We don’t like to say we’re geeks here at Record HQ, but the fact remains that at least some of us were waiting in line at midnight to receive our copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and we can’t help but follow J.K. Rowling’s lawsuit against the publisher of an unauthorized Harry Potter encyclopedia with interest (particularly as Rowling is, thrillingly, our commencement speaker).
In terms of the blackletter law this case, it seems, exists in a gray area, and the lawyers in the case can – and no doubt will – argue both sides ably. In the end, however, we can’t help but wonder whether, in the rush by fair use activists to defend author Steve Vander Ark and publisher RDR, some important points are being lost. There are a lot of frustrating results of U.S. copyright law – and we’d prefer the RIAA didn’t evaluate our iTunes folders too carefully ourselves – but for all our natural inclination to sympathize with a small publisher going up against Warner Brothers, the biggest of Big Entertainment, it’s worth taking a few minutes to consider why protecting the Lexicon might not be in our best interests after all.
The Harry Potter franchise catapulted J.K. Rowling to the top of the best seller lists and made her one of the richest people on the planet. In that, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that she is very much the exception rather than the rule. For most authors – even those of popular and critically acclaimed series – it’s a question not of riches, but of making ends meet at all. When Rowling, a single mother on the dole when she started writing the books, said on the stand Monday that she might never have started writing when she was “choosing between food and a typewriter ribbon” had she thought that others could have freely appropriated her work, we believed her.
We also wonder whether encouraging books like the Lexicon – which consists almost entirely of quotes from the novels themselves, arranged in alphabetical topic areas, and omits most of the analytical content that existed on the original website, and about which even the author himself expressed serious reservations – is really the best way to allow creativity to flourish.
All of this is not to say that we don’t respect transformative works and the effort that is put into them. We applaud groups such as the Organization for Transformative Works, for instance, headed by a coalition of published and fan authors and putting forth interesting arguments about the value of fan-created spin-offs and derivative works. What we question is whether a win for RDR publishers in this case is really a victory for those who consume and enjoy literature. And ultimately, isn’t that what it’s really about?