Saturday, March 1, 2008

Is J.K. Rowling serious? AP reports her threat to sue her own fans if her lawsuit is not successful

I kid you not. It's all here.
AP (which looks like it's just taken a press release from Warner Brothers and oddly reworked into an puff piece) is reporting that J.K. Rowling, whom we have had the greatest respect for (and we continue to try to keep that respect) has issued what can only be a rather threatening warning that if Steve Vander Ark's attempt to publish the HP Lexicon as an Encyclopedia, it will - to quote Rowling - "undoubtedly have a significant, negative impact on the freedoms enjoyed by genuine fans on the Internet. Authors everywhere will be forced to protect their creations much more rigorously, which could mean denying well-meaning fans permission to pursue legitimate creative activities."

Good heavens! Either she does not completely grasp what Warner Brothers is doing (and she's darn smart, so that just hard to believe) or she thinks we're stupid. We're supposed to cheer her on or she'll sue us?

The whole point of going after the HP Lexicon - which as we are reminded was praised by Rowling until Warner Brothers stepped in) - is that there is a fierce battle on over intellectual property now that the 20th century modes of communications are quickly becoming passé.

What Rowling is failing to mention here - with her sadly unfortunate and not-so-veiled threat is that it's the other way around. Encyclopedias have been published on literary works for years (as I have mentioned before, I have many many such works including a hefty 800 page Encyclopedia that was published by a fan). There is nothing new with that. What is different here is that Warner Brothers is trademarking the WORDs - the WORDs - and not just the images from the Harry Potter series.

If this lawsuit against Steve Vander Ark - perhaps once her most industrious and respected fan - is will set a precedent that the trademark owner can control the actual words. This is international law and it can then be applied to the internet.

So in fact, the reality is that it's the other way around.

What just floors me is that J.K. Rowling is threatening to sue her fans if her lawsuit is not successful. She's casting herself as the victim - which is just so incredibly laughable. She's one of the richest women in the world and she and Warner Brothers are throwing an enormous public relations campaign along with a cost litigation effort to shut down the fan she gave an award to for having the best Harry Potter fan site. It's absolutely bizarre.

She says that is she is not successful in her lawsuit, it will mean "
denying well-meaning fans permission to pursue legitimate creative activities." Where does she get the authority to issue "permission?" Because she "owns" the trademarked words!

So let's say you want to write an essay on your blog or website on how governmental offices during heated campaigns appear as though they have been drinking polyjuice potion because they aren't acting like themselves but a pandering to constituencies. If you use the trademarked word "polyjuice" she is threatening to send you a cease & desist letter since you are using one of her words in an essay she neither controls or profits from.

If the lawsuit is successful, it won't matter because the precedent will be set that words used on the internet cannot be translated to traditional forms of publication. In other words, the intellectual property - i.e., the words themselves - will be controlled by a corporation who owns the trademarked words.

We won't be able to plead our first amendment rights because the first amendment is guarding our rights to free speech from the interference of the government, not a corporation.

Unless, of course, it is appealed to the Supreme Court on the argument that the courts do not have jurisdiction to restrict freedom of speech by upholding laws created to protect trademark images from unauthorized use.

Remember, Rowling keeps referring her published words as her "invention." They are not her creation - she doesn't use the word creation. She uses the word "invention." That is setting the groundwork for this litigation. She is the inventor, as much as someone who invented the pooper scooper gets to control how it is used. She's not an artist - she's an inventor.

Corporations are attempting to use this to protect their investments. J.K. Rowling has become the corporate spokesperson to restrict freedoms of speech and the press by the use of trademarking the language. And that can be applied globally to the new forms of communication now employed by millions around the word.

Also remember, there was no way that Warner Brothers could ever shut down the HP Lexicon right now. It would be a public relations disaster. But Steve offered them a handy dandy way to do it and leave Rowling's own image in tact. They'll just go after this little book instead (never mind that I have several HP encyclopedias on my shelf right now!). But now that the corporations finally woke up in the new century where they are still using last-century's communication methods and are now seeking control over "intellectual property" through international trademarking rather than copyright law (which is national and expires) it's time to shut this stuff down.

The question is - why put this press release now? It coincides with more filings by Warner Brothers this past week in the case. Does Warner Brothers think the fans are too young and too naive to question the media strategy at play here? Notice also how we keep hearing about her charity work (more press releases) so that her happy image of the caring author remains intact as she sues one of her biggest supporters over the years. Does Warner Brothers think, as they successfully convey in this so-called AP "article" that J.K. Rowling is an Untouchable?

Or has she just sold out? Cornelius Fudge, call your office.


Anonymous said...

The irony is then that she could sue the Oxford Dictionary for listing some of her words without permission. Or even more amusing Brewer's Guide to Phrase and Fable, which would be hypocritical in the extreme since she took so many names and terms out of that book and certainly never asked them for permission. I find it mind boggling that any author would seek to copyright words. She didn't invent the word Muggle, Brewer's Guide, which she admitted to using for names, lists Muggleswick as a town in England that has been there for centuries, will they have to start paying royalites to keep using their name? Charles Dickens invented a Muggleton to stand in for Maidstone in The Pickwick Papers. Maybe she should sue Dickens estate for stealing her ideas a hundred years before she was born.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, her logic is extremely coherent and quite on the money. The law office I work for is watching this case quite avidly as we do a fair amount of work with what are usually called, to be courteous, vanity presses. As an example, one author we represent has written an extensive number of sequels to Larry Niven's Riverworld saga. This case, if adjudicated in RDR Book's favor, will allow him to publish this fan-fiction for personal profit without Mr. Niven's permission. Needless to say, we are hoping that SVA and RDR Books wins the case - it would benefit us greatly!

--Black Mandarin

Meg said...


Just a note: you could totally use "polyjuice" in an essay about government if you wanted to. It's fair use, as the rest of the essay would be your own creation. :)

(I worked on a magazine article last fall that discussed the astronomical names found in HP. It was an eight-page feature illustrated with fan-art, and chock full of HP names. The author clearly noted what books the characters were in, and we noted that the illustrations were "based on characters (c) JK Rowling".)

Also, in my opinion, what JKR said in her declaration wasn't that she'd sue fans, but that authors, including herself, would have to be more careful in what was allowed. IMO, this could mean anything from not allowing fan fiction to flat-out asking fan sites to shut down. Again, IMO, I think this would be done, as it has been in the past, with letters/e-mails first, then C&D letters, and lastly lawsuits.

At any rate, posting a book review in a blog, much like a book review in a magazine, would still be OK. Images, like in avatars, could be tricky, since those (from HP, at least) would be using film from WB.

That's my take on things, after spending 2 weeks talking back and forth with different publishing people about the legalities of the article I was working on, after this whole debacle first broke.


Emily said...

J. K. Rowling did not threaten her own fans. That's just ridiculous.

She was making a point--and a very correct one, at that--when she made those statements.

Rowling was incredibly lenient with fans who created art, fiction, etc based off of HER OWN publications up until this point.

Why? Because Vander Ark is trying to make MONEY off of a series Rowling put years and years of effort into. It's a disgusting cash grab by a clever fan who wants to make a buck off of something he did not create. He himself stated several times, in the years he was compiling the Lexicon, that he wouldn't try to publish it because Rowling herself was going to publish her own official one. He even deterred other writers from publishing similar works because of it. Now all of a sudden he changes his mind, because his publisher is protecting him from being sued by Rowling. RDR Books, Vander Ark's publisher, as part of his publishing contract, is protecting him from infringement lawsuits. He's not getting sued, RDR Books is. Now that Vander Ark HIMSELF isn't in danger, why not try to make some cash off of what isn't really his?

This isn't about a "mean, greedy author" attacking some innocent fan. It's a woman trying to protect what SHE created herself. The biggest argument I've seen against Rowling is that SHE is a billionaire, and Vander Ark is a librarian. And? Rowling was on WELFARE when she started writing this series. Now, because she has money, she shouldn't be able to protect her own rights? How laughable.

Rowling completely supported Vander Ark's efforts, until he started trying to MAKE MONEY off of her own work. Rowling made a point of allowing fan works as long as they weren't for a profit.

The point Rowling is making here is this: Other authors are going to see what happened to Rowling because of her leniency to fans--one of them decided to use her creation for his own financial benefit. When other authors and creators realize that, they're going to become MUCH more protective of the things they produce. That means a lot less freedom for the fans, who just want to express themselves.

She never outright threatened her own fans. Not once has she done so.

It's terrible that all of her success and hard work has come to this--I feel badly knowing that she probably regrets all the kindness she has shown to her fans thus far. It's a real shame.

And thank you, Meg, for understanding what Rowling was really getting at.

Anonymous said...

I have watched Rowling for many years now gathering up her empire and I don't deny her the fruits of her labours - However, I wish people could see the true face of the Rowling behind the happy, caring smiling mask she wears.

The press fail to comment on the lawsuits her legal teams have filed against fledgling authors (Dmitry Yemets for example). While in the world of business I expect the cut-throat attitude I totally disrespect Rowlings 'look at my poor welfare state beginnings' sob story when she will happily drag anyone into court for writing anything similar to her books who may be in the same poor beginnings.

It sounds harsh - but Rowlings is strangling new blood authors but everyone thinks she's some kind of saint.

It's a good job for her that JR Tolken wasn't around with legal team when she started otherwise she would still be in the Tesco Value section.