Los Angeles publisher Moppet Books will launch a new line of books in October, despite the fact that a federal judge ruled in late July that the company is liable for nine counts of copyright infringement in an ongoing suit filed by two major publishers.
In 2016, Moppet Books released a line of KinderGuides that summarized famous novels such as The Old Man and the Sea and Breakfast at Tiffany’s for readers ages 6–12 in a picture book format. Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster sued the publisher in January 2017, joined by the estates of Truman Capote, Arthur C. Clarke, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack Kerouac. On July 28, federal district judge Jed S. Rakoff ruled that the publisher was guilty of copyright infringement and rejected the legal team’s fair-use defense.
Moppet Books publisher Fredrik Colting said he still wants to find a way to publish the KinderGuides that were the subject of the suit. “Pending an appeal, we’ll learn what we can from Judge Rakoff’s ruling and will update and reformat the KinderGuides in question, as many times as it takes,” Colting explained in an emailed statement about the ruling. “Kids have a right to know what The Old Man and the Sea is about.”
While he deals with the fallout from the lawsuit, Colting is preparing to release a new set of books this fall. The first line is a collection of KinderGuides based on literary works safely within the public domain: KinderGuides Early Learning Guide to Homer’s The Odyssey, KinderGuides Early Learning Guide to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and KinderGuides Early Learning Guide to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. KinderGuides was conceived as a 50-book series, and “we still have that major goal of making 50,” Colting said.
The publisher also has two additional nonfiction titles scheduled for release in October: What I Can Learn from the Incredible and Fantastic Life of Steve Jobs and What I Can Learn from the Incredible and Fantastic Life of Oprah Winfrey. Colting hopes these “inspirational biographies” of key public figures will launch another potential series for the embattled publisher. Just like the earlier efforts, these new books are each illustrated by a different artist. Moppet Books has already worked on projects with creatives from 12 countries.
Colting sees this fall as a make-or-break moment for the small company, which has only two employees: Colting and his cofounder and creative director, Melissa Medina. Colting compared his outfit to David facing off against big publishing Goliaths. “We just managed to scrape up enough money and borrow from family,” he said. “We had to pay our lawyers; we had to reply to the lawsuit. And now we’re using our last money to get this print run for the fall titles going.”
Throughout his legal troubles, Colting has been encouraged by his distributor, SCB Distributors, a company he’s worked with for the past 10 years. The relationship began when Colting published pop culture books in Sweden with Nicotext, a publisher branded as the “new wave of coffee-table books.” These early titles included 99 Classic TV Series for People in a Hurry (a 2010 title by Thomas Wengelewski that summarized famous shows in a series of four comic book panels) and Animalisticus Fantasticus (focused on animal facts).
SCB catalogues currently list 11 Moppet titles, even though the ongoing lawsuit froze the first line, putting an indefinite hold on the books that are now liable for copyright infringement. “[Plaintiff lawyers] sent letters to Amazon and they sent letters to our web host service, and shut those [bookselling] avenues down,” Colting said. Now the original KinderGuides sit in a warehouse in Gardena, waiting for the court case to be resolved.
From 2009 to 2011, Colting found himself in a protracted legal battle with the J.D. Salinger estate over his first novel, a book billed as the “unauthorized sequel to The Catcher in the Rye.” At the time, he was living in Sweden. “That was a big shock for me,” Colting said. “I never knew anyone who’d gotten sued before in Sweden, because it’s just sort of unheard of.” Colting settled the case, but held on to his right to publish the book elsewhere in the world. He said the book was translated into 10 languages.
That case has come back to haunt him. The penalties in the ongoing lawsuit will depend on the legal issue of “willfulness.” In the KinderGuides suit, the publishers assailed Colting’s reputation, arguing that the earlier book indicates a pattern of willful infringement. As damages are weighed in this legal case and Moppet works on an appeal, much will hinge on the question of Colting’s intent during the course of his publishing misadventures.
When asked about the next steps, the plaintiff publishers sent a joint response to PW: “With this important first ruling in our favor, we look forward to the next phase of proceedings in which the court will address open issues including injunctive relief, willfulness, damages and fees.”
Note: In 2014, Simon & Schuster’s Touchstone imprint published Jason Boog’s book, Born Reading: Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age.