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.