Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Battle between JK Rowling and the 50 year old compiler of a Harry Potter Lexicon

The ongoing court battle between JK Rowling and Steven Vander Ark - the 50-year-old compiler of a Harry Potter Lexicon - has created a good deal of heat and not much light.

It isn't in the least relevant that JK Rowling is already rich, or that the judge thinks that Harry Potter is "gibberish" (it is gibberish, of course, and all the better for it), or that Warner Brothers is a big media company, or that the peculiarly named Mr Vander Ark is a grown man and surely ought to have something better to do with his time, or that an Oxford scholar thinks his work is sloppy.

This court case is interesting, and potentially pretty important, because it zeroes in on a significant area of principle. And although Rowling sees herself as the victim of "wholesale theft", there are in fact a number of quite legitimate ways a writer can profit from the work of others.

In the first place, there is parody. My colleague Toby Clements wrote a successful comic novel called The Asti Spumante Code. It was - especially in contrast with its near-namesake - extremely amusing and well-written; but it would undoubtedly not have been published, still less sold enough copies to imperil his friendship with the Inland Revenue, had it not been for the success of The Da Vinci Code.

Then there are unauthorised biographies. It may be annoying to Amy Winehouse that rock hacks she has never met are entitled to rush out cuttings jobs on her life and turn a buck on the back of her talent. But it is hard to see a way in which it would be either possible or desirable to suppress them by law.

Something similar applies to photographs. Few people admit to liking what paparazzi do - except, of course, when consuming their material at the news-stand. But would we be in a better situation if celebrities were able to assert absolute rights over their own likenesses?

There's a line, and it isn't a simple one. If I happen to be passing The Ritz with my box brownie when George Clooney stumbles out carrying a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, its snout smeared with scarlet lipstick and a drugged look in its eyes, I am entitled to take a photo and sell it to a newspaper. I might run into legal difficulties, on the other hand, if I tried to use the image in an advertising campaign for lipstick. That line seems to me to be in approximately the right place.

The category into which the row over the Harry Potter Lexicon falls is a special one, but it has huge implications. What its author is doing - in compiling a reference guide to someone else's original work - is, whatever its motive or quality, more or less identical in kind to what literary academics do for a living.

At one end of the scale you have The Pound Era or Mimesis; at the other, the York Notes. And these books don't just cover olden-day works. My old teacher, John Fuller, was able to publish a hugely helpful guide to the works of WH Auden, for instance, despite the fact that his work remains in copyright.

Some of these sorts of books are presented essayistically; others more or less lexically or encyclopedically. An invaluable tool for scholars is the concordance, something that, before computers, was a colossal and astonishingly boring labour to compile. Essentially, it lists all the words in a writer's work in alphabetical order, and tells you where each one can be found in the original text.

JK Rowling complains that Mr Vander Ark has "plundered" her prose and reproduced it in an A-Z format. That is - at the extreme end of it - precisely what a concordance does. I have sympathy with Rowling's hurt feelings - in particular because she has announced plans to produce her own encyclopedia, and I can understand that Warner Brothers is keen to put down a legal marker of some sort.

But this would put down a legal marker of the wrong sort. It should remain clearly legitimate for people to publish, and profit from, scholarly work on any author in or out of copyright. Rowling herself has in the past shown great good sense and generosity with her copyright. She gives her blessing to the huge number of fans who write their own Potter stories online for fun, for instance, and has let several for-profit parodies pass unmenaced.

This seems to me an instance where - if Mr Vander Ark is determined not to back down as a courtesy to the woman whose work he professes to admire - she were best to grit her teeth and bear it. "Are we the owners of our own work?" she asks. Once that work has travelled out into the world, I'm afraid the true answer is: not entirely.

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