Friday, December 5, 2014

The Cassady to Kerouac Letter - A Fascinating Legal Battle

A fascinating legal battle is shaping up regarding the ownership of "The Joan Anderson Letter", a December 17, 1950 letter written by Beat prototype Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac. The letter's value stems from its stream-of-consciousness style - which is generally accepted to have served as the template for Kerouac's 1957 book "On the Road" - the Bible of the Beatnik movement.

Cassady wrote the letter and sent it to Kerouac.  Sometime in 1951 or 1952, Kerouac gave the letter to his friend and fellow author, Allen Ginsberg. The provenance of the letter thereafter is a mystery, and it was long considered lost to the ages. Then, in 2011, the letter was found among the papers of Los Angeles record producer Jack Spinosa. His daughter Jean found it, and after spending several years authenticating it, has now offered it for auction.

Which brings us to the cast of claimants for the letter. The estate of the letter's author, Neal Cassady, claims that the copyright in the letter is the property of the Estate.  The Estate of Jack Kerouac claims the letter, presumably on the grounds that by sending it to Kerouac, Cassady transferred any ownership rights to Kerouac. And the Estate of Jack Spinosa claims the letter, on the grounds that Mr. Spinosa apparently came into valid ownership of it sometime after Kerouac gave it to Ginsberg.  As the finder of lost property, Jean Spinosa can claim the letter under the doctrine that the finder of lost property is entitled to a superior claim of ownership against everyone other than the true owner, whom in this case she will likely claim is her father.

Historians of the Beat era don't have a horse in this race, but are anxiously standing by to see who ends up with ownership of the letter, in the hopes that the new owner will either donate it to a museum or archive, or otherwise make it available for review and use by scholars. 

As for me, it looks like a great law school exam problem! Keep your eyes on this one - some new law may come out of it as to ownership of this kind of intellectual property.

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