Rowling and Warner Bros file suit against a Harry Potter reference work

J.K. Rowling has really done it now. Dumbledore gay? Meh only news and comment for sadly deluded individuals who see somebody’s sexuality as shocking. However her recent lawsuit against RDR Books and Steve VanderArk’s print edition of the Harry Potter Lexicon is truly astounding.

Steve VanderArk who runs the incomparable Harry Potter Lexicon and who spoke at the recent Sextus conference has found himself in legal hot water. Recently he got a contract with RDR Books to publish a print version of his incredibly useful online lexicon. Even JK Rowling has used this online resource. So what was hers and Warner Bros reaction? You would have thought a certain amount of joy at efforts to provide a requested resource. To file suit on RDR to stop publication which the publisher has agreed to do pending legal ruling.

In a statement on her site, Rowling commented:
“From what I understand, the proposed book is not criticism or review of Harry Potter’s world, which would be entirely legitimate – neither I nor anybody connected with Harry Potter has ever tried to prevent such works being published. It is, we believe, a print version of the website, except now the information that was freely available to everybody is to become a commercial enterprise.

It is not reasonable, or legal, for anybody, fan or otherwise, to take an author’s hard work, re-organize their characters and plots, and sell them for their own commercial gain. However much an individual claims to love somebody else’s work, it does not become theirs to sell.”

This is interesting in that the critical books on Harry Potter that I have have notices on them disclaiming any relationship to the universe, something that the other books that I have on other universes and authors like Buffy, Stephen King and what not do not have. Clearly some publishers (and I dare say producers of other universe linked items) feel threatened by the heavy legal team that appears to have accreated around the author. These are works of literary criticism and reference works and so fall under the fair use act. As does, in my view, the print edition of the Lexicon.
Vander Ark created the Lexicon out of curiosity and it is a free resource. As I understand this will not change at all with publication. The online version will be there and I suspect it will be updated should the need arise. It relies upon donations (and I do hope that it makes enough to cover its costs). It does not reorganize the plot or characters but does provide a useful touchstone if one needs to find out what’s going on. There is a market for print versions of reference books though as various publishers appear to find out, its smaller than imagined. Maybe the collectors market might go a little nuts for completion sake. Who knows? As I understand it the creators of the list have put in their own money and time so far, so I cannot personally see why responding to requests for a print version is a bad thing.
For JK Rowling to turn around and stab somebody in the back like this is truly mindboggling. It opens some truly horrific doors if succesful in terms of writing about and referencing author creations and universes. These do not bear thinking about without a shudder of fear running down the spine as somebody who is actively writing a history of fantasy in children’s literature. Vander Ark’s book is a work of reference not fan fiction or similar. It does not reorganize plots or use characters.

Rowling is certainly in the moral quagmire on this issue. I thought it was bad when injunctions were slapped on families and children who’d accidentally been sold an early copy of the sixth book but this goes even further beyond the pale.

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7 Responses to Rowling and Warner Bros file suit against a Harry Potter reference work

  1. Susan says:

    First off, a lot of the reference books done for other authors are done with their knowledge and approval or even with the author themselves, otherwise and author is within their rights—and in fact has to—defend their copyright or lose it.

    Second, all books that we see out there already published, and there are a ton of them, have been looked over first by the WB and JKRs lawyers and were asked to add the disclaimer. The WB reports looking over about a dozen books a month before letting them be published with no portion going to either the WB or JKR.

    What happened in this case is that the publisher is refusing to send them a copy of the book, so they have no idea what is in there; it may very well fall under the “fair use” act, which states that a percentage of JKRs books may be used legally (I’m not sure of the amount something like 10% to 30%.) but then again it may not. They filed suit after trying to settle out of court. And the publisher is saying that it is a case of first amendment rights—freedom of the press—which is just silly and not the issue. And RDR books is saying they are publishing anyway, despite the court order. All I can say is, are they nuts?

    For all that JKR knows the book is a printout of the website. Besides how can you expect anyone to give their approval to something they haven’t seen? If the publisher had just sent them a copy, I’m sure that this could have been avoided as it has been in many other cases. I just feel bad for Steve Vander Ark to have a publisher that is so unreasonable and is having to be caught in the middle.

  2. Iain says:

    I still think that it is insane that a disclaimer is asked for/ required by this estate. Clearly a book of reference is not part of the original work. Look at the work done on Neil Gaiman – no disclaimer on the Sandman critical works. As a side point, I’ve been through the proposals process though at the time I was unsuccessful and I was disppointed and hacked off at myself for anumber of reasons. In fact I’m glad now that I was as something else came up that has kept me going for a few years and I hope to revisit the original proposal after this.
    I agree that RDR are not playing in the same ball game as everybody else and I trust that Steve Vander Ark will be able to pull the book and submit to another publisher. There is a side issue of how contributions from fans are going to be addressed as well or have these been re-written from scratch?
    If the WB / JKR legal team have an issue with fair use or the content, why have they left the site running and not challenged that since it may well go above and beyond fair use of the original HP books? If JKR has used the site on a regular basis, why has she not commented / challenged before? As I understand it, the print version of the book has been asked for by fans so I personally think it highly likely that there would be a substantial similarity between the two items.

    These questions are not being answered and whilst she may be perfectly within her rights (obviously none of us in fact know precisely what is in the work), the precedent that could be set might (and I suspect will) be used in the future by less scrupulous teams to suppress printed work.

  3. Susan says:

    One reason the WB/JKR doesn’t challenge sites, music, fan fic, fan art, and skits, is that they are actually trying to be nice and appreciate their fans. I’ve never seen a co. etc, as flexible as they are with items like this, most authors won’t allow fanfic, and the WB even invites fans to premiers, helps them conduct interviews, changes items on film (the Riddle Grave stone) and on a poster (wrong ‘) to satisfy their fanbase.

    The second reason that they don’t challenge most of these items is because they don’t make money. I don’t mean get donations to keep things running, or make money that they are donating to charity–a book that costs $24.95 rather than the free website. It might have been different if Steve was donating all profits to a worthy cause.

    Fans won’t have anything to worry about unless they are making money from the sale of something that is JKRs–I do know the WB made Mugglenet and Leaky pull their T-shirts at one time, because they had too much art, but they did let them sell off all their stock first, which I though was a nice thing to do.

    Works for sale, critical works are protected, encyclopedia-type works might need to be edited, as they did with the one in the UK, that was published a few years ago.

    The disclaimer is that it isn’t an authorized publication–but you know that there are some people out there who might think that it is JKRs as she said she would be doing an encyclopedia of her own (which moneys would be going to charity.)

    Unfortunately, SVA might have taken an advance, he might have signed a contract saying that RDR will take care of legal actions, in fact RDR might have even lied to him and said something like, not to worry we have it covered, so he didn’t.

    Like I said before there as some copyright holders that go after fanfic: Star Wars, and the author of the Slime-Gen (sci-fic) series. And I think they only reason they stopped-press in this case is that RDR kept selling the book.

    Sorry to hear about your bad experience with a publisher and I’m glad it worked out for you in the long run. I too had a bad experience with someone picking up a novella and the new people running things decided they didn’t want it after all.

    I hope whatever you decide to do goes well as you write very well, and seem a very reasonable and thoughtful person, so Good luck!

  4. Iain says:

    Susan, Just so you know I edited a couple of typos – thats all.

    I’m getting curious to hear the whole story and I trust that SVA, the Lexicon or RDR will release this at some point. However I won’t hold my breath.

    Whilst I still hold that any successful legal action opens some unpleasant doors to less scrupulous actions. The shake out I suspect will be interesting to say the least.

    ATB for the future,


  5. Britannia says:

    RDR Books is either pulling a brilliant publicity stunt or they’re the publishers who couldn’t print straight.

    SVA has been telling fans for years that a print edition of HPL would be illegal and an infringement of copyright. So what changed?

    WB/JKR will win. RDR and SVA will file for Chap 11. And we’ll never see this book.

    For a good summary see:

  6. Iain says:

    As you say WB/JKR will win.

    RDR are coming out badly in the wash and I suspect that the truth is they couldn’t print straight and should have attempted to come to some sort of deal. One questions whether they told SVA that they’d sort out the legalities but failed to follow through.

    However morally, JKR/WB is still in the moral mire though (or at least their legal teams) in my view.

    In the long run, I suspect the real losers will be those of who want to write about popular culture. A complete side thought – its interesting that it is film companies who are the tightest on this.

  7. Cassie says:

    The problem is that the author *needs* to defend their copyright or they can lose it. Yes, this will make it harder for people who want to publish their own encyclopedias, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. As a writer and reader, I don’t want to see Joe Nobody making a dollar off of my work or work I enjoy.
    And critical essays are a different thing, that usually does fall under fair use. Part of the question here is how much is being added to the content? If its just a reprinting and organization of something Rowling wrote/created, than why should someone else be able to print and copyright that for themselves?

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