In the latest legal battle over the distinction between copyright infringement and literary allusion, the estate of Margaret Mitchell, author of the Civil War classic Gone with the Wind, has filed suit against Houghton Mifflin to block publication of a forthcoming novel based on the Mitchell work that retells its story from the slaves' perspective. The novel is The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall, an African-American author who has worked as a journalist and screenwriter and is also a successful country and western songwriter. The book is scheduled to be published in June.
Legal papers filed in Atlanta by SunTrust Bank, the trustee for the Mitchell estate, called the book "blatant and wholesale theft," saying it incorporates and infringes on "characters, settings, plot lines and other copyrighted elements of Gone with the Wind." The estate charges that The Wind Done Gone is an unauthorized sequel and will divert attention and sales from two authorized sequels licensed by the estate as well as from the well-known feature film and an eight-hour miniseries.
This is the most recent effort to block publication of a book that makes use of a well-known or classic work. In 1999, the estate of novelist Vladimir Nabokov tried to prevent the publication of a work based on Nabokov's Lolita, Lo's Diary by Pia Pera, by FSG and later by Barney Rossett's Foxrock imprint.
Ultimately, FSG declined to publish Lo's Diary, and it was eventually published by Foxrock in a settlement that acknowledged the estate's copyright. Leon Friedman, a lawyer and copyright expert who represented FSG against the Nabokov estate, told PW that these kind of suits "are happening more and more when there are serious books based on other works. It's a tricky question. If the book accepts the premise that there's a Scarlett O'Hara and a Tara and creates a framework for a new story, there's no problem."
Martin Garbus, of the firm Frankfurt, Garbus, Kurnit Klein & Selz, attorney for the Mitchell estate, told PW this new case is about "ordinary plagiarism." Garbus, who represented Foxrock against the Nabokov estate in the Lo's Diary dispute, claimed the HM novel "takes sentences and paragraphs... a lot of them," directly from Gone with the Wind. "This is a different set of issues," said Garbus, now on the other side of the issue.
Wendy Strothman, executive vice-president and publisher of HM, said the publisher has no plans to withdraw the book. "It is unconscionable to deny anyone the right to comment on a book that has taken on such mythic status in American culture," said Strothman. She called the allegations of plagiarism "misleading," and described the novel to PW as "fair use, a parody. We feel strongly that it's a commentary; it is not the same narrative or story lines. It takes iconic stereotypes from a book that has become a part of American culture and turns them on their head. Everything is twisted into parody and ridicule."
The Wind Done Gone is narrated by a character named Cynara, a slave in the household at Tara, the plantation in Gone with the Wind. The characters are familiar but have different, though clearly meaningful nicknames, and the story looks to be an attempt to depict how the lives of the slaves in the household were ignored in the original novel.
In a prepared statement, Alice Randall praised HM for its support. She called Gone with the Wind "a limited version of American history that continues to exert its power over the popular imagination. Part of literacy is responding to literature. I felt I had to take on Mitchell's novel directly. My book is an antidote to a text that has hurt generations of African-Americans. It is not always easy to take the hard, right stand."