violate copyright law. My gut sense is that it could be copyright infringement if the KinderGuides add little new content to the original works (and thus aren’t sufficiently “transformative”) and use a substantial portion of the original works. We’ll see what happens with the case.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time Moppet’s Frederik Colting has found himself in court facing similar allegations. He is the author (writing under a pen name) of 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, the unauthorized sequel to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. In 2009, Salinger filed suit against Colting, alleging copyright infringement. In the settlement, Colting agreed not to sell his derivative novel in the United States.

Among the “coming titles” in Colting’s KinderGuides series is a children’s version of Catcher in the Rye. I wonder what the Salinger estate thinks about that.

UPDATE 9/12/17 (see Publishers Weekly, citing Judge Rakoff’s opinion): “Fair use, however, is not a jacket to be worn over an otherwise infringing outfit. One cannot add a bit of commentary to convert an unauthorized derivative work into a protectable publication.” The judge permanently enjoined distribution of the works.

13 thoughts on “What Every Kindergartener Needs: A Study Guide for Jack Kerouac’s On the Road?

  1. Pingback: Does A Kid In Your Life Want a “KinderGuide” for Jack Kerouac’s On The Road? Too Bad. – The Misfortune Of Knowing

  2. It sounds like this guy is always pushing the law and should perhaps work with some of his own ideas. Copyright interests me because my husband has a lot of strong opinions about copyright and innovation and copyright making it harder to use a product than it is to steal it (esp. in regards to video games and online music).

  3. The copyright issues are very concerning. Somehow On the Road don’t seem like the type of book that children would find very interesting. I struggle to understand why the publisher thinks there is a need for this guide.

  4. Hadn’t heard about this — how fascinating! I’m personally not a fan of On The Road and am not sure why Kindergarten kids would need a study guide…and don’t get me started on Hemingway. x) But I suppose exposing children to these important works of literature early is not a terrible idea.
    I don’t have much to say/add about the copy right infringement, but thanks for sharing!

    1. I’m not a fan of On The Road or anything by Hemingway either. It’s odd to frame KinderGuides as “study guides” (the defendants call them “illustrated learning guides” on their website), though they might of done that in an attempt to circumvent copyright law. I’m not saying that the KinderGuides aren’t fair use–I haven’t looked at them or compared them to the original works–but it’s going to depend on how much of the original works they use, whether it’s transformative enough, etc. We’ll see!

  5. I hadn’t heard about the lawsuit, very interesting! Have you looked at one of the guides by chance? Id’ be curious to know how much of the original work it includes and what sort of additional material it might have. If they truly are intended for young readers, I can’t see how it would interfere with sales of the original because it’s not likely a teen or adult reader who wants to read On the Road will read this instead.

    1. I haven’t read any KinderGuides, which are still available on Amazon for $16.95. I wonder whether the Court will enjoin it. I agree that most teens or adults who are interested in On the Road aren’t likely to read this instead, but there might be some people who will think reading the KinderGuide is a sufficient alternative (not that I know how detailed it is). I’m curious to see how this litigation will play out.

  6. Jaclyn

    Interesting! I was not aware of the lawsuit, but had heard of KinderGuides. My sense was they were trying to piggyback on the success of BabyLit, which I believe uses all public domain works – but I thought their book choices were not as good. Now I’m going to be following the litigation with interest. Thanks for posting!

    1. I’m so curious to read a KinderGuide to see how it compares to the original work, but I’m not going to spend $16.95 on the kiddie version of a classic just to satisfy my curiosity. I’ll follow the litigation instead!

  7. I had heard about this lawsuit, and I wonder how it will go. These niche books, condensed kid-friendly versions of adult books, are an interesting concept, and as far as I know they are fairly successful. But I think I would be a bit upset if my kids read the kiddie version of a great classic and then never picked up the original. But that is just me. 🙂

    1. I’m curious to know whether the KinderGuide is detailed enough to supplant the original for some people. Like you, I’d be a bit irritated at my kids if they read a kiddie version of a book instead of the real thing!

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