14 April 2008

Rowling and the World of Intellectual Property

J. K. Rowling doesn't have a new book out or one anywhere on the horizon, but she's still making publishing news--in two different ways, yet! Both this month's developments involve the wrinkles of copyright law.

Today Rowling is scheduled to testify in New York in her lawsuit to stop RDR Publishing from issuing a "Harry Potter lexicon" based on Steve Vander Ark's website of the same name. She has praised this website (and others), but feels that a book version would compete with her own plans for an encyclopedic guide to her fantasy world.

Everyone agrees that critical writing about Rowling's storytelling and universe (like my own) falls under the copyright law's "fair use" provision. But simply cataloguing and repeating statements from her books, website, and interviews probably would not. The legal question in this lawsuit is whether the Harry Potter Lexicon in book form displays enough creativity to justify its borrowings.

The suit filed by Rowling and her partners says the book lacks "any new creativity, commentary, insight or criticism" about the Harry Potter series. RDR responds that the work "provides a significant amount of original analysis and commentary." I suspect that much of the appeal of the online Harry Potter lexicon was that it didn't claim to offer much original analysis, but rather reflected the books' factual statements with as little editorializing or speculation as possible.

According to the New York Times report,

Mr. Vander Ark said he had initially worried that a book might constitute copyright infringement. “I honestly can’t tell you the origin of that belief,” he said. But when RDR assured him it wasn’t a problem, he said he assumed that because the material was available online and had never been challenged by Ms. Rowling, the book wouldn’t be either.
Vander Ark is not a party to this lawsuit, apparently making this the exceedingly rare case of a publisher indemnifying an author against plagiarism complaints rather than the other way around.

In other Rowling news, Amazon.com is promoting a writing contest for young people with the prize of a look at the company's copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard. Rowling hand-wrote seven copies of this book and offered them for sale through a charity auction last year. (Ironically, the contest limits entrants to 100 words; Rowling herself is not notable for terseness.)

Amazon has posted lots of photographs of its purchase, either taken with a very small depth-of-field setting on the camera or digitally blurred before posting, so that almost none of the text comes through clearly. That's because Amazon owns one physical copy of Beedle, but Rowling still owns the work's copyright, and the text can't be issued without her permission.

Amazon has published what look like rather thorough summaries of the stories, but those come with critical interpretations. All those in-house reviews are positive to the point of gushing, and focus on the stories' valuable lessons about life rather than on the storytelling:
"Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump" highlights the winking ingenuity of the old witch--who should remind fans of a certain wise and resourceful wizard--and you can imagine how old Babbitty might become a folk hero to young wizards and witches. But more than just a story about the triumph of a clever witch, the tale warns against human weaknesses of greed, arrogance, selfishness and duplicity, and shows how these errant (but not evil) characters come to learn the error of their ways.
Nevertheless, Amazon's reviews are reviews, with creative and critical thought added to the derivative material. Plus, Amazon hasn't moved to publish them in book form in competition with Rowling's own ultimate plans for Beedle.

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