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Judge: Kid-Friendly Versions of Classic Novels Violate Copyright Laws

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on September 15, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Why wait until you're 15 to understand what it's like to hitchhike from coast to coast? You don't need to be in middle school to feel the yearning and aspirations of 1940s New York City cafe society, right? Surely a tale about two fishermen of varying ages wouldn't be lost on a nine-year-old.

All are semi-compelling arguments for translating canonical books for a younger audience. Unfortunately for the publishers of those kid-friendly classics, none of those is a legal defense to copyright infringement. "The mere removal of adult themes," a federal judge said, ruling that KinderGuides children's versions were unlawful copies of the original works, "does not meaningfully recast the work any more than an airline's editing of R-rated films so that they can be shown to children on a flight absolves the airline from paying a royalty."

Judging a Book by Its Jacket

U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff was emphatic in his ruling that the "undisputed facts easily establish actual copying" by Moppet Books, publishers of KinderGuides, rather than the guides being fair use under the doctrine that they were transformative or critiques of the original. Rakoff wrote, "fair use 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."

Moppet and co-founders Melissa Medina and Fredrik Colting argued that the kid-friendly works serve educational purposes and compared them to Cliff's Notes of famous books. "Tacking on these few pages does not provide safe harbor for an otherwise infringing work," Rakoff wrote in response. "The law is clear that, to be considered transformative criticism, the aspects of a work that reproduce another's protected expression must be in service of commentary on that work."

"This is not a copyright case," Colting claimed after Rakoff's decision, "but a case wherein middle-aged suits have forgotten what it's like to be 6 years old. In effect, they've put an age limit on learning." What Judge Rakoff did was put an injunction on future sales of the infringing works, which included "On the Road," "Breakfast at Tiffany's," and "The Old Man and the Sea," banning future sales of the kid-friendly remakes.

Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, and the estates of deceased authors celebrated the decision. And we celebrate not having to find out what the KinderGuide version of Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" would've looked like.

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