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J.K. Rowling lawsuit win nonsensical

The Harry Potter industry appears closely protected. A court ruled last week that a fan is forbidden from publishing his Web site as a book.

Warner Bros.

The Harry Potter industry appears closely protected. A court ruled last week that a fan is forbidden from publishing his Web site as a book.

Right about now, Steven Vander Ark must be feeling like a house elf who works for Bellatrix Lestrange.

On Monday, a federal judge in New York ruled against Vander Ark's publisher in a lawsuit filed by J.K. Rowling, author of the beyond-bestselling Harry Potter books, and Warner Bros. Entertainment, the megacorporation that makes the Potter movies.

Vander Ark is a former Michigan schoolteacher and librarian who, for about a decade, has run the Harry Potter Lexicon (www.hplex.org), one of the most useful, beloved and award-winning Web sites in the vast online Potter fandom.

Countless readers have accessed its clear, organized guides to the Potter universe: wizarding family trees, guides to spells and potions, detailed timelines and character biographies. We're talking seven big fat novels with their own alternate reality, hundreds of characters and intricate plots — even the most fanatical readers can't keep all that in their heads.

Writing about Rowling's books over the years, I've used the Lexicon frequently and always found it a marvel of accuracy and clarity. During the trial in May, Rowling herself testified that she had often used it as a quick reference to her own work. She even gave it a Fan Site award.

I saw Vander Ark speak at a Harry Potter conference in Orlando five years ago. He was an utterly devoted fan of the books and a natural librarian and teacher — he clearly loves gathering and organizing information and then sharing it.

So why the lawsuit? Vander Ark and RDR Books, a small publisher in Michigan, announced they would publish the Lexicon as a book. They planned a print run of about 10,000 — extremely small potatoes compared with the almost 400-million copies of the Potter novels in print.

Rowling and Warner jumped on that plan with both feet. They charged that somehow a printed version of Vander Ark's Lexicon constituted plagiarism of Rowling's novels, and that publishing the Lexicon as a book (they made no objection to the Web site because it was available free) could have an impact on Rowling's future earnings if she wrote a guidebook herself.

Oh, please. The woman is already worth $1.1-billion. (And yes, she is wonderfully generous to charities, but she remains enormously rich.)

Anything she puts her name on sells like beer at an August football game. It's ridiculous to think that if she ever did write a reference guide — which would no doubt include new elaborations on the Potter world that only she could invent — fans would shrug it off because they already owned a copy of Vander Ark's Lexicon. Her publisher wouldn't be able to print the thing fast enough.

But the more troubling aspect of the lawsuit is that it acted to prevent publication of a work that is very clearly a reference book. By long tradition, such works have been regarded not as "theft" of an author's work (a word Rowling used in her testimony about the Lexicon) but as aids to deepening readers' appreciation of it.

I'm not a legal expert, but as a book critic and a student and teacher of literature I've used hundreds of similar works — guides to Chaucer and Shakespeare, Joyce and Nabokov, Tolkien and, well, Rowling.

That is perhaps the strangest thing about the suit. There are already dozens of Potter reference books available. Take, for example, The Complete Idiot's Guide to the World of Harry Potter by Tere Stouffer, published by Alpha Books in 2007 to absolutely no legal huffing and puffing.

Seems odd, since the book is organized very much like the Lexicon, and many of its entries are so similar to those in the Lexicon that maybe Vander Ark is the one who ought to be filing a plagiarism suit.

Why his proposed book was singled out is a real mystery. Maybe Warner Bros. is the Voldemort in this story, bent on preserving its Potter franchise at any cost. But if so, why would Rowling buy in?

This is, after all, a woman who has fought, and rightly so, to keep her books on library shelves when small-minded book banners sought to "protect" children from them. She wrote seven enchanting, compelling novels in which the value of freedom of action and expression is a constant theme.

Madam Irma Pince, the stern librarian at Hogwarts, guardian of those endless shelves of reference books that have so often saved Harry's bacon, might well tell her creator, "For shame."

And yes, I looked Irma up at the Lexicon.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or cbancroft@sptimes.com.

J.K. Rowling lawsuit win nonsensical 09/13/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 15, 2008 2:39pm]

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