Sorry Kids: G-Rated ‘On the Road,’ ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ Rejected by Judge

Drug- and sex-free versions of classics violate copyright, judge says

Truman Capote
Wikimedia Commons

Helicopter parents may soon lose bragging rights that their pre-schoolers are reading beloved novels.

A judge ruled that kiddie versions of adult books such as Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” violate copyright law because the publishers borrowed too much of the originals without seeking permission from the original authors.

New York federal judge Jed S. Rakoff’s ruling Monday concluding that a new line of cleaned-up and dumbed-down versions of novels infringed the copyright in the original works.

KinderGuides publishers Melissa Medina and Fredrik Colting vow to appeal, arguing that their books are “fair use” of the original books because their sanitized books provide educational summaries of the real novels, like Cliff’s Notes for children.

The KinderGuides publishers were sued in January by the estates of Kerouac, Capote, Ernest Hemingway, and Arthur C. Clark and book publishers Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster.  The lawsuit claims that copyright law does not permit the borrowing of titles, plots, and characters from original novels without permission, not even children’s books.

New York federal judge Jed S. Rakoff’s ruling Monday also found that KinderGuides books based on Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and Clarke’s complex sci fi novel, “2001: A Space Odyssey” were copyright infringements.

Perhaps the KinderGuides books might have had better luck in court if they argued that their picture books are fair use parodies or satires of the original works, with comically saccharine characters and plots that strip away any hint of the serious adult themes that make the actual novels interesting.

The kiddie remake of the Capote classic “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” “skipped over the awkward question of whether Holly Golightly is a prostitute,” the New York Times observed. Instead, Golightly “loves parties and jewelry, but can’t afford any.”

The baby version of Kerouac’s “On the Road” omits any mention of the characters popping speed, meeting prostitutes, or whooping it up at wild parties, as described in the real book. Instead, the toddler version happily reports that the narrator “Sal is ready for an adventure!”

“We don’t need to mention every gory detail,” KinderGuides co-creator Medina said. “You still get the spirit of the story, which is about a road trip and about adventure and being free.”

Experts disagree on whether an appeal could succeed.

“This is a tough one for me; I have looked at copies of the books, and I see the basis for the judge’s decision that they don’t fit into the ordinary fair- use boxes,” Harvard law professor Rebecca Tushnet told TheWrap. But she noted that “CliffsNotes also contain extensive summaries — far more extensive than those in these books — and it would be odd to say that CliffsNotes or Wikipedia summaries infringe.”

Los Angeles attorney Lou Petrich said KinderGuides might have a tough time on an appeal. “Abridgements and condensed versions are still derivative works and if the taking is substantially a telling of the story and depiction of the characters, it’s problematic,” Petrich told TheWrap.

Marcia Paul, a lawyer for the estates and publishers, declined to comment.

As of Thursday, KinderGuides’ versions of “On the Road,” “Breakfast with Tiffany’s” and “Old Man in the Sea” were not available on the KinderGuides website. The now-scarce books are marked up to $655 (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”) and $150 (“On the Road”) on Amazon.

This is not the first time that Colting lost a copyright infringement lawsuit.  In 2009, J.D. Salinger sued Colting over his unauthorized adult sequel to “The Catcher in the Rye.” The judge found that the sequel infringed the copyright in the original book and banned Colting’s book in the United States.