The Potter leak: Winners and losers (no spoilers)

What the pre-released version of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" tells us about controlling art in the digital age.

By Farhad Manjoo

Published July 18, 2007 6:25PM (EDT)

Note: This post neither reveals nor discusses plot points from any Harry Potter book, movie, action-toy escapade, theme park, nor any other derivative work, whether canon or fanon.

Whom does the Potter leak hurt?

Let's get this out of the way first: Not J.K. Rowling nor her publishers, at least not monetarily. As Bruce Schneier points out, anyone crazed enough about Harry Potter to endure reading photographs of the book is unquestionably going to buy at least one hardcover copy this weekend. Take it from Steve Riggio, the CEO of Barnes & Noble, who tells the New York Times that press coverage of leaks will likely generate pre-orders (probably because people who'd considered waiting a few weeks to read it now see that they have to get it as soon as possible). "If in fact the book is posted online or the ending is revealed prior to midnight on Friday, it will not result in us selling a single less copy of the book," Riggio says.

Another group bolstered by the Potter leak: copy-fighting activists, people who've long pointed out the ludicrousness of big media firms' anti-piracy efforts. Bloomsbury, Rowling's British publisher, reportedly spent $20 million securing the book (among other measures, it outfitted trucks with satellite-tracking devices to make sure drivers don't skip out on their routes), while the American publisher Scholastic forbade Barnes & Noble from even disclosing the location of its Potter warehouse. Reuters reports that "retailers in the United States and Britain have had to sign a legal embargo on the book with Scholastic and Bloomsbury, which said it has lawyers poised 24 hours a day to deal with any breaches."

And where'd it get them? The Potter publishers, like Hollywood and the record labels, misunderstand the modern flow of information; you can't release something unto the world while at the same time trying to control it. On the Internet, that's just impossible. Out of fear of piracy -- and because she loves paper -- Rowling has refused to put out electronic editions of the Potter books. As Cory Doctorow points out, within 24 hours of the release of Book 6, a worldwide coven of IRC-connected fans scanned, proofread, and posted a version of the book that could be read on PDAs and phones. Other fans collaboratively translated the book into German in about two days -- months before the official German translation was to hit shelves.

At this moment tens of millions of Potter books are flying across the planet. It took just one of these copies to go astray, and then it was out there to everyone. In this way the security protecting Harry Potter was vulnerable to the same fatal flaw that routinely cripples digital-rights-management code meant to protect music and movies: If it breaks anywhere, it breaks everywhere.

Not that this is all rosy. Few Potter fans were happy yesterday when I posted instructions on how to get the book. The feeling can be summed up thusly: NOOOOOOOOOOO!

I have to say I was surprised by this reaction. I go mad for pre-release versions of albums I've been awaiting. If you're so crazed for a book, why wouldn't you want an advance copy? I've spoken to some Pottermaniacs since to try to understand the feeling. There is, first, a practical problem: You don't want to read photographs of the book, but you're afraid that if lots of other people do, spoilers will proliferate. "I'm opening my e-mail with one hand over the screen," says Melissa Anelli, the webmaster of the Potter fan site the Leaky Cauldron.

But there's also another, more weighty problem. Rowling intended her story to be released a certain way. She wanted it to come out on July 21, she wanted it to come out on paper (and audiobook), she wanted people to delight, together and simultaneously, to the climax of a tale they've been waiting a decade to read. The artist, in other words, expected a certain fate for her art, and as Anelli sees it, going along with that expectation is "a matter of respect." "This is not how it was supposed to be," Anelli says of the leak. "We were getting so close. We've waited 10 years for this. Why not do it right? It's really frustrating."

Only a churl would balk at this sentiment. After they buy the book early on Saturday morning, Melissa Anelli and her pals will go to a friend's house and, individually but together, read the whole thing. You've got to appreciate their intentions; Anelli and her friends, like fans across the world, will be doing just what the author wants, and that, for them, is part of the fun of it.

So let me try to say this kindly, hopefully without causing any offense: What the author wants is not, anymore, all that will happen. Today, artists -- even those as powerful as J.K. Rowling -- can't reasonably expect such dominion over their art. A well-laid plan is dashed by some guy with a camera and a lot of time on his hands, and that's that. And mostly this loss of control is a good thing, for fans as well as for artists. Rowling and her wizard have, after all, benefited tremendously from the Internet; through fan fiction and unending online discussion, creative Pottermaniacs have immeasurably deepened and intensified her work, keeping it thriving between releases. Look at what one Potter fan blogger says about the new book:

I've really been reading too much fanfic to be impressed with the stuff Rowling writes. I mean it's good, don't get me wrong, but it's limited precisely because ... it's canon.... I mean yes, I'm going to buy the book and read it like the geek I am, but really? Fanfic's where it's at. I've read so many good ones in the meantime and the massive Book 7 fic, "Harry Potter and the Seventh Horcrux," is a damn fine read."

But the freewheeling digital culture comes with trade-offs. As soon as the art leaves the artist's mind, the world gets a hold of it, and anyone's free to "spoil" it. There's no solution here; the best thing to do is keep a hand over the screen when you check your e-mail.

Update: Looks like the crazy photographer wasn't the only Potter leaker. A company called Levy Home Entertainment and the online store has apparently already sent some fans copies of the book. Scholastic says it's taking "immediate legal action" against the companies.

But here's the crazy part. If you're one of the lucky souls who legally purchased and received a book from these companies, Scholastic is asking you to hide it -- perhaps even not to read it yourself. "We are also making a direct appeal to the Harry Potter fans who bought their books from and may receive copies early requesting that they keep the packages hidden until midnight on July 21st," it says in a statement.

Talk about control issues!

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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