Posted by: Fizzgig | May 26, 2008

Harry Potter and the Neverending Court Battle

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about the wizard Harry and his little book collection. With all 7 novels completed and the 6th movie in the series due out around Thanksgiving, the world of Harry Potter has become something of a phenomenon with children (and more adults than anyone might thing), not to mention making author J.K. Rowling more wealthy than the Queen of England.

But a cloud has fallen over this happy land… and no, it’s not the Dark Mark in the sky, it’s something far more sinister.

A lawsuit.

There are a huge number of Potter fansites online but only one of them, the Harry Potter Lexicon, is attempting to publish an encyclopedia of spells, potions, beasts, Quidditch rules, and other fun facts from the official Harry Potter books. The book’s author, Steve Vander Ark, has run the website for years; in 2007, however, he announced his intention to take the online material – some of which is copied directly from the official books – and publish it through Michigan publishing company RDR Books.

author Rowling

J.K. Rowling, not surprisingly, was a little displeased.

“From what I understand, the proposed book is not criticism or review of Harry Potter’s world, which would be entirely legitimate – neither I nor anybody connected with Harry Potter has ever tried to prevent such works being published. It is, we believe, a print version of the website, except now the information that was freely available to everybody is to become a commercial enterprise.

It is not reasonable, or legal, for anybody, fan or otherwise, to take an author’s hard work, re-organize their characters and plots, and sell them for their own commercial gain. However much an individual claims to love somebody else’s work, it does not become theirs to sell.”

Apparently, Rowling plans to publish her own encyclopedia and claims the Lexicon would a) infringe on her copyright and b) limit the sales of her own Harry Potter reference guide.

According to other fans, Vander Ark actually approached Rowling at the Harry Potter Prophecy convention in Toronto during the summer of 2007. He asked her for permission to publish the Lexicon; she said no, on the aforementioned grounds.

Like any good fan when faced with a request from his favorite author… he did it anyway.

fan Steve Vander Ark

Vander Ark:

“We have always been interested in working with the publishers of the novels to satisfy their concerns, interests and needs and we certainly do not plan nor have we ever planned to publish anything which competes with Ms. Rowling’s fine literary capabilities. Our work has nothing to do with fiction writing and is only concerned with legitimate critical analysis and academic considerations.”

The actual content of the book has been subject of much debate, statements, re-statements, and counter-statements. Some say that it’s a direct reprinting of the Lexicon website (which would include essays by other fans who have not given their consent to have them included in the book); some say that it’s cut-and-paste text from Rowling’s books, arranged alphabetically.

A suit was filed in New York court by both Rowling and Warner Brothers, who owns the movie rights; the latter claimed that the “cease and desist letters constituted an attempt to open a dialogue” about the book’s actual content.

RDR Books responded thusly:

“It reminds (sic) of a statement made by General Leslie Groves when he was asked if the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was leading to the lingering deaths of tens of thousands of civilian (sic). He said that fallout radiation was causing no ‘undue suffering’ and characterized it as ‘a very pleasant way to die.’ How does threatening to censor the publication of a reference book, sue someone for millions of dollars and put them out of business ‘constitute an attempt to open a dialogue’?”


The two sides have been duking it out in court, finally settling on April 16th; the judge should hopefully be issuing a verdict soon.

The verdict’s also still out in the court of public opinion: the Harry Potter fandom has split drastically on whether to support Vander Ark or Rowling; some bemoan how this might set a dangerous precedent for authors to have their work taken for profit by others; some bemoan how this might set a dangerous precedent for fan-writers. Everyone’s waiting for a verdict.

Stay tuned.


  1. Welcome to the Nerdvana Superteam, Fizzgig! That’s some outstanding reporting!

    I think I’m gonna have to side with Rowling on this one, it’s kind of a no brainer to put out an encyclopedia, and the material is hers…

  2. Yeah – I tried to be mostly objective in my reporting, but seriously. It’s her material.

  3. […] rules for Rowling in plagiarism case Previously, on AchieveNerdvana. JK Rowling and Warner Brothers went to court to stop the publication of an unauthorized […]

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