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Thread: Rowling sues publisher of Harry Potter Lexicon

  1. #1

    Rowling sues publisher of Harry Potter Lexicon

    I have been curious for a long time about what LitNetters think about copyright issues and intellectual property, and I thought this piece of news would be a good starting point for a discussion.

    According to an article on arstechnica,

    J.K. Rowling is suing the publisher of the Harry Potter Lexicon, which began life as a popular Potter blog, and wants a court to rule that she has the sole right to profit from the "descriptions, character details, and plot points" of the Potter tales. Now, a federal judge has issued an injunction against RDR Books to prevent them from completing the typesetting, selling the books, or even marketing it on Amazon.com.


    The arstechnica article links to some remarks about the case from one of Google's lawyers. His blog entry concludes with:

    Regardless of how the Harry Potter case comes out, the most depressing part is that it was brought at all. Fans will happily buy her book; the only effects of the suit, therefore are negative: if successful it will diminish the number of books available, and even if unsuccessful, it may cast a cloud over a fan base that has provided her and her licensees with great value.


    The arstechnica article also links to a comment by J.K. Rowling, who feels that

    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.


    I'd like to hear all of your opinions about this lawsuit. Do you think J.K. Rowling has a good case? Should this lawsuit have legal merit (whatever the laws that are currently on the books may actually be)? Legal matters aside, are the publishers of the Harry Potter Lexicon doing anything wrong? Is J.K. Rowling right to be upset?

    I know there are a lot of Harry Potter fans here, and I think the issue is easy enough to comprehend even to someone (like me) who hasn't read any Harry Potter books, so hopefully this can start a good discussion.
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  2. #2
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    Hmmm, this is a tough one. I have only quickly glanced at the lexicon, but to me it looks kind of like a sparknotes type idea which I have no issue with - The creator of the site has done the work to classify all the terminology etc not merely lifted it word for word from another work.

    However, if the lexicon contains stories based on the characters created by Rowling then that is a different matter altogether.
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    Voice of Chaos & Anarchy
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    Authors do not own ideas, they own the rights to certain arrangements of words. Rowling has exclusive rights to character names, etc. that she made up, but others can use similar things freely. Among SF writers in the 1930's and 40's it was common practice to borrow characters. One noatable case was when L. Ron Hubbard (before he incorporated his religion) tried to kill off Harold Shea, of the Complete Enchanter by de Camp and Pratt, by having a dragon eat him. Pratt and de Camp brought him back.

    I haven't read the Lexicon; but, if t is a lexicon, then it is completely legal and comes broadly under the category of commentary.

  4. #4
    Moderator Logos's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by bluevictim View Post
    I have been curious for a long time about what LitNetters think about copyright issues and intellectual property . . . .
    I'm not going to comment much on the specific Rowling-RDR Books issue because I don't have time to read all the background, but it sounds like that grey area between "fair use" and "derivative works"--like what PeterL is referring to--and I don't envy anyone who's involved.

    But I wanted to take the opportunity to mention that, regarding content here at The Literature Network, we treat copyright issues very seriously and expect all members to abide by copyright law too:
    http://www.online-literature.com/for...ad.php?t=17515
    http://www.online-literature.com/for...ad.php?t=17769

    There seems to be a perception that The Internet is a free-for-all realm of anything-goes, do-as-you like, with no consequences. It's out there in the ether so nobody can claim protection for content, but that is not so! --> http://www.attributor.com/

    On a personal level (and I don't know why more people can't think of it this way) put yourself in Rowling's shoes--ok hang on, that might be difficult --even easier, imagine you're a struggling poet or author, or you are one (of which there are many here on LitNet!) and one day to your surprise you realise someone else has published your work on their website, and they're making money from it! They have no right to do that, it is illegal, and while it is at times very difficult to legally pursue these matters it is no different than "real world" publication
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    Registered User metal134's Avatar
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    Having gone to college as a Mass Media Communication, I was actually required to take a year of media law, so I'm fairly familiar with copyritght/fair use laws. It does seem to me to be copyright infringement and not fair use. The problem is not the website; the problem comes in where this guy wants to publish a book and make a profit off it. It sounds to me like a derivative work.

  6. #6
    Thanks for the responses, everyone!

    On the question of whether or not Rowling's suit has legal merit, as the law now stands:

    Ultimately, I guess only a trained lawyer would know, but I think the opinions of non-lawyers are also very important. After all, there must be something wrong if we are expected to observe laws that are unintelligible without specialized degrees.

    meta134, who seems to have some training in the relevant laws, seems to think the publishers of the Lexicon are liable for copyright infringement, contrary to the opinion of William Patry (the lawyer I linked to in the OP --- if you follow the link you'll see that his credentials with respect to copyright law are quite impressive).

    It sounds like kilted exile and PeterL, from a superficial understanding of the case at least, think that Rowling's suit is of dubious legal merit. PeterL made an interesting point about SF writers in the past going so far as to borrow characters. Does anyone know if the borrowing was licensed by the original authors?


    I'm actually a little more interested in whether or not people think this kind of suit should have legal merit. Are the current copyright laws good laws?

    Logos was the most explicit in addressing this question:
    On a personal level (and I don't know why more people can't think of it this way) put yourself in Rowling's shoes--ok hang on, that might be difficult --even easier, imagine you're a struggling poet or author, or you are one (of which there are many here on LitNet!) and one day to your surprise you realise someone else has published your work on their website, and they're making money from it! They have no right to do that, it is illegal, and while it is at times very difficult to legally pursue these matters it is no different than "real world" publication
    I actually encounter this line of thinking a lot in discussions about copyright infringement. The reason I don't find it convincing is that it offers no justification as to why it was wrong for someone else to benefit from your work (other than that it makes you sad). The same form of argument can be applied to all kinds of other undesirable activities, some illegal ("imagine you're a struggling mobster and someone turned you in"), some legal ("imagine you're a struggling spammer and everyone installs spam filters").



    Quote Originally Posted by Logos View Post
    But I wanted to take the opportunity to mention that, regarding content here at The Literature Network, we treat copyright issues very seriously and expect all members to abide by copyright law too:
    http://www.online-literature.com/for...ad.php?t=17515
    http://www.online-literature.com/for...ad.php?t=17769

    There seems to be a perception that The Internet is a free-for-all realm of anything-goes, do-as-you like, with no consequences. It's out there in the ether so nobody can claim protection for content, but that is not so! --> http://www.attributor.com/
    I hope that it is clear enough that the administrators and moderators of this site should be free to implement whatever policy they want regarding copyright, even if they choose policies that are more strict than the law requires. Whatever one's opinion of the law may be, it is easy to understand why they would want to avoid legal nuisances.
    Optima dies ... prima fugit

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    Registered User Zelly's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Logos
    On a personal level (and I don't know why more people can't think of it this way) put yourself in Rowling's shoes--ok hang on, that might be difficult --even easier, imagine you're a struggling poet or author, or you are one (of which there are many here on LitNet!) and one day to your surprise you realise someone else has published your work on their website, and they're making money from it! They have no right to do that, it is illegal, and while it is at times very difficult to legally pursue these matters it is no different than "real world" publication
    I can sort of see your point, but Rowling certainly isn't a struggling author.

    Just my own two cents, this doesn't seem like her. She normally seems much more tolerant and understanding of the fact that her fans are extremely loyal. The Lexicon is a wonderful resource for the slightly "obsessed" HP fan, and I think that publishing it as a book is a cool idea. Steve Vander Ark is a HUGE fan of the books and has great respect for Rowling. He is not doing this to try to take away from Jo. I believe he's doing this because dedicated fans of the series would enjoy it.
    "Everytime I look in your eyes, everyday I'm watching you die."

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    Moderator Logos's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by bluevictim View Post
    . . . . I hope that it is clear enough that the administrators and moderators of this site should be free to implement whatever policy they want regarding copyright, even if they choose policies that are more strict than the law requires. Whatever one's opinion of the law may be, it is easy to understand why they would want to avoid legal nuisances.
    Ok, just curious, are you saying that part of the existing policy on copyright here at LitNet is "more strict than the law requires" ?
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  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by Logos View Post
    Ok, just curious, are you saying that part of the existing policy on copyright here at LitNet is "more strict than the law requires" ?
    No, I don't know what the law requires for people who run websites like this. I'm just saying that even if the policy happens to be more strict than the law requires, I can understand (and I would think anyone else can, too) why the administrators and moderators might have wanted to be "on the safe side", and even if the strict policies of LitNet reflect the attitude of the administrators / moderators about copyright (and they weren't just "playing it safe"), or if they decide to implement even more strict policies in the future, it still doesn't matter because they can run their site in any way they see fit. I was just trying to keep the discussion of copyright law separate from discussion of how this site is run.
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    Voice of Chaos & Anarchy
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    Quote Originally Posted by bluevictim View Post
    PeterL made an interesting point about SF writers in the past going so far as to borrow characters. Does anyone know if the borrowing was licensed by the original authors?
    From what I know of such borrowings, they were not licensed but were considered "fair use". I don't believe that current law would allow that as "fair use".

    I'm actually a little more interested in whether or not people think this kind of suit should have legal merit. Are the current copyright laws good laws?
    Anyone can sue for anything, and I think that open access to the courts is important to an open society. The question of the legal merit of any suit is for the court to decide. The current copyright laws have good and bad points. I haven't bothered reading copyright law in several years, and they keep changing things. One thing that I think is bad about the current U.S. copyright law is the length of time after the death of an author during which works remain under copyright. Seventy-five years is longer than is appropriate. People who never even met their great-grandfather the author can collect income from his work.

    If you want to read the wole thing, it is available online:
    http://www.copyright.gov/title17/

  11. #11
    Registered User metal134's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by PeterL View Post
    One thing that I think is bad about the current U.S. copyright law is the length of time after the death of an author during which works remain under copyright. Seventy-five years is longer than is appropriate. People who never even met their great-grandfather the author can collect income from his work.
    I agree with that; it's way to long. But that's not a US law, that's international copyright law. Not every country recognizes those laws, obviously, but most do.

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    Voice of Chaos & Anarchy
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    Quote Originally Posted by metal134 View Post
    I agree with that; it's way to long. But that's not a US law, that's international copyright law. Not every country recognizes those laws, obviously, but most do.
    While long terms are enshrined in treaty, they are also enshrined in the US Code. There was no reason for the US to use such a long term, except for pressure from the large media companies, especially Disney. The 75 year rule was passed by the US shortly before Mickey Mouse would have become public domain.

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    Registered User metal134's Avatar
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    Actually, Mickey Mouse would never become public domain. His individual movies would, but the character of Mickey Mouse is a trademark, not a copyright, and trademarks are good as long as you continue to lose them. The only way Disney would lose Mickey Mouse is if they stopped using him.

  14. #14
    Quote Originally Posted by PeterL View Post
    From what I know of such borrowings, they were not licensed but were considered "fair use". I don't believe that current law would allow that as "fair use".
    That's interesting. One thing I found interesting was J.K. Rowling's remark that "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" (emphasis added by me), and how she stated it as if everyone should take it for granted.

    Personally, I'm baffled at how people are so willing to accept the notion that authors own the ideas they publish, in the sense that they have a natural right to control what other people do with them (the published ideas). So long as I told you my story without being unduly coerced, I don't see why I should have a natural right to keep you from telling it to someone else, even if you charge a fee. I do believe it would be wrong for you to falsely attribute it to yourself or anyone else, but only because it would be deceit, and not because I have natural rights over the story. It seems to me that if I don't want you to tell anyone else, I should refuse to tell you until you promise not to tell anyone else. This seems to be an unpopular view, but I have yet to come across a sound counterargument. One of the reasons I started this thread was to solicit contrary opinions (but it seems that it's not a very interesting topic to most people).


    The current copyright laws have good and bad points. I haven't bothered reading copyright law in several years, and they keep changing things. One thing that I think is bad about the current U.S. copyright law is the length of time after the death of an author during which works remain under copyright. Seventy-five years is longer than is appropriate. People who never even met their great-grandfather the author can collect income from his work.

    If you want to read the wole thing, it is available online:
    http://www.copyright.gov/title17/
    Thanks for your perspective. The idea of using an analogy with "property" to determine the rights of authors has grown strong enough that some think the length of time should be infinite.
    Optima dies ... prima fugit

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    Alea iacta est. mortalterror's Avatar
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    I do agree that copyright laws are too strict. I don't think that they should go on as long as they do. I'm pretty sure that Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle's great grand children still own the rights to his work more than a century later. I'm fairly certain that regular copyright holds until 75 years after the author's death but there are always ways of extending them and the media giants know them all. There are no living descendants of the sisters who wrote the "Happy Birthday To You" song more than a century ago but that doesn't keep AOL Time Warner from earning $2mil. in royalties off of it annually. Ever wonder why nobody sings that song in the movies, even though it's the most popular song ever? Because it's super expensive.

    I don't believe that certain things should be copyright. Some things are part of our national heritage, a part of history that hundreds of millions of people partake of and no one person deserves to earn off of that history exclusively. For instance, I hear that Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech is copyrighted by his family. Or how about the Zapruder footage of the Kennedy Assassination?

    Personally, I like the laws pre-Copyright Act of 1976 that allowed for a 28 year claim after publication, with the option of an additional 28 year extension. That allows artists to earn from their work and protects their interests within their own lifetime.

    Think of all the important works of literature we wouldn't have if nobody ever copied anybody else's work. Kiss all of Shakespeare's plays goodbye, along with every one of the ancient Greek plays. So long Chaucer. Auf Wiedersehen Virgil. Most of the great writers didn't have to worry about copyright. When they saw a good idea they stole it and we are much better off that they did.

    Personally, I find it frustrating how good the basic material for Batman is, but it's exclusively handled by mediocrities writing for children. As things stand, I'll never get my Batman epic poem. "Bat and the man I sing..."

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