When a celebrity dies (be they famous for movies, television or even literature!), I go poking around to see if there’s any Shakespeare connection to make. Other than a funny non-starter on WikiAnswers looking for a comparison between Hamlet and Holden Caufield, I found a larger story about Salinger’s position on copyrighting of specific characters…
The gist of the story is that if you can claim ownership of a character like JD Salinger attempts to do with Caufield, then Shakespeare would never have been able to write King Lear. The article does an admirable job of tracing back the “ownership” of all Shakespeare’s ideas in that play, at least as far as characters are concerned.
I wonder if this is perhaps making a mountain of a molehill. Isn’t this what we have public domain for, and the whole “past the life of the author” thing? If you create a character, and you are still alive to speak for that character, then aren’t you allowed to determine who uses that character? Am I missing something? Once the author has died, and time has passed (presumably allowing his estate to continue to receive benefit from his work?), then you can use his creation as you will.
The Shakespeare case is not really comparable, what with Lear being based on a “semi-legendary” figure. I think that multiple interpretations of a fairy tale are of a different nature than taking the specific creation of one author and trying to appropriate it for yourself.