J. K. Rowling Wins Copyright Fight

J. K. Rowling Wins Copyright Fight

A U.S. district court ruled September 8 that Michigan publisher RDR Books could not proceed with the print publication of The Harry Potter Lexicon, a 400-page reference work by former school librarian Steven Vander Ark based on the website he created in 2000. In addition to ordering a permanent injunction barring the book’s publication, Judge Robert P. Patterson awarded the minimum damages of $750 for each of the series’ seven novels and Rowling’s two companion books—a total of $6,750—to Rowling and Warner Brothers, which is in the midst of filming the final three movies based on the Potter series.

The decision does not affect the continued availability of Vander Ark’s reference guide online.

Some five months after unsuccessfully urging the parties to the lawsuit to settle out of court, Judge Patterson wrote that Vander Ark’s lexicon “appropriates too much of Rowling’s creative work for its purposes as a reference guide.” However, he also ruled that “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.”

In a statement made after the ruling was released, RDR Books said it was encouraged by the court’s recognition “that as a general matter authors do not have the right to stop the publication of reference guides and companion books about literary works.” The publishing company added that it was “considering all of its options” including an appeal; RDR Publisher Roger D. Rapoport told the September 9 Muskegon Chronicle that he was also weighing whether to use Judge Patterson’s ruling (pdf file) as a guide for bringing Vander Ark’s manuscript into copyright compliance.

“It was a question of law over a difference of opinion and, in a way, I’m glad it’s finally over,” Lexicon creator Vander Ark told the September 9 Grand Rapids Press. He spoke to the newspaper from England, where he moved last year to research and photograph British sites referenced in the Harry Potter series for a 256-page travel book scheduled for release in October by Methuen Publishing.

Stating that she “took no pleasure at all in bringing legal action,” Rowling said in a prepared statement that she “went to court to uphold the right of authors everywhere to protect their own original work.”

Another product of the case is the creation earlier this year of the Right to Write Fund within the University of New England’s Center for Ethics in Action as a repository and clearinghouse of information about issues that authors and publishers encounter as works move between print, film, fine arts, and new media. The organization, whose president is RDR Books Publisher Roger D. Rapoport, has also pledged to make pro bono counsel available to recipients of cease and desist letters and lawsuits.

Posted on September 10, 2008; corrected September 11, 2008. Discuss.