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Potterverse Threatened

J.K Rowling Dukes it out with RDR Books in U.S District Court

By Pat Ferrara     April 21, 2008

Author J.K Rowling reading Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince at a read-in on its premiere night.
© N/A

Move over Voldemort, there’s a new sorceress in town who’s quickly earning the title of “She Who Must Not Be Named.” J.K. Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter universe, seems to be getting swept up in the commercialized trappings of franchise management as she took the stand in Manhattan’s U.S. District Court on April 14th. Her quarry: possibly one of her biggest fans, a former middle school librarian who ironically bears some semblance to the popular boy wizard featured in her novels.

Since hearing of RDR Books’ intent to convert Stephen Vander Ark’s “Harry Potter Lexicon” website into a traditional print tome, Rowling and film partner WB have been on the war path to prove copyright infringement in legal court. Over last week’s three-day trial the billionaire author was pitted against Roger Rapoport, RDR’s managing editor, to tackle the weighted concepts of creative transformation and the right of Fair Use.

A small, Michigan-based publishing house versus the might of Warner Brothers and a woman who’s now wealthier than the Queen of England doesn’t sound like much of a fight. But Anthony Falzone, the head of Stanford University Law School’s Fair Use Project, evened the playing field by offering his defense services to RDR Books in a pro bono case that will have long-reaching ramifications in the publishing and media industries.

The events leading up to the trial are pretty simple, but the intricacies of the case itself are an altogether different matter. Vander Ark founded Lexicon in 2000 to organize the vast wealth of Harry Potter information for the series’ millions of fans. By categorizing spells, family trees, magic theory and other HP-centered tidbits Vander Ark created an accessible store of fictional knowledge that referenced the appropriate page, chapter and novel from Rowling’s works. Yet RDR’s decision to translate Vander Ark’s cyberspace compendium into a print novel changed the author’s stance on the fan site and its creator. You can guess the pivotal factor that has since fueled all of the legal friction: the Almighty Dollar.

Rowling’s lawyers maintain that the trade release of the “Harry Potter Lexicon” could damage sales of J.K.’s own Potter encyclopedia that she plans on releasing in the next couple years. “If I had known she would object, I never would have written the book,” explains Vander Ark, who would still love to meet the author. The stress of the lawsuit on the small town educator surfaced in the second day of the trail, when he broke down in tears after being asked if he still considered himself part of the Potter fan community. “I did,” he replied at first, adding later “I do.”

And yet Rowling does have a strong argument in the case. One of the “Lexicon” manuscript’s major criticisms was the lack of original insight that would serve to illuminate “additional layers of meaning” in the Harry Potter texts. Many could argue that the planned reference guide is just a re-ordering of Rowling’s own ideas, a re-ordering that mixes the series’ fictional ‘facts’ and jumbles the original story’s continuity. Despite her vast success with the Potter novels, Rowling poignantly asked in her closing argument, “Somehow because my work is successful, I’ve weakened my own right to copyright?”

What can’t be condoned in the high-powered trial, however, is the rather blatant slandering and defacement of Vander Ark’s work. The manuscript’s content, which had earned Vander Ark praise from Rowling herself as well as an official endorsement in previous years, is now being called “poor,” “lazy” and a “travesty” to the source material…although Rowling has admitted to using Vander Ark’s site as a quick reference tool to the annals of her own work. I can understand that proving Lexicon’s sub-par status may be integral to winning the court trial, but it is also one hell of a class-less approach to deal with a group of fans you’ve already bestowed accolades upon. 

The heart of the court trial lies in defining the terms of Fair Use, a definition that may be too slippery of a slope even for presiding Judge Patterson to tackle. After three days of trial the Judge is still urging both parties to reach their own agreement outside of the court. If no resolution is found between RDR Books and J.K. Rowling a ruling will be handed down sometime after the court paperwork deadline of May 9th. What Rowling needs to ask herself in the meantime is: Will Stephen Vander Ark’s unofficial reference guide really have an impact on the sales of my own encyclopedia? And, if it does, is the scant loss in royalties really worth alienating a portion of my own fan base?

Regardless of her answers, in the end Rowling may not really have a say. Though she did create the Harry Potter universe out of thin air, it is a universe that, for all intensive purposes, has already grown beyond the scope of her control. Ms. Rowling you’ve given the world a marvelous story…and the world may not want to give it back.   

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Check back next Monday for all the latest info on current sci-fi, fantasy, and horror book releases. Questions or comments? Hit me up at Pferrara.mania@gmail.com.


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ponyboy76 4/21/2008 3:05:55 AM
I really don`t see how this guy's book would impact her sales for a book that she isn`t even going to come out with for another year or two. The tactics of Warner Bros are definitely class-less and I feel sorry for the guy. I do feel sorry for JK Rowling a little too because it seems that they are both just caught up in a situation that neither really have to power to control. She has made millions and HP is worth billions. I don`t see why its a big deal for the guy who obviously is a fan and built this whole site for other fans to maybe make a little dough off it. She has plenty to spare.
hanso 4/21/2008 4:37:59 AM
Fuck him. Dude is getting money based on her ideas. Of course they are going to say bad shit about his work, they are in trial, what can anyone expect? It will hurt her the book sales she plans to release cause if they are basically the same shit and I buy the guy's book 3 months from now when JK releases her own similar version I ain't buying it cause I already got one. The frakker should've asked her for permission if he knew she would check his site out from time to time. It's a big deal cause some other fools might try the same shit and then you aren't losing money to just 1 guy, it opens the door for many fools to do the same thing. If I was her I'd be pissed if someone was screwing with my money no matter how much I had. It's not like it was given to me, I had to earn that shit by creating Potter and his universe. The dude should look into creating his own work instead of trying to cash in on somebody else's.
ronmilner 4/21/2008 6:15:25 AM
If she wins her case does that mean that all the people who wrote Lexicon's of Middle Earth are breaking copy right also? These kind of books have been around for ages and have a place.
Wiseguy 4/21/2008 6:25:34 AM
ronmilner, I think you're right. Plus she herself was using his site for reference so I don't see how you can discredit his work after you've used it and actually gave him props for it. I really don't care what happens cause I'm not buyiong these books but I think if she got some royalties from the book and at the same time call it the unofficial guide while hers will be the official one would be a good compromise.
kaybar 4/21/2008 7:16:11 AM
Exactly ronmilner and that's where the big question is with this trial. How many other references books have been made which divulge the intricacies of given fantasy or sci-fi franchises? Ponyboy I also think you're right that Vander Ark and Rowling are caught between two publishing powers, and Hanso do you really think a encyclopedia that has "J.K. ROWLING" stamped all over it would attract less buyers than a completely unofficial HP Guide?
Myrddin 4/21/2008 7:16:31 AM
As an (unpublished) author, JKR is doing the right thing. The thing about copy right is you have to defend it. If you don't, you set a precedent for others to infringe on your work too. The Lexicon was ok, as long as it was a free website. When he tried to get it published (and make a profit), that's where the guy crossed the line. This is why numerous authors don't even allow fan fiction based on their characters these days. Not to be jerks, but because it becomes a slippery slope, as JKR is now learning. It's not so big of a step from published stories, resources, lexicons online, and the same appearing in the bookstore along side the original works. She is fighting this so hard to prevent it from ever happening again. And let's not forget Warner Brothers, who paid a pretty penny to have rights to the world. The lexicon infringes on their purchased rights too. This affects all future author rights deals, as this ruling could set a precedent. The amount of money JKR has made is irrelevant. Her copyright is protected whether she has made $5 selling a printout to her great aunt or the billions she's made from the rest of the world.
citizenk41 4/21/2008 8:46:05 AM
I think some of those posting here should learn a bit more about the "fair use" aspects of copyright law before passing judgment on Mister Vander Ark. Unauthorized reference books have long had a place in the annals of science-fiction and fantasy, and while there may be some legitimate basis for the suit against the unauthorized work, the tactics and rhetoric being used are borderline reprehensible. I might add that Rowling herself is a key offender. I never had that much respect for her to begin with and, now that she's actively defaming the same work of which she used to sing the praises, I have even less.
hanso 4/21/2008 9:04:29 AM
kaybar- Not side by side but I think if a parent has $20 and next month sees the book buys it for his kid and next year practically the same thing comes out but this time says “JK†on it, I’m not sure the parent spends the $20 again. *******************What do I care anyway, it aint my work and i'm not the one being sued.
Wiseguy 4/21/2008 9:09:57 AM
The Lexicon is a free website but it is a money making venture just like this site. And unauthorized reference books are nothing new to the landscape. Add that to the fact that she basically endorsed the site and I think she's in for a hard time. SETTLE
gauleyboy420 4/21/2008 9:36:35 AM
Didn't she steal the idea for Harry Potter anyway? From a russian author? Thats just what I heard, don't yell at me...I'm not a Harry Pothead, I've seen a couple of the movies, thats all, they're okay. But anyway I heard she is a class A Bee-atch, and that she "borrowed" inspiration for Harry Potter from another source. Anyone else hear these rumblings?
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