New Hampshire’s most famous recluse, author J.D. Salinger, surely deserved his privacy while alive, but in death, his name and image — as opposed to his actual work — should be fair game for artists and souvenir-makers. A law that would have given family members the right to control a dead person’s image for 70 years, championed by the Salinger family, was wisely vetoed by New Hampshire Governor John Lynch this week.
Intellectual-property laws are needed to ensure that artists are paid for their efforts. But no reasonable writer would feel motivated to work harder because of a law guaranteeing that his or her image will never appear on kitschy mugs. Many writers, in fact, will die hoping for just that sort of posthumous fame.
Salinger lived for more than 56 years in the longtime writers’ and artists’ community of Cornish, N.H., before his death in 2010. His son Matt pointed to New Hampshire’s motto, “Live Free or Die,” in arguing that Lynch’s veto would infringe upon his father’s privacy rights. But the veto promotes individuals’ freedom by allowing other artists to use Salinger’s identity, a freedom that benefits society at large. For every tasteless Salinger T-shirt sold, there may be a documentary about his life or a book of Salinger-inspired images that could spark interest in “The Catcher in the Rye” for new generations of readers.