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Information About Suntrust Bank v. Houghton Mifflin Company

The Wind Done Gone: Questions and Answers about this dispute

1. What is this dispute about?

Houghton Mifflin has scheduled publication of Alice Randall's parody for June 6, but the Mitchell Trusts have petitioned the court to prevent publication of Randall’s book. They claim that Randall’s book is an infringement of copyright and that the existence of this parody would hinder their efforts to license more sequels to Gone With the Wind.

Publishing in America relies on two principles: copyright and the First Amendment. We strongly support copyright holders’ rights to control their work, their characters, and the licensing of sequels. Since 1832, Houghton Mifflin has been the steward of some of our country’s most valuable literary properties. At the same time, we strongly support the First Amendment and the essential need in a democracy for the freedom to criticize and even make a mockery of established works.

2. Why did Ms. Randall write this book? What did she hope to accomplish?

Randall wrote her book to comment critically on a novel that she feels has harmed generations of African Americans. The most poignant story she tells is of her first experience of reading Gone With the Wind, when she was twelve; she loved Mitchell’s novel and tried to ignore its explicit and blatant racism. What does that twelve-year-old African American girl’s experience say, Randall has asked, about the power of Mitchell’s novel and about the pervasiveness of racism in our country? Older, she was troubled not only by the harm the book has done to African Americans but also by our larger society’s continued and uncritical acceptance of Mitchell's story. She wrote her novel to draw attention directly to the pain Gone With the Wind’s many portrayals have caused. In writing The Wind Done Gone, Randall hoped that it might help heal some of our culture’s oldest and deepest wounds by forcing readers to confront their own experience of reading Gone With the Wind.

3. Couldn't Ms. Randall have addressed the same issues without using Margaret Mitchell's characters?

Randall is certainly interested in the African American experience in the Civil War–era South and with getting that experience right in a work of fiction. But her main concern in The Wind Done Gone is with a specific text, Gone With the Wind, and with the broad influence Mitchell’s work continues to exert in our culture. Gone With the Wind has become an icon and a pervasive point of reference for people's understanding of the Civil War–era South, but the picture presented by Gone With the Wind is inaccurate and extremely racist. Just as troubling is our culture’s continued acceptance of the work.

Of course, some very powerful novels have been written about slavery that present a different point of view, from Margaret Walker's Jubilee to Toni Morrison's Beloved. These novels, as well as numerous works of history, have certainly helped some readers to view slavery in a critical light. But still, the staying power of Gone With the Wind among a large portion of American society, and with it the novel’s power to hurt and shape minds, has proved remarkable. Randall needed to take on Mitchell’s work directly to undermine its myths, make readers question its world, and explode the archetypes that have leapt off its pages into America’s consciousness. To confront Mitchell’s work directly and to make her parody convincing, Randall had to pay attention to the particulars of Mitchell’s novel.

4. What makes this a parody rather than a sequel?

The goal of parody is to comment critically and to expose and explode the flaws of the original. The goal of a sequel, by contrast, is to continue a story, generally using the principal characters, style, tone, and themes of the original; a sequel might take a slightly different point of view, but it would not overturn or ridicule the basic assumptions of the original. Think of it as the difference between revolution and evolution.

Parody works by ridicule. It is not necessarily comedy. It is the classic speech of protest for oppressed peoples. And it fits within the American tradition articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court justices Holmes and Brandeis that the cure for objectionable speech is more speech.

Randall's book couldn’t be a sequel on any number of counts. 1) Cynara, the main character, doesn’t exist in Gone With the Wind; in fact, given the racial purity throughout Gone With the Wind, a character like Cynara couldn't exist in Gone With the Wind’s world. 2) The white characters from Gone with the Wind to whom Randall alludes serve mainly as foils for her central characters, all of whom are black. 3) To the extent that The Wind Done Gone uses similar characters, they have been radically transformed; they may bear some superficial resemblance, but they are in fact quite different: Other (Scarlett) is not charming; Mealy Mouth (Melanie) is a serial murderer; Garlic (Pork) is the real master of Tata, a brilliant and manipulative man; most of the white characters are ineffectual, and many have African blood. 5) The story of The Wind Done Gone in no sense picks up where Gone With the Wind left off; in fact, it simply couldn’t, given the two novels’ radically differing points of view.

The Wind Done Gone is an ingeniously executed parody that, in telling its own story, turns Gone With the Wind upside down and inside out and explodes that work’s familiar stereotypes along the way. The Wind Done Gone does not, as any sequel would, exploit the reader’s love of the original work; instead it makes readers question the reasons for that love, if it ever existed.

5. Why are there so many similarities between The Wind Done Gone and Gone With the Wind? Isn’t this like Lo’s Diary?

For parody to work, it must conjure up the original work so that the reader or viewer will understand what’s being criticized or made fun of. When 2 Live Crew permissibly parodied Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman”, they needed to mimic the whole song in order to ridicule it. Randall has alluded to and transformed some iconic moments, domestic details, and features of the characters in Gone With the Wind to force the reader to confront the pervasive problems throughout the original text.

Randall’s book is not analogous to Lo’s Diary. That book simply took one of the characters from the original novel and retold essentially the same story from that character's point of view.

6. Why is parody not copyright infringement?

Because it does not take anything protected by a copyright from an author. Any harm caused by parody – like the harm from a scathing review that closes down a play – is not a harm that is relevant under the copyright law.

Parody is a cherished form of speech protected by both "fair use" and First Amendment principles. It’s allowed as long as it criticizes or in some other way transforms the prior work, and as long as its use of elements from the prior work is reasonably related to its critical purpose. Certainly Randall’s book transforms the way we read and remember Gone With the Wind.

7. Has Houghton Mifflin ever sued over parodies of books it publishes?

No! In fact, one of our most valuable literary properties is J.R.R. Tolkien's epic, The Lord of the Rings, published in 1954 and still generating millions of dollars in revenue each year. Decades ago, the Harvard Lampoon published a very popular parody called Bored of the Rings, which is still in print from Penguin. We have always thought that that book, although it belittles Tolkien's work and even includes offensive character names (Bilbo becomes Dildo), is parody and therefore protected.

8. Aren’t the Mitchell Trusts asking for a prior restraint?

A lawsuit asking for an injunction barring speech before it is spoken is asking for "prior restraint." As Justice Holmes said in the first Supreme Court decision addressing the issue, "The main purpose of [the First Amendment] is to prevent all such previous restraints on publication" (Patterson v. Colorado, 205 U.S. 454 (1907)).

Copyright law occasionally allows injunctions of works protected by the First Amendment after publication in situations where the infringement is clear and the defendant has made no reasonable contention of fair use, but even then, injunctions are extremely rare.

9. Has an effort been made to reach an agreement with the Mitchell Trusts?

Because parody is by its nature highly critical of the work it is imitating, it is neither possible nor required for the parodist to ask permission to parody something. The Supreme Court has clearly stated that copyright law cannot be used to give the copyright owner the right to control the market for criticism and commentary on his or her work. Besides, the Mitchell Trusts have repeatedly said that they brought this suit because they think The Wind Done Gone is "a bad book." However, such writers as Toni Morrison, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Pat Conroy, Ismael Reed, Claude Brown, and others have praised The Wind Done Gone’s significant literary merits.

Suntrust Bank v. Houghton Mifflin Company Court Papers

Houghton Mifflin Company's Press Statements

Questions and Answers about this dispute
Letter of Support
List of Authors
Biography of Alice Randall

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