Lexicon Litigation

Timed perfectly to provide material for class discussions about Fair Use, the trial started this week in J.K. Rowling’s copyright infringement lawsuit against publisher RDR Books and author Stephen Vander Ark over The Harry Potter Lexicon, the print version of Vander Ark’s website of the same name. In her testimony Rowling characterized the Lexicon as “sloppy,” “lazy,” “derivative,” and “riddled with errors.” Rowling claims that the Lexicon could interfere with her own plans to write a Potter enyclopedia, proceeds of the sale of which she would donate to charity. RDR court filings state that Vander Ark’s Lexicon “provides a significant amount of original analysis and commentary concerning everything from insights into the personality of key characters, relationships among them, the meaning of various historical and literary allusions, as well as internal inconsistencies and mistakes in the novels.” Stanford Law School’s Fair Use Project is lined up behind RDR, arguing that companion guides to other works are fair uses that have a long literary tradition.

10 thoughts on “Lexicon Litigation”

  1. Stanford Law School’s Fair Use Project cites that companion guides have a long literary tradition. I was just curious if the Supreme Court has heard any cases involving companion guides that concern fair use and copyright law. Is there any precedent to work from?

  2. I believe the fair use doctrine is applicable in this case because it defends the use of copyrighted material as long as it is used transformatively and does not effect the value of the original work. Rowling’s Harry Potter series may be copyrighted, but in this case is not infringed upon just because Rowling was considering making a companion to the series herself. Moreover, Ark’s website has a significant amount of originial analysis. As for the errors Rowling claims, the website says it is updated constantly and checking for any possible errors.

  3. I think it is important to distinguish the difference between the website and the book. I believe the website is absolutely legal and does not violate any copyright law- in fact, there are many Harry Potter fan sites that are completely acceptable. J.K. Rowling even commented about this site, stating “This is such a great site that I have been known to sneak into an internet cafe while out writing and check a fact rather than go into a bookshop and buy a copy of Harry Potter (which is embarrassing). A website for the dangerously obsessive; my natural home.”

    However, when a fan site is crossing over to publishing and making profits off of another author’s work, I believe that is when Vander Ark is abusing the Fair Use Doctrine there is an infringement on the copyright.

    In response to Lauren’s post, I believe that Vander Ark’s lexicon encyclopedia is, in fact, effecting the value of the the original work. Rowling has stated that she has thought about publishing an encyclopedia of her own in the future. If Vander Ark continues to produce and sell his encyclopedia, it may take away from Rowling’s profits if she does decide to write her own encyclopedia.

    CNN published an article on this Harry Potter lexcion case today for anyone who wants to further read: http://www.cnn.com/2008/CRIME/04/22/sunny.potter/index.html for more reference about this case.

  4. I am also wondering why Vander Ark didn’t just ask for permission from J.K. Rowling (or possibly even collaborated with her) before getting into this whole ordeal. It seems like that would be the obvious way to avoid this problem…

  5. I think Ark’s encyclopedia is perfectly legal under the fair use doctrine. For Rowling to have a case, I think she would need to prove that the website is negatively impacting the value of her actual works.

    In response to Tiffany’s comment, I believe the fact that Rowling has stated that she is thinking about publishing an encyclopedia of her own is not the same as actually publishing one. Thinking and doing are two vastly different things. I don’t think Ark can be penalized for taking value away from a hypothetical work that Rowling has not yet created.

  6. To prove infringement Rowling need prove only that Van Ark has, without her permission, exercised her exclusive right as a copyright owner to create a derivative work. It seems clear that had Van Ark asked for permission Rowling would not have granted it. Once she proves infringement Van Ark must convince the court that his Lexicon is a fair use. Impact on the market value of her works is one of the four fair use factors, but it does not tip the balance by itself. The court is likely to focus more on whether Van Ark’s work is transformative.

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