More on why Rowling is wrong on the Potter lexicon

What would I say if you made an index of Machinist? Knock yourself out!


Farhad Manjoo
November 14, 2007 4:38AM (UTC)

In response to my dig at J.K. Rowling for slapping down a fan's "Harry Potter" reference book, several of you have asked, What if we copied your Machinist posts and tried to make money off of them? Wouldn't you get mad?

Well, let's say you did something along the lines of what the Harry Potter Lexicon does. The HPL has a big alphabetical list of all the spells contained in the "Harry Potter" books. The list briefly describes each spell, and points to the specific books where the spell is mentioned. Here is a sample entry:

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Mobilicorpus (MO-bi-lee-COR-pus)

"mobilis" L. movable + "corpus" L. body

Moves a body.

  • The basic spell for moving something starts with the "Mobili-" prefix. In this case, the Latin word for "body" is tacked on the end.
  • Remus Lupin used this spell to levitate Snape's unconscious body for transport back to school from the Shrieking Shack (PA19). Unfortunately for Snape, Sirius Black then took over managing the levitation while Lupin covered Wormtail with his wand, and for some reason Sirius didn't seem to be very careful about keeping Snape from bumping into things (PA20).

Let's say you created such a list with my columns. Imagine, for example, that you copied all my text to your hard drive, then examined my articles to create an index of all the times I mentioned the iPhone, or all the times I criticized Rowling, or all the times I argued with readers.

With each item, you might include two or three sentences from my post to give the reader some context, and you would mention the specific article where my words appeared, much like the HPL does.

Your list of my iPhone articles, then, might include many entries like this one:

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Title: If you care about your rights, don't buy an iPhone
Date: Sept. 28, 2007.

Excerpt: "...Apple has now made it plain that anybody who buys the iPhone is not really buying it. What we're doing instead is more like renting it -- Apple remains your landlord, stern, controlling, and allowed to evict you at will. At whatever price -- $600, $400, $200 -- that's a very high cost to bear. If you care about your rights, don't buy an iPhone."

But that's not all. Let's say that you decided to make money off this index. You call up your corporate pals and say, "Hey, I created an index of Farhad Manjoo's articles and I've got some room next to it for you logo. It can be yours -- for a price."

So the question: Would I get mad if you did this? Would it upset Salon if you did this?

I hope all of you know the answer is no. We wouldn't care if you did this. Knock yourself out.

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Be aware, though, that someone's already beaten you to punch. Someone comes to Salon every day -- many times a day, in fact -- and pulls down every word we write, and then stores it to his own hard drive.

Then he analyzes our words and prepares lists of our articles full of items very much like the one above. Worse, this fellow sells ads alongside these lists, making money -- a lot of money! -- from my brilliant creations. And he has never given us a single dime in return. Were we to ask him for something, I bet he'd laugh at us.

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Who is this thief? Right, it's Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google. In running Web search engines, Google and other companies make entire copies of all the words that appear on most sites online. Reasonable copyright lawyers will tell you that this is a fair use, even though Google is making money from its copies.

Google, like other search engines, does not ask permission to copy the sites it encounters; rather, it works on an "opt out" model, meaning that you can tell it not to copy your site, but if you say nothing, it will do so by default.

Still, many Web sites allow Google full access, because they recognize that search engine takes nothing away from our work. In fact, engines add value to our work -- they give readers an easy way to navigate the site, and, in doing so, they drive loads of people our way.

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A court may rule that Rowling can stop the HPL book, much like Web publishers can deny Google permission to scan their sites. But make no mistake that she would harm no one but her fans in doing so.

Just like Google's copy of Salon doesn't hurt Salon in the least, a print version of the HPL would take nothing away from Rowling herself (if you know a "Potter" fan who would buy an amateur's encyclopedia as a substitute for Rowling's own, can you send me that person's contact info? I'd like to see if he or she exists.)

In fact, an HPL book would, for some readers, add value to Rowling's work -- just as Google's and Yahoo's index adds value to Salon. (If the HPL didn't increase people's appreciation of Rowling's work, no one would buy it -- and if no one's going to buy it, I don't see why she cares about its publication.)

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If I told you that I didn't want Google to index Machinist because I want to maintain complete control over my words and I because can't stand the fact that Google is making money off what I've written, you'd call me a crazy control freak.

Why shouldn't J.K. Rowling earn the same label for slapping the HPL?


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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