I can’t get away from the rather melodramatic news bits about JK Rowling appearing in Federal District Court in New York this week, Michigan librarian Steven Jan Vander Ark whose fan lit is the focus of her lawsuit, and who is crying and trying not to cry about Harry Potter in court today. But I haven’t yet stumbled upon library folk talking about what this case could mean as far as precedent for copyright & other types of intellectual property.
The Cliff’s Notes (or Cole’s Notes, here in Canada) version of the suit is that Warner Bros and JK Rowling have filed suit (On Halloween! How perfect!) against independent publisher RDR Books to prevent them from publishing Steven Jan Vander Ark’s manuscript “The Harry Potter Lexicon.” The book is/was to be an adaptation of the fan site of the same name, which Vander Ark maintained.
So, this is weird to begin with, right? How can an author sue to prevent companion works? This whole argument seems quote bogus to me, and I am a bit surprised it’s getting a day in court, frankly. I was only an English major for a brief stint many years ago, but even I became well acquainted with companion works such as volumes of literary criticism, guidebooks to genres and authors and, well, the aforementioned Cliff’s Notes. I’m pretty sure there are several Tolkien Encyclopedias out there (and if I were Rowling I would be pleased to be in such good company).
But it gets weirder yet, when we read that Rowling apparently praised and supported Vander Ark’s Harry Potter Lexicon as a website, generating only piddly ad revenue for the proprietor.
RDR Publishers states that
Among the site’s supporters is J.K. Rowling, who bestowed the HPL with a Fan Site Award in 2004 and wrote on her website: “This is such a great site that I have been known to sneak into an Internet cafe while out writing and check a fact rather than go into a bookshop and buy a copy of Harry Potter (which is embarrassing).”
Now that the HP Lexicon is to be a published book, however, she has withdrawn her blessing and replaced it with ire. Rowling is allegedly citing plans (or maybe just wishes, depending on whose reporting you’re following) of her own to write a Harry Potter Encyclopedia of some sort, which would somehow be ruined by Vander Ark’s fan Lexicon. But of course it’s “not about the money.” Nu?
Joe Nocera wrote a nice article in the NYT about the suit, calling Rowling a “copyright hog” and reminding us what “fair use” means. In it, he explains:
[Rowling] is essentially claiming that the decision to publish — or even to allow — a Harry Potter encyclopedia is hers alone, since after all, the characters in her books came out of her head. They are her intellectual property. And in her view, no one else can use them without her permission.
Riiight…and no one should ever write fan fic (which probably generates big $$$ for the original creator by virtue of building a cult following) or, say, a Gone With the Wind retelling or an Anne of Green Gables adaptation or anything like that.
It is sad that apparently no one has explained to such a successful writer about fair use. It’s also kind of, well, weird that such a successful author would be grabbing at sole right to this companion work as if she were never going to have another good or original idea in her life, rather than accepting it as the tribute it was meant to be.
Seeing as, for whatever reason, Rowling and her lawyers do have a reputation for going after unauthorized spin-offs around the world that goes back several years now, I, for one, am glad Lawrence Lessig & company from Stanford’s Fair Use Project are on RDR’s side. And I wish them the best. The slippery slope that an anti-spin-off ruling could create is not one in which I want to live, or read.
By the way — Am I breaking some sort of librarian code for discussing this? Are we all supposed to love HP because it gets kids to read, or something? Do we all think this suit is such hogwarts – er, I mean hogwash of course (don’t sue me!) – that it’s not worth devoting the time to type out an opinion? Have I been reading the wrong blogs? Or are we all just away at library conferences this month? Whatever it is, I missed the memo.
**Follow-up post here.