Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Battle for Harry Potter

Coran and I were sitting in the coffee shop of the local Christian centre this morning enjoying a cup of tea, when I noticed a copy of The Independent on the next table. As I started to flick through, I noticed an article about a battle that is being fought between JK Rowling and a small publisher in the United States that wishes to publish a Harry Potter Encyclopedia. Ms Rowling alleges that this "constitutes wholesale theft of 17 years of my hard work". She goes on to claim that this decimated her creativity and halted all work on a new novel, which actually I can understand, as it does take both time and money to fight these things, not to mention huge amounts of energy, both physical and emotional.

The lawsuit which is filed against author Steve Vander Ark and his publisher RDR Books, is somewhat controversial, since the book in question, which is a lexicon or encyclopedia of all information relating to Harry Potter such as characters, spells and so on, because it is essentially a reprinting of what is already on Vander Ark's website, the same website which Ms Rowling appears to have endorsed some years previously and be an enthusiastic fan of.

Ms Rowling states that she feels "no pleasure" in bringing this suit and is "sad and disillusioned" that it had to come to court. When asked by her lawyer Dale Cendali, how she felt about Harry, Rowling said: "I really don't want to cry."

Anthony Falzone, for RDR Books has though defended the publication of this book, by stating that it is a reference guide and that it is perfectly legal and legitimate to organise and discuss the information contained in Ms Rowling's original books in this way.

Although I can to some extent understand where Vander Ark and his publisher are coming from, nevertheless if this position is accepted, then it will set a precedent which will make it almost impossible for authors to protect their work. It will also have an immediate and very negative impact on the freedom of Internet users to be able to enjoy discussing such issues, and pursuing legitimate and essentially harmless activities.

The crux of the matter really seems to rest on whether by virtue of the fact that the information has already been freely available on the Internet for some time, it is therefore deemed as within the public domain. I do not understand copyright laws sufficiently to really be able to comment here, and can only state from my own point of view as an author that I would be both flattered and upset if someone were do this with my own work. It is I feel one of those grey areas, which is made more complicated by the fact that Ms Rowling did appear in the past to endorse the website where the information has for all intents and purposes already been published for some time, from what I understand of the case.

This also raises questions regarding digital rights management and begs the question that if the information has in fact been published for some time on the Internet, as the article in The Independent seemed to suggest, then why did it take this long to bring the case in the first place, and why did Ms Rowling appear to endorse this website? These are all questions that will need answers.

I hear all the time from authors on the various writing forums that I post on how in the US in particular, if any segment of a work has been posted on such sites even just for peer review, then that work is regarded as having been previously published. While it is true that one has to know about these sites before one can make such judgments, the fact that Ms Rowling is a member of the site in question where the work has been previously published would seem to indicate to some at least, that she did not have a problem with this. It then begs the question, is there a difference between publishing in printed form and publishing on the Internet, and if so, what is that diference, and how can the industry best manage these issues to prevent a similar repetition.

The lines between publishing in printed and digital format are becoming increasingly blurred, and these are issues that the industry will need to discuss and form resolutions on.

The trial, which is being heard by Judge Robert Patterson without a jury, is expected to last around one week. Vander Ark's book was originally scheduled for publication on November 28th last year, but the Judge issued an order at an earlier hearing banning completion, distribution, marketing or any advance sales until further notice. If the publisher wins, Rowling says that she will "find it devastating to contemplate the possibility of such a severe alteration of author-fan relations".

No comments: