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Published: Saturday, 5/19/2001

The winds of parody

Margaret Mitchell's epic of the Civil War era, Gone With The Wind, was a phenomenal success and money maker both as a book and a film. Both versions, particularly the Hollywood treatment, cemented a view of the antebellum “Southern way of life” that has successfully outlasted the efforts of serious historians to set the record straight.

A parody of the book, titled The Wind Done Gone, might just do that if and when it clears the hurdles of copyright law that have enabled the literary heirs of the author's estate to tie it up in the federal courts. At this point, would-be readers cannot legally obtain access to the parody, in which the author purports to “explode” the “myth of gallantry and kindness in the Old South that obscured the crucible of slavery,” as William Safire said in his column, which he notes is copyrighted by the New York Times until 2096.

Lawdy, the golden oldies among us are all too familiar with Miz Scarlett (Vivian Leigh), Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), her retinue of faithful slaves, her star-crossed love affairs, the horrific scenes of war, her dramatic vow in the garden of her plantation home never to go hungry again, the burning of Atlanta, and the long, painful path upward from the devastation of war. The characters in the novel, especially as portrayed in the Hollywood film, are in themselves parodies. While Scarlett's experiences were not untypical of what happened in the chaos of civil war, it would have been unlikely in real life to have so many things happen to one woman and the men who were attracted to her.

Perhaps the courts will find that the parody is an infringement of a copyright which has been immensely profitable. The U.S. Constitution sanctions patents and copyrights (known today as intellectual property) to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

A federal law, sponsored by the late Congressman Sonny Bono, extended the copyright to the life of the artist plus 70 years. Margaret Mitchell was killed in 1949 by a motorist while crossing a street in Atlanta.

Some readers might view a realistic novel of the myth-beclouded slavery era in the South, or even a parody of Margaret Mitchell's romantic classic, as an example of a “useful” literary work. After all, we live in a time when the voters of Mississippi voted strongly to continue flying the Confederate battle flag over their state capitol.

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