The New York Times has an interesting piece on J.K. Rowling’s efforts to prevent a small publisher in Michigan from publishing a Harry Potter lexicon – a companion piece to her famous series. At issue is whether people have a right to write books about other books. In this case, Rowling (and her co-plaintiff, Warner Brothers Entertainment) say she should have the exclusive right to publish a companion book without competition. She also, apparently, believes the characters and the imaginative world she created are her exclusive property, and any use of them is an illegal derivative work.
This reminds me of the lawsuit that tried to prohibit publication of The Wind Done Gone, a parody of Gone With the Wind told from the perspective of a black character. In that case, the courts found that it was a permissible parody and threw out a lower court’s preliminary injunction as an “abuse of discretion” by the courts.
In any case, Lawrence Lessig points out that if commentary and reuse of cultural materials is a crime, then we’re either a nation of creative criminals – or just creative people exercising our rights.
Addendum: an interesting series of comments can be found here. It sounds like a tangle of lawsuits, but I still think people should be allowed to write books about books, and that includes compiling information from them in a new way. There’s an interesting article on fair use in higher education – not at all the same situation as this issue – but it made me think about the word “transformative.” When is something a rip-off, and when is it really made new? The act of reading a book makes it new for each reader.
There are a lot of layers here. If we had a more balanced copyright law, closer to the original “for a limited time” idea in the Constitution, and if culture were not treated as a commodity, I think we’d have fewer of these hairs to split.