J.K. Rowling and the Half-Baked Lawsuit

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.


3 Responses to J.K. Rowling and the Half-Baked Lawsuit

  1. sharon says:

    I think parody falls into a slightly different category than the proposed lexicon. I think more to the point, Rowling and her publishers allowed the same people to publish a web-based HP lexicon for several years without challenge. It’s only now when they propose to publish in traditional print format that JKR objects.

  2. Barbara says:

    You’re quite right, of course. Parody is a specific fair use and this proposed book is not parody, but a commentary on a work – which has also been seen as fair use in the past. The difference here is that Harry Potter is being treated as a product line, not as a cultural artifact that, as such, is interpreted. The fact it will be a book, and thus for sale suddenly makes it threatening to the product line.

    Larry Lessig has some interesting things to say about the change from read/write culture to “read only” culture, and this seems to me to be an interesting example of it.

  3. Katrina says:

    I agree that parodies are different that commentaries on a work, of which the Lexicon is a commentary. However, the Lexicon clearly copies maps and passages out of the HP books, as well as lists and facts, class schedules, potion ingredients and wizarding histories. It also slavishly copies lyrics to entire songs, lifts long passages directly from the Harry Potter Books, and transcribes magic spells word-for-word. In addition to copying the fictional facts and language of the books, the Lexicon Website also contains numerous infringing photos taken from Warner Bros. copyrighted Harry Potter films. Yes, they were allowed to have this information on the website, but now that it is a book it is a problem NOT because it is more threatening but merely because of the fact that NOW it is for SALE. That is the reason JKR and WB is moving, because the Lexicon is now making money off of her ideas and WB’s films. When it was a free website available to all it was permissible, but now since the makers of the Lexicon stand to gain from others’ work, even as a compilation, that is an infringement of copyright. If I were in her position, I would not want anyone to make money off of my creativity either – especially 17 years worth of hard work even if it did take Steve VanderArk a lot of time to compile his information.

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