Picofarad #11

November 2007

The Wizard War Begins

I am writing this a few days after the news broke that J. K. Rowling is suing one of her biggest fans. The basic outline goes like this: The creator of the Harry Potter Lexicon site has decided to bring out a printed edition. And Rowling, who until now had enjoyed a symbiotic relationship of mutual respect with him, is now bringing the full legal might of Warner Brothers to bear on him.

And the shell-shocked Harry Potter community is saying: Huh?

Steve Vander Ark is the creator and head editor of the Harry Potter Lexicon, one of the oldest and most-respected Harry Potter sites on the net. It's a huge reference of every spell, every character detail, every date, every thing that has appeared in the books, all organized alphabetically, chronologically, and every which way. On Rowling's own site, the Lexicon is one of a handful of fan sites picked out for special praise, saying that she herself found it to be an invaluable resource for maintaining continuity. Every one of the movie DVDs since Chamber of Secrets has included the Lexicon's timeline as an extra. The as-yet-unreleased Order of the Phoenix DVD is said to include an interview with Vander Ark. One could think that if Rowling ever decided for sure to have an official encyclopedia published, and she wanted to subcontract it out, that he'd be at the top of the list.

RDR Books is a small press in Michigan which will be publishing the dead-tree edition of the Lexicon. They say it was their idea. Probably it did not take much convincing, after Vander Ark had spent 7 years watching everyone around him, professional and fan, making enormous piles of money (the founder of Mugglenet, another popular site, admits to "a six-figure income" from ad revenues), which the Lexicon tried to do the noble thing and only ask for voluntary donations. Probably, if he had any qualms about legal issues, RDR said, "Don't worry, we'll assume full responsibility for it."

J. K. Rowling's people noticed the Lexicon in RDR Books' catalog, and requested a review copy. RDR told them they had no right to demand one. Ritual insults were exchanged between lawyers, and the lawsuit was filed to preempt any possible trademark or copyright infringement. Rowling said that it would unfairly compete with her own hypothetical encyclopedia, thus all but confirming she actually does plan to write one. But before getting further into this, your editor feels compelled to offer some disclosure.

I also have a Harry Potter reference site. It's called The Akashic Record, and it mainly deals with etymologies of character names, spells, and invented objects. It directs the reader to the Lexicon for full descriptions of the major characters, leaving it free to present its own highly unobjective sketches for your further entertainment.

So far as I know, The Akashic Record is the one and only site to go out of its way to not compete with the Comic Relief fundraiser books, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the Ages. I did that because, first, it's one thing to extract a pile of facts from a story which is so much more than that, but these two books are basically, themselves, nothing but piles of facts; and second, even if nearly everyone who could possibly want copies already had them, it seemed worthwhile to try to provide some extra encouragement to those last few to support a good cause.

But it was clearly just me feeling that way. You can read the full content of those books on plenty of sites, some of them well-known, some of them making money off of ad revenues, and none of them have ever been sued. In fact, this suit is only about the printed Lexicon-- the free, easy-to-access version, which you would think would compete even more unfairly with an official encyclopedia, is still okay. Then again, I can't explain why people are pre-ordering the printed Lexicon, which is said to contain absolutely nothing that isn't on the Web.

Furthermore, there are already unofficial reference books out there. There's an Unofficial Harry Potter Encyclopedia. There's a Complete Idiot's Guide to Harry Potter. Mugglenet is coming out with its own encyclopedia on November 28th. (That's assuming that its invisibility in its publisher's catalog is just a cunning plan to keep it under the radar, rather than a sign that it's been cancelled and no one's told Amazon yet.)

Some commentators have suggested that it can all be explained with J. K. Rowling's famous habit of trying to create magical experiences for a few in a way that winds up making everyone else painfully aware that they have not been deemed worthy. (As an example, Potter fandom is currently fuming over the announcement that she has written the full text of Tales of Beedle the Bard, which will only be available to six of her friends and the winner of a Sotheby's auction. Great for her friends, great for the charity which will get the auction money, but the take-home message for many fans was, "Ha ha, look at this fascinating book which you will never get to read.")

But this is not J. K. Rowling's lawsuit. Look at the copyright notice in the later Harry Potter books, and you will see that she owns the text and retains some control of how it's published, but Warner Brothers owns the world, the characters, the trademarks, and all other intellectual property associated with the series. This arrangement is working fine for now, letting Rowling talk about defending "her" characters. But one of these days someone at WB is going to realize that their corporation is going to outlive her, and try to take as much control as their contract allows, and if you think this lawsuit is going nuclear, that one that happens then is going to be an absolute planetbuster. I think it will become clear then that lawsuits like this were always WB's call; Rowling may have agreed, but it was WB that framed the decision in the first place.

RDR Books may have a legally defensible point. (In fact, given the possible free-speech repercussions, you may want them to have a point, even if you think they're a bunch of greedy bastards.) The only commentary I've seen from lawyers so far has been to the effect that they'd really like to see this case argued in court, because this area of the law could really use some clarification. The part that is absolutely clear is that both sides have a real possibility of winning and this case will probably be around to spur fan argument for years to come. So I would like to end with a personal plea to other Harry Potter fans: Don't become part of it.

I have seen, up close, what happens when a legal and financial and copyright-related argument winds up sucking in an entire fan community. No one you've heard of, and you don't want to know the details. I have sympathy for all parties in this case, knowing what this sort of thing looks like from the inside.

It's been 20 years since that started, and some of the damage is still visible. If there is one thing left to keep this lawsuit from going down that path, it's to not help this case destroy Harry Potter fandom. Don't shun the people you've enjoyed talking with, don't kick any sites out of your bookmark list because of who you perceive they support or don't support. Don't join the flamewars this will inevitably spawn. Remember what brought you to this community and what kept you here. Keep talking.

Next: Scintillations

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