It may have come to your attention that JK Rowling, author of Harry Potter, etc, has gotten into some kind of legal stew with a fan. I’ve only been following it peripherally, myself, and I’ve been unable to decide who’s side to come down on, partly because, from the reportage, I haven’t been able to work out exactly what’s going on.
Now, though, I’ve had a bit of a look at the whole thing. The situation as it stands seems to be that a fan, Steven Van Anders, who’s been running an online Harry Potter resource, has hooked up with a publisher called RDR and published a hardcopy lexicon trading on the success of the website. And Rowling and Warner Brothers have taken them to court.
From what I can tell, the major issues in the case are copyright related. Rowling and WB’s lawyers have claimed Van Anders’ book copies Rowling’s work directly, to a degree of up to 90%. In return, RDR’s lawyers are trying for a Fair Usage claim, which allows limited use of copyright material without permission from the copyright holders.
The major issue according to fans and interested members of the public, however, is the question of whether Rowling, as one of the richest women in Britain and clearly in the position of power when it comes to publishing rights, has done herself any favours by suing a small press, and by extension, one of her own fans. On the one hand, she’s well within her rights to litigate against someone who infringes on her copyright. On the other, she comes off looking a wee bit controlling, maybe even tight-fisted.
But the whole situation has generated quite a bit of ill-will and anxiety, with fans wondering whether this lawsuit will open the floodgates for paranoid authors to sue online fansites or fanfiction authors, and what kind of future fandoms will have. There’s a strong argument that the proliferation of fan material, which by definition is often in breach of copyright, can only enhance and strengthen an author’s fanbase, thus boosting the economic value of the work. Rowling is famous for (and because of) her rabid fans, and, let’s face it, she’s been ignoring or even endorsing the massive network of fans, fanfiction, web resources and online artworks that obsessively catalogue and reinvent what is essentially her intellectual property. Perhaps that’s why there’s been a mini-backlash now that she’s finally put her foot down.
It’s hard to know what Van Anders’ intent was (malicious moneymaker, or just a dope?), but what happens in the apparently unlikely event that RDR wins? Will authors who don’t make as much money as Rowling, and who don’t have the weight of the Warner Brothers conglomerate behind them, have to take steps to protect against copyright infringement? Will this then arbitrarily prevent fans from harmlessly copying and reinventing material, thus stunting the author’s potential fanbase?
Booksquare has weighed in on the debate, discussing the merits of suing your readers, and the kind of ill-will and future suppression of fandoms that could potentially come out of it. In the comments on the post, debate continues, with some very interesting points for and against, by readers who have been following the case much closer than me.