Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Harry Potter Trial
I just HAD to wade in on this one finally. I've been following this case with some interest for a while, and as of yesterday, it moved into a realm even I didn't see coming.

Background: JK Rowling -- the queen of all things Potter, and an amazing writer as far as I'm concerned -- wrote the Potter books. And they were huge. That part y'all know.

Steven Vander Ark is the guy who runs the Harry Potter Lexicon. He's the uncrowned king of all things Harry, and has carefully documented everything for years. Rowling, in a statement now made super-famous by Vander Ark's lawyers, posted on her Web site that she thinks the Lexicon is THE place online for all things Harry, and she's been known to slip out of the cafe where she's working on her book and pop online to check out facts against what he's written.

Vander Ark was given opportunities to publish the Lexicon in book format, and declined, until the final Harry book was out there. And then RDR books, a publisher in the US, asked him to do so. He gathered up his materials, and turned it into a book.

The book has yet to see the light of day because of what happened next, but I would assume it's similar to another excellent companion guide that came out about 3 years ago that I used as a bible while reading the Harry books. Encyclopedic, with entries on the characters, places, terms (how many times I opened that book to look up what a "squib" was I have no idea), etc., to help readers who may no be reading the books one after the other. What was amazing about the other companion was that it came out while the books were still being written, so while we're forced to wait 2 years between books, and then hit the term "squib" and she, of course, will not define it for us again, it was a serious help. That earlier companion book disappeared after its initial print run, because Rowling's lawyers wanted it to.

So now Vander Ark is finding himself in the same predicament. Despite professing a love of his Web site, Rowling has declared war on his book. It stands to reason that what is good for the Web is not good for the printed page -- my Lost books (here and here) contain very little plot summary and more analysis, while my blog posts a lot more plot. I don't make money off the blog, where I make a pittance off the book. (And trust me, writing these things brings in very little cashola; if you don't love it, DON'T DO IT.)

But Rowling's lawyers have gone beyond protecting her copyright and trademark in this. They've basically cast a net over the English language canon and said Rowling owns the rights to it. In an ironic twist, "Harry Potter" has become He Who Must Not Be Named, for if you do, you will incur the wrath of Rowling.

I say Rowling here, because where up until now all of the other Harry companions that have been squashed were savaged by her lawyers, and not her (it's what she pays them for), Rowling herself has come out and said nasty things about Vander Ark and his book. So if she wants to wade in first person, she becomes the one to disagree with when taking his side.

Rowling's lawyers have made the same charges against Vander Ark that they've made against all the other companions: By its very presence, it hurts her sales, and hurts the sales of any future books. By referring to elements of her book, it violates her copyright of the materials therein, and makes it so you don't have to read her books.

Which is utter crap. These companion guides don't say, "OK, so the first book opens with it being nighttime and we move in on this little house on a street. A bunch of wizards are flying through the air and they have this baby..." No. It gives us names and places to look up while we are reading, but it's in no way a substitute for the actual book. It's like saying the dictionary is in violation of her copyright because it contains most of the words used in her books.

Secondly, how could it POSSIBLY hurt her sales? Who in their right mind is buying Vander Ark's book (or ANY of the companions) and not actually reading her books?? I wouldn't dream of a non-Lost fan buying and reading my book, unless it's my uncle wanting to support his niece. These companion guides are not meant for the casual reader who's looking for a good book to curl up with; these are meant to be companions to something else... hence the name companion guides.

Rowling has made it very clear (and so have her lawyers, in all their letters to publishers) that she herself plans to write an encyclopedia of Potter, and if it's already done, there's no room for her to do so. But here's where that argument falls apart: Only in these lawyer's letters does she actually say these companions could hurt that. But look up any number of interviews done with her in the recent past, and she's going on and on about an encyclopedia she's going to write that A) she plans to publish 10 years from now, when these companions will be long of out print anyway, and B) will give readers all the background of the books and characters that is not in the actual books. In other words, her encyclopedia is the one that ONLY JKR could write, no one else, and I could own every single companion guide out there -- I would still buy hers. Who doesn't want to know what her original intentions were for each character? Or what the possible alternate endings were? Or what storylines she scrapped? Could these other encyclopedic companions possibly give us that information? No. But in the meantime, they can help other people come to Harry Potter by offering an easy look-up device that makes reading these books less frustrating.

Not to mention, I could be wrong here, but I don't think she has much of a strong case saying that he is hurting the sales of a book she hasn't even begun to write yet, and might not write. It's like saying, "Well, I was TOTALLY going to do up a Harry Potter Web site with all of the terms in my books and call it a Lexicon, and it was going to have the EXACT same design as yours, and you took it first." That's the sort of reasoning my 3-year-old uses.

JK Rowling is a gabillionaire. (That's a billion multiplied by ga. I know. HUGE.) Somewhere along the line, she's realized, "Oh... all this negative publicity" [because yes, most of the media and bloggers I've read on the subject are actually looking at her like the nasty Goliath in this case] "is making me look bad. I mean, I already have so much money the queen is asking me for loans, so how do I help my case now??" And yesterday, she figured out how.

On the stand for the first time in this case, she's now saying that she's feeling so drained and betrayed and awful about all of this that she no longer has the heart to write that encyclopedia, and she was going to give all that money the encyclopedia would garner to charity. "So I guess it's too bad those orphans are all going to starve to death, thanks to Steven Vander Ark," one could imagine her saying.

Seriously, that's just going too far. The woman took the word "Muggles" from another book, but because Rowling had more money than that author, she won, and the other author looked like a whiner. She's taken the quest narrative from any number of books; hell, Tolkien would be turning in his grave if he knew how much she had "borrowed" from him. And speaking of Tolkien, check out how many companion guides and encyclopedias are available of HIS books, and his estate has the good graces to leave them alone. They see them as nothing more than guides to his books, and not infringing anything. And I think we can all agree that Tolkien's sales haven't even incurred the tiniest scratch due to the presence of those other books.

If Rowling wins, this could see the death of all books like Vander Ark's, and I'm not just talking about the sort of books that I write. All academic treatises will be under attack; Cliff's Notes will disappear; SparkNotes.com will shut down; hell, any student trying to write a PhD and using any line from any book will come under suspicion. Then it will extend further: TV show websites will be gone because they're talking about plot of a show. Television Without Pity will end (they make it so you really DON'T have to watch the episodes if you don't want to) and all forums will be policed so no one infringes copyright.

Which shows you how ridiculous this claim is. You can see the first defense filed against Rowling here, and yesterday's NY Times article on Rowling's testimony here.

Now, like I said, the general public hasn't seen the book. It COULD be sloppy, there COULD be very little research, as Rowling suggests. And if that's the case, one could say in her defense that she doesn't want something that sloppy to be standing in as a temporary encyclopedia until hers comes along. But the companion guide that I was referring to earlier was excellent, accurate, researched down to the tiniest detail, and contained a lot of outside information that enriched the process of reading her books. And she quashed that one, too. So her argument is suspect to me.

Let's just let Vander Ark put out his book. I'm not being totally biased in my support for this guy -- he was nasty to a friend of mine a few years back and I've not been a fan of his ever since -- but I am on his side in this battle, and I have a ton of respect for anyone with the guts to fight Goliath in this one.

May David reign.


Megan said...

I'm looking forward to the results of this one. I own several Rowling reference books (Megan = loser), but if the Lexicon is simply a book version of the website, then it really is what Rowling says it is. There is no analysis, and descriptions are sometimes lifted word for word. If done for a fee (they aren't proposing to give the new book away), that does seem to cross the line.

I'm less sympathetic to Rowling's claim that people won't buy HER book if they already have the Lexicon. No fan in his/her right mind is going to buy the Lexicon over an official Rowling encyclopedia.

I'm definitely not opposed to reference books like the ones you write and the ones I have next to my bed. This seems to be a different situation, though. It'll be interesting to see how it plays out.

ximena said...

Money is affecting JK Rowling's brain. She even nominated the site as the best of the month in her own web site a few years back. Thanks to her I know about "The Lexicon".
As a professional intelligent woman she is; wouldn't have notice she would be writting the same thing that have been circulating all over the web for years?. And believe me, I've been searching the web a lot because I'm Chilean and all the books, films, and tv shows arrive weeks to months later.

And imply that poor children would not get money now because she can't write a Harry Potter book in the near future... because someone did it first... It's a pretty low excuse. she should donate an exaggerated amount of money to the children and desappear from the media for a while or her own actions will affect her sales.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Nikki, for so eloquently articulating what I cannot properly express, on account of my white-hot rage and contempt for this entire situation.

MC said...

Let's contrast J.K. Rowling's response to this type of thing to
her nearest rival in the field, Terry Pratchett.

-An amateur dramatist wrote a play based on one of his novels(Wyrd Sisters) and staged it, and it began a long working relationship between the two, which included work on an official reference book (which included new information directly from Pratchett himself).

-There is also a MMORPG/MUD based on the Discworld novels that "officially" Pratchett doesn't know about. *wink* Basically, he takes the position that he doesn't know it exists, and if asked will not acknowledge it, because he knows that if he does, then he will be forced to take legal action to protect his copyrights.

Can you imagine Rowling EVER doing something like that now?

Nikki Stafford said...

Megan: Good points. I'm definitely interested in seeing the book. Like I said, Rowling has gone after books that actually did contain a lot of thought, so her argument that Vander Ark's doesn't just does not hold water with me yet. It's too bad one of the superior companion guides didn't decide to fight her lawyers, but I'm willing to take this one. I think the essence of the battle will be far more important than the books involved. (And you owning several Rowling reference books just ups your coolness in my eyes...) ;)

ximena: I agree. Rowling went out on a high note; the 7th book was fantastic, and I loved the series, and the world is a different place because of it. I mean that sincerely. So why she decided to take on this guy is beyond me... it's not his Lexicon that will tarnish her image or the brand of Harry Potter, it's the way she's attacking him and making her come off as incredibly petty.

Interesting that her books were about a boy named Harry Potter, because she's certainly coming off like Old Man Potter from It's a Wonderful Life right now.

fb: Thank you for saying that!

MC: Wow, that's really interesting, I had no idea. You know, copyright law is important, and it's there for good reason (in an age of downloading, it's a necessity). But if you've ever checked out Mark Zicree's companion to The Twilight Zone, you have the example of a great, great companion guide. Behind-the-scenes info, plot details, analysis, reviews of each episode... and the actors and writers all talked to him, he gave away the twist endings of the episodes (I learned early on in reading it that you had to watch first, read second) and CBS didn't touch him. He's probably made a mint off those copies (he's sold an obscene number of copies) and not a dime has gone back to CBS, and yet everyone is happy, and Zicree has stirred up new interest in TZ. It's too bad we don't see that sort of give-and-take happening anymore. It's all lawyers and nonsense.

Brian Douglas said...

Apparently Rowling doesn't have enough money.

Brian Douglas said...

megan: I own several Lost companion books myself. The first couple I bought weren't very good. Then I got one written by someone named Nikki Stafford, and her book was much better. She even had complete sentences in it, stuff was under the correct heading, and everything!

Anonymous said...

You seem to have missed the point that the book is 91% lifted directly from Jo Rowling's 9 books. The book is available to see on Justia.com. It's a rush job and just steals Rowling's work by cutting and pasting. The other problem is that even the cut and pasting was not done by Steve alone but because it is taken from a fan site loads of anonymous fans did the work and have not been recognised. So Steve has stolen Jo's work, his staff's work, and fan's work too.

Anonymous said...

You can actually see parts of the book. Justia.com has all the legal filings and exhibits scanned in. I can;'t remember which filing it is an attachment for, but it is in there.

The entries may be great on the website, but most of that is lost in the book. None of the commentary that is on the site is in the book.

Once you have seen the book (one of the exhibits) the you will see it really is a word for word copying of JKR's work. There is no fair use in that.

Corey said...

I dread the world of copyright if she actually succeeds. Her reasons are nonsensical, but if any judge finds value in them, well, all hope is lost.

And the idea that I would read an encyclopedia rather than the book? I can't think of an obscenity strong enough to capture my feelings on how stupid an argument that is. Although I have always liked Hawkeye's comment in M*A*S*H*: "I'm reading the dictionary. I figure all the other books are in there somewhere."

Chef Mayhem said...

Everyone seems to want to keep going back to this alleged "90%" of the book that is copied from Rowling's work. I don't see the significance - RDR admits (in so many words) that the book is infringing. The point is whether or not the infringement can be categorized as "fair use." If anyone doesn't think that putting things in alphabetical order is transformative, than imagine looking up a word in a dictionary that just contains all the entries in random order.

K J Gillenwater said...

If it's sloppy and crappily done, guess what? No one will buy it. But the fact that she brought attention to this book and this small publisher just added to the sales potential.

I don't see why JKR is so up in arms. I think some lawyer on her retainer pointed it out to her and how it was wrong, just so he could be busy doing something. Not only are there Tolkien companion guides, there are many guides & dictionaries for the Narnia series as well.

Megan, could you explain further what info is being lifted? Wasn't it user created in the first place...? Like a fan fic type site? I don't know much about it.

I just think she should look at the whole picture. She will be seriously damaging ANY type of fan site or book to exist...and is that what she wants? I think the judge is right to ask these two parties to settle and keep a judgment out of it so that it doesn't echo into the rest of the fan world.

This is how I see it. JKR has PILES of money. Is it really worth anything to her to pursue this? NO. It is a small thing that may irk her once in awhile and get under her skin, but does it prevent her from making MORE money? Does it somehow damage the works she has done that the world already knows and loves? NO.

Drop it, JKR, please!

Megan said...

I am such a loser that I know all of the back story here and was hoping the case would never go to trial.

Mr. Vander Ark has been running the Lexicon for years. It is not quite a Wikipedia, but it has definitely been built up over the years through the hard work of many, many fans. It is not entirely his original research.

It has no analysis and is not really a reference site, it's more like an encyclopedia.

He refused to publish it as a book, saying it would violate JKR's copyright, until after the seventh book came out. That's when a publisher contacted him and told him there would be no copyright concerns.

Mr. Vander Ark was understandably skeptical, and insisted that his contract should include a clause that the publisher (RDR Books) would fund any litigation from JKR.

The book was rushed into production in a very short time -- apparently a month. It's certainly possible that Mr. Vander Ark wrote new material in that time, but I think it's more likely that the book is simply a printed version of the website.

Anonymous said...

There's a difference between writing a companion book and copying 90% of your text from other books. That's what the difference is here. Vander Ark has just re-written parts of the Harry Potter books and has called it an encyclopedia - very little independent thought, discussion, etc. It's not fair use. Rowling has never had a problem with the ton of companion books that have been written about Harry Potter prior to this. If she loses, I would think online fan sites, etc., should have more concern because authors will make more attempts to shut them down earlier for fear of this type of thing happening. It's wrong to just assume someone sues for the money.