Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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A little while ago today, I heard a special news announcement on the radio that JK Rowling won her lawsuit regarding infringement to her copyright by the Harry Potter Lexicon and awarded $6,750 in statutory damages to Rowling and Warner Brothers.

The U.S. district court judge, Robert Patterson, ruled that Steven Vander Ark’s “Harry Potter Lexicon” would cause Rowling irreparable harm as a writer because it “had failed to establish an affirmative defense of fair use.” Patterson stated that reference materials are generally useful to the public but that in this case, Vander Ark went too far.

“While the lexicon, in its current state, is not a fair use of the Harry Potter works, reference works that share the lexicon’s purpose of aiding readers of literature generally should be encouraged rather than stifled,” he wrote.

Rowling sued RDR Books, based in Michigan, last year to stop publication of this book. Rowling testified that the lexicon was nothing more than a rearrangement of her material.

“I took no pleasure at all in bringing legal action and am delighted that this issue has been resolved favorably,” Rowling said in a statement. “I went to court to uphold the right of authors everywhere to protect their own original work. The court has upheld that right.”

Vander Ark, who referred to Rowling during the trial as “his literary idol” and who repeatedly stated that he was motivated by his love for the Harry Potter series, oversees the popular “Harry Potter Lexicon” website. Vander Ark began writing his website in 1999 and launched it in 2000. The book was based upon this website and was assembled in only one month. It was organized like an encyclopedia, including things like lists of characters, creatures, places and spells from the novels. The published lexicon would have been 400 pages long and would have sold for $24.95 (£12.50).

During the hearing, Rowling referred to the proposed book as a “wholesale theft of 17 years of hard work,” saying that Vander Ark had lifted large portions of her work without using quotation marks. Further, Rowling stated that she plans to write her own reference guide to the stories and the proceeds would go to charity. She also said that she was so distressed at the prospect that it would be published that she had stopped work on a new novel, and was thus “decimating” her livelihood.

On the other hand, Vander Ark said his Web site, based on the same theme, had made little money between 2000 and 2008 and was hardly a threat to Rowling’s earning power. According to my source, Vander Ark’s site earned roughly £3000 as of October 2007, which is a small sum compared to other Harry Potter sites, such as MuggleNet, which routinely generates six-figure yearly incomes.

“The proposed book took an enormous amount of my work and added virtually no original commentary of its own,” continued Rowling in a statement. “Now the court has ordered that it must not be published. Many books have been published which offer original insights into the world of Harry Potter. The Lexicon just is not one of them.”

Of course, there are more Harry Potter lawsuits pending. For example, the Bollywood movie, Hari Puttar: A Comedy of Terrors is also facing legal trouble.

The seven Harry Potter books are quite lucrative: they have been published in 64 languages, sold more than 400 million copies and produced a film franchise that has pulled in $4.5 billion at the worldwide box office.


The Guardian.

International Herald Tribune.

BBC News.

Mugglenet founder chooses Notre Dame over Hogwarts, Notre Dame Magazine.


  1. #1 Ian
    September 9, 2008

    Without taking away Rowling’s deserved victory in this suit, she sure seems to be whining rather too much.

    Authors deserve copyright protection, but for her to claim that a book about Harry Potter, regardless of what its content was, is “decimating” her livelihood is really too much of a stretch.

    Isn’t she worth something like a quarter billion? Even if it were quite literally true and a quarter billion was literally decimated, she’d still have 25 million. I don’t know of any reasonable average family which would claim that 25 million wasn’t enough for a livelihood!

  2. #2 Jonathan Vos Post
    September 9, 2008

    “regardless of what its content was” — that’s absurdly overgeneralized.

    If you published a book and some fan published 99% of your words, in the same order, only eliminated a small number of words that fan found objectionable, wouldn’t the 99% republication be an obvious copyright infringement? This is not as hypothetical as it seems — exactly that has been done to feature films by a prudish video manufacturer.

    At the other extreme, if I excerpt a total of 50 words from your book in a newspaper review, that is clearly NOT a copyright infringement, but falls under the “fair use” provision.

    I love the Harry Potter books and movies, have met with and spoken to J. K. Rowling, and agee that she has a valid point in her feeling that she is defending the rights of all authors.

    Now that the judge agrees, her argument has been proved to be non-frivolous, and soundly based in law.

    One can argue about WHAT amount between 50 words and 99% of total is the boundary, but there is certainly (in any given case) a boundary.

  3. #3 Dave
    September 9, 2008


    Slightly pedantic here, but – decimation in that sense means to decrease *by* one tenth, not to decrease *to* one tenth.

    Which, while still hyperbolic, is more plausible.

  4. #4 Ian
    September 9, 2008

    Dave – It’s not pedantic at all. You’re right. But amongst me and the other lowly plebians, it’s generally taken to mean something more like shredded, which is the sense in which I was reading it.

    However, Rowling, scholar that she is, can argue that she meant it in the true sense, and argue that therefore she’s technically accurate (at least in her wording if not in reality)!

    Jonathan – You appear to be completely missing my point, which has nothing to do with copyright infringement or plagiarism. What was done to her evidently was wrong and should have been punished and should not be tolerated. I’m not arguing about that. Apparently I didn’t make that crystally clear in my comment.

    But that comment wasn’t aimed at the court case. It was aimed at Rowling’s hyperbole. I’m a fan of Harry Potter, too, but that doesn’t mean I can’t point out unnecessary exaggeration when I see it.

    Even in the sense of the word which Dave highlighted, I fail to see how her actual livelihood has (or would have) been literally or figuratively “decimated”. I submit that even if someone had written a complete Harry Potter novel using nothing but paragraphs taken from her works her livelihood would not have been decimated.’

    Substitute “harmed”, “abused”, “infringed” or some other such word, and I would not have commented on it.

    I think my point is especially true since she has indicated that if she wrote such a book as featured in this case, that her profit would go to charity.

    If she did so and gave the money to charity (something she’s well-known for) could anyone argue that her livelihood has been decimated by her largesse? I doubt it.

  5. #5 Brian Gregory
    September 9, 2008

    Mucking fuggles! I was looking forward to the encyclopedia.

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