Why J.K. Rowling Shouldn't Get To Prevent Harry Potter Guidebook Publication

from the copyright-doesn't-let-you-control-everything dept

We've covered in the past J.K. Rowling's attempts to claim that copyright gives her more rights than it actually does, especially with regards to fan fiction. However, Rowling's latest attempt is to try to prevent the publication of "The Harry Potter Lexicon," a fan-created reference book to all things having to do with the world found in the Harry Potter books. Law professor Tim Wu does a nice job explaining why Rowling's claim goes beyond the limitations of copyright law, which does not prevent someone else from creating a guidebook of information about characters you created. As long as the guidebook creators are not copying Rowling's words verbatim, but are merely creating a guide or a critique of Rowling's work, it's not a copyright issue. Rowling's real problem with the guidebook appears to be a different issue. She had no problem when the Lexicon was just a fan website. However, when they wanted to sell a book, she became upset. So the real problem appears to be that she doesn't want anyone else to make any money -- but that's not what copyright law is designed to do. Newspapers make money off of books all the time by publishing reviews, and we all know that's legal. There is no difference in creating a reference book.

Rowling complains that this work will make it difficult for her to publish her own guidebook: "I cannot approve of 'companion books' or 'encyclopedias' that seek to preempt my definitive Potter reference book...." However, as Wu notes, that's silly and has nothing to do with copyright law: "two products in the same market isn't called pre-emption—the word is competition." And, generally, competition is something that we should encourage, as it drives all competitors to provide better products. If Rowling really believes she cannot compete with a fan reference guide, that's hardly the fault of the other reference guide. Given the interest in Harry Potter, it's hard to believe that an "official" reference guide given Rowling's endorsement wouldn't outsell any fan-created version.

Filed Under: copyright, fan fiction, harry potter, j.k. rowling

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  1. icon
    Mike (profile), 15 Jan 2008 @ 4:50pm


    From what I know of copyrights and trademarks over characters and creative works in the United States, you have to be EXTREMELY overzealous in protecting them. Any laxness on your part will could result in you losing the copyright completely.

    Then what you know of copyright law is wrong. This is simply untrue. You do not need to protect your copyrights in this nature. You cannot lose your copyrights for failure to enforce.

    You do need to protect your trademarks, but it's a myth that you need to be "extremely overzealous" in protecting them. Many lawyers will say that, as a way of covering themselves, but it's not accurate.

    Did you know that if a company mistakenly has a fan website pulled down because they wrongly believe it to be infringing, they are not even allowed to apologize when they are wrong? Because that apology will be seen as a sign of weakness, and can be used against them in REAL cases of infringment.

    Again, that's simply untrue.

    My understanding is that it's possible that if Rowling allowed the publication of this encyclopedia in the US, especially if it does contain quotes, it could open the door to her losing the copyright to Harry Potter in the US altogether.

    Again, that is 100% false. You seem to be confusing copyrights and trademarks, and then contributing to that by assuming a version of trademark law (which you then apply to copyright) that is not accurate.

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