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A Rowling boil

Posted by David Mehegan  April 16, 2008 11:20 AM

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rowlingsign.jpg
Happier days: Rowling in London in 2007
(AP Photo/Bill Haber)


The legal fight over Michigan publisher RDR Books' planned "Harry Potter Lexicon" has had its dramatic moments this week, as author J.K. Rowling almost-tearfully denounced the book in a New York courtroom as an act of plagiarism that would compete with her own proposed Harry Potter encyclopedia (see Associated Press story here), while author Steven Jan Vander Ark tearfully defended his work and his fealty to his heroine and her eponymous creation. The defense argues that Vander Ark's use of Rowling's writings in his lexicon entries constitutes fair use, an ancient concept that allows one writer to quote another without seeking permission. How much use is fair is always the tricky point.

The legal outcome may not depend much on the strong feelings of either Rowling or Vander Ark, but whether his work can fairly be called a work of commentary, which would normally be protected under the copyright law. A satire would be protected -- as "The Wind Done Gone," Alice Randall's parody of "Gone With the Wind," was found to be protected when the estate of Margaret Mitchell tried to stop it in 2001 -- but the proposed book is not a satire, rather, something intended to be used as a companion.

Saying the fair use issue had not been addressed so far, Judge Robert Patterson yesterday strongly suggested that the parties talk it over and work out some settlement, which surely doesn't bode well for the plaintiff. A prior restraint is a difficult thing to get in an American court. It's likely that if the book is published, copyright infringement could be alleged, but judges are reluctant to ban a book ahead of time.

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