It’s kind of a David-and-Goliath
struggle: Multibillionaire Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling is using her might to protect her
empire and stop the little guy from making any minor incursion.
Well, at least that’s how the
publisher of the Harry Potter Lexicon would like you to see it.
Of course, there’s another side to the story. Rowling feels “betrayed
by a fan” for his role in trying to publish an unauthorized Harry
Potter companion book.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Here’s the basic story. You may have heard that J.K. Rowling wrote a
series of very popular books about a teenage wizard, Harry Potter.
The insane popularity of these
books spawned an enormous fan online universe, one that Rowling encouraged
and supported. In fact, she singled out praise for one site, The Harry Potter
“This is such a great site
that I have been known to sneak into an internet café while out writing
and check a fact rather than go into a bookshop and buy a copy of Harry
Potter (which is embarrassing). A website for the dangerously obsessive;
my natural home.”
Rowling’s support and praised
waned, however, when Lexicon creator Steve Vander Ark
and publisher RDR Books decided to print and sell a copy of the Lexicon.
The book was scheduled for release last November when Rowling (and copyright
holder Warner Bros.) obtained an injunction which delayed publication until the
intellectual property issues were resolved. Rowling says that a print
version of the Lexicon constitutes copyright violation and that
it would undermine an official Harry Potter encyclopedia that she plans
to write. Both sides are entrenched, and it appears to be going to the
court for resolution.
There appear to be two issues
on the table: whether unauthorized publication of the Lexicon
actually constitutes copyright violation, and whether the creator of
the Lexicon actually had authorization to move forward. Without
delving into an in-depth analysis of U.S. copyright law, the basic question re: the first
issue is whether the Lexicon constitutes a “derivative work”
or a reference or critical piece. (The copyright holder has rights to
the former; anyone can publish the latter.) Rowling, of course, holds
that the Lexicon is the former, while the publisher and some others hold that it’s the latter. I’m too
far out of law school to really get into this issue, so I’ll leave it
to the court to decide.
The second issue is the one
I find more interesting, anyway. Did Rowling implicitly give permission
for the book, and is it a better for fans and writers to side with Rowling
or with the publisher here?
I haven’t seen the actual filings,
but it appears that the publisher contends that Rowling’s support and encouragement
of the fan sites constitutes authorization to publish the contents of
the website. Rowling, however, is very unhappy with this characterization
and suggests that it will lead authors to crack
down on fan sites.
"If RDR’s position is
accepted, it will undoubtedly have a significant, negative impact on
the freedoms enjoyed by genuine fans on the Internet. Authors everywhere
will be forced to protect their creations much more rigorously, which
could mean denying well-meaning fans permission to pursue legitimate
It’s a tricky conundrum. On
the one hand, she certainly encouraged fans to write. But, of course,
there’s an enormous difference between encouraging creativity and community
and encouraging commercial activities. On the other hand, it’s bound
to have a negative effect on fansites and fanfiction if copyright holders
feel compelled to crack down on them to protect their own interests.
But what about the fan writer who was encouraged to write and put an
enormous effort into the creation of a new work? Shouldn’t that writer’s
efforts be protected as well?
What do you think? Should Rowling
be able to quash the Lexicon, or should the publishers be permitted
to go to print?