The premise of KinderGuides, a line of picture books based on famous novels like Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Kerouac’s “On the Road” and Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” always sounded a little far-fetched. The publisher’s stated aim was to instill an “appreciation for classic literature at an early age” — so early that the books are aimed at children who are just learning to read.
Distilling the works of literary giants into highly condensed, brightly illustrated picture books for elementary school children raised obvious pedagogical questions. (Can a 6-year-old reader appreciate Hemingway?) But there was also an important legal question at stake: Did the works violate copyright?
Last week, a judge in Federal District Court in Manhattan ruled that several KinderGuides books infringed on the copyright protections granted to authors and their estates. The judge, Jed S. Rakoff, ruled in favor of the estates of Capote, Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway, which united to file suit in January, with Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House. In the complaint, the estates and publishers called KinderGuides “unauthorized derivative” works that take the characters, plots and settings from copyrighted books.
“If defendants truly wish to introduce young children to the classics, there are literally thousands of public-domain works from which they could choose,” the complaint said.
The judge rejected the argument that the books were educational and therefore legal under fair use, and ruled against Moppet Books, which publishes KinderGuides, on nine counts of copyright infringement. The judge said he would explain his ruling in a subsequent memo and issued no decision on possible damages.
The decision is a blow to Fredrik Colting and Melissa Medina, the co-founders of Moppet Books.
In an email on Tuesday, Mr. Colting said they were preparing to appeal the ruling, and would continue with their plans to publish KinderGuides based on 50 classic novels.
“Unfortunately, there’s nothing new about big corporations bullying a small company, in effect, squashing creativity,” he said.