J.K. Rowling fights Muggle legal battle

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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 Lexicon, saying:

“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 creative activities.”

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?

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