Barry Trotter Done Gone: Parody and Free Speech Discussed at ALA

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Author Michael Gerber is not afraid of being sued over the publication of his new book, Barry Trotter and the Unauthorized Parody. He is a first-time author who is still working a day job to make ends meet. "The worst thing that could happen to me is my cats would be jointly owned by Warner Brothers and Scholastic," Gerber said during a program at the American Library Association convention in Atlanta on Monday. The program, "Barry Trotter Done Gone: The Perils of Publishing Parody," was jointly sponsored by the ALA, the Association of American Publishers, and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.

But Gerber turned serious when he discussed the threat that lawsuits alleging copyright infringement pose both to the art of parody and to the First Amendment. Parody involves mimicking a work by taking elements of the original and then altering them for satirical effect. In Barry Trotter, 22-year-old Barry joins forces with his old school friends Ermine Cringer and Lon Measly to help Headmaster Alpo Bumblemore save their alma mater, Hogwash, which is threatened by Hollywood’s plans for a movie, Barry Trotter and the Inevitable Attempt to Cash In.

To be effective, the parodist must be able to use aspects of the original, but this makes him or her vulnerable to the kind of copyright suit filed by the estate of Martha Mitchell against Houghton Mifflin, publisher of Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone. In the current environment, the threat of a copyright is having a chilling effect on parody, Gerber said. He cited the difficulty he had in finding a publisher for Barry Trotter. The book is currently self-published and sold through Gerber’s Web site, However, Simon & Schuster is planning to publish it in the fall.

Gerber is a fan of the Harry Potter books. His satire is aimed at efforts to exploit their popularity. Sometimes, however, as in the case of The Wind Done Gone, the target of the parody is the work itself. Wendy Strothman, the executive vice president of Houghton Mifflin, said the purpose of Randall’s book was to expose and ridicule the racism in Gone With the Wind. "GWTW is filled with really hateful language," she explained.

Consequently, Houghton was "shocked" when the Mitchell estate alleged in its lawsuit that The Wind Done Gone involved "wholesale theft" from the original novel, Strothman said. She explained that as a publisher she believes strongly in the importance of copyright protection. But copyright is intended to encourage creativity as well as to protect the author’s property interest, she added. While The Wind Done Gone used aspects of the original, it did not retell the story: It transformed the borrowed parts into a new work of fiction whose purpose was diametrically opposed to the original. "The point for us is that parody has to be transformative," she said.

Houghton’s view was vindicated by a decision in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals last July that lifted an injunction barring publication. Although lawyers for the estate said at the time that they would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, they recently reached an agreement with Houghton to settle the case.