In court, J.K. Rowling nearly cries over Harry Potter Lexicon

The author says that a fan's book based on her creation is theft.

By Farhad Manjoo

Published April 14, 2008 6:16PM (EDT)

Last fall, I discussed the legal scuffle over Steven Vander Ark, a middle-aged, middle-school librarian and ardent "Harry Potter" fan who found himself in a heap of trouble with "Potter" author J.K. Rowling.

In 2000, Vander Ark created the Harry Potter Lexicon, an amazingly comprehensive online reference of all that occurs in the seven "Potter" books.

To quote its Wikipedia entry the lexicon lists "characters, places, creatures, spells, potions and magical devices" in the "Potter" books -- a reference work that even Rowling admits is useful. She once wrote, "This is such a great site that I have been known to sneak into an Internet cafe while out writing and check a fact rather than go into a bookshop and buy a copy of 'Harry Potter'...."

But Rowling and Warner Bros., the studio that makes the "Potter" movies, were enraged to discover that Vander Ark had plans to produce a physical book based on the Web site. In October, they sued Vander Ark's publisher, RDR Books.

Today, the suit lands in court, and it could result in a landmark ruling for copyright law in the digital era.

On the stand, Rowling was almost in tears as she described how Vander Ark's work has hurt her; the case has "decimated my creative work over the last month," she said.

Vander Ark's work represented a "wholesale" theft of her creativity, she argued. As Blomberg reports, she also said:

Should it be published, I feel that carte blanche will be given to anybody who wants to make a quick bit of money... The idea of my readership parting with their or their parents' hard-earned cash for this is a travesty.


What particularly galls is the lack of quotation marks.... If Mr. Vander Ark had put quotations marks around everything he lifted, most of the lexicon would be in quotation marks.

RDR Books admits that its Lexicon copies from Rowling's work -- but it argues that the copying is legal, because it falls under the "fair use" provisions of U.S. copyright law. The law allows copying if it occurs for "purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching ... scholarship, or research."

RDR, which is being defended by copyright scholars and supporters of the fair use, is calling academics to the stand to discuss the long literary tradition of lexicons.

As I pointed out last year, libraries are filled with books like Vander Ark's, books that Rowling describes as theft: For instance, a list of the allusions in "Ulysses"; or a complete guide to all of the characters in William Faulkner's fiction; or a compilation and detailed analysis of Bob Dylan's lyrics; or a book containing the complete chronology of the events in David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest."

If Rowling prevails, RDR argues, books like this -- books of scholarship -- will be limited.

That highlights the importance of the case. Anthony Falzone, RDR's attorney and the executive director of Stanford Law School's Fair Use Project, tells the Wall Street Journal's law blog that courts have begun "to recognize the organizational value that informational guides provide."

Is Steven Vander Ark's lexicon such a guide, or a theft? Now a court decides.

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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