Fan-written 'Potter' guide will 'open floodgates'
A three-day trial over an unauthorized Harry Potter encyclopedia ended Wednesday with a flash of anger from J.K. Rowling.
The British author returned to the witness stand and told a judge that if he allows the fan-written lexicon to be published, it will clear the way for countless rip-offs of her books, as well as those by other authors.
“I believe the floodgates will open,” Rowling said, her voice rising. “Are we the owners of our own work?”
Rowling was testifying for the second time in the trial, which began Monday at a federal court in Manhattan. A federal judge will decide whether to grant Rowling’s request to block publication of “The Harry Potter Lexicon,” a guide to the characters, places and spells in her novels. It was written by Steven Vander Ark, a 50-year-old former middle school librarian who compiled the material from a Web site by the same name that he had been operating for years.
RDR Books, the small publisher that persuaded Vander Ark to put the Web site into print, has argued that it is little different than any other novel reference guide and should be allowed to go to press without interference.
On Wednesday, Rowling said she was “vehemently anti-censorship” and generally supportive of the right of other authors to write books about her novels. But she said Vander Ark had “plundered” her prose and merely reprinted it in an A-to-Z format.
U.S. District Judge Robert Patterson Jr. asked Rowling whether she thought anyone would read the lexicon and its list of facts about the wizarding world for “entertainment value.”
“Honestly, no,” Rowling said. The good parts, she said, have simply been lifted from her own work.
“I think there are funny things in there, and I wrote them,” she said.
A decision in the case is not expected soon. It will be weeks before lawyers finish filing legal documents, and possibly longer before a verdict is rendered. Patterson is deciding the case, rather than a jury.
He also heard Wednesday from dueling experts weighing in on the guide’s potential worth to obsessive fans and serious academics.
Jeri Johnson, a dean of English at the University of Oxford’s Exeter College, praised Rowling’s seven novels as a rich topic for academic research and heaped scorn upon Vander Ark for the unscholarly way he tackled the subject.
RDR Books countered with a literature professor from the University of California, Berkeley, who testified that reference guides like Vander Ark’s can help readers navigate jargon-packed fantasy novels such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.”
Earlier, Vander Ark had described the book as a modest but extensive guide for fans like himself, and not an attempt at serious scholarship. U.S. copyright law allows teachers, academics, journalists and critics to use excerpts of an author’s work, but on a limited basis.
The discussion Wednesday seemed to both delight and dismay the judge, who began the day by urging the two sides to settle out of court.
Patterson likened the trial to the story Charles Dickens told in “Bleak House,” a novel about the pain caused by endlessly drawn-out lawsuits in the 19th century British judiciary system.
Patterson predicted a similar fate for the Potter case. He said it involved unresolved areas of American law and was almost certain to end in years of appeals.
“I think this case, with imagination, could be settled,” Patterson said.
As the day wore on, however, he seemed fascinated by the subject material, interrupting the lawyers at one point to question the experts himself.
In an exchange with Johnson, Patterson said his firsthand experience with the Harry Potter novels was limited: During a visit by his grandchildren, he read them the first half of the first book in the series.
Even in that quick read, he said, he found Rowling’s “magical world” hard to follow, filled with strange names and words that would be gibberish in any other context.
“I found it extremely complex,” he said, suggesting there is genuine worth in a book like Vander Ark’s, even if does nothing more than index the somewhat ridiculous-sounding names of Rowling’s characters.
Johnson acknowledged that there might be worth in such a reference guide – if done properly.
She suggested such a resource would be a fine tool to help a serious reader keep track of the hundreds of minor characters who appear in James Joyce’s novels.
The lawyers on both sides of the Lexicon case appeared to be resolved to continue the litigation, although they revealed they have settled some sections of the suit that were not central to the copyright infringement claim.
The first two days of the trial featured emotional testimony, first by Rowling, then by Vander Ark, each of whom said the case had caused them great personal distress.