Harry Potter and the Copyright Pirates

What is the Harry Potter Encyclopedia and why should you care?

The forthcoming Encyclopedia is intended by J. K. Rowling to be the authoritative directory of all creatures, persons,  places, and things that make up the Harry Potter universe. Rowling has been working on it on and off for years, and every so often a snippet of activity sends the crowd into a mad frenzy over its supposed “impending” release. As long ago as April 2008, Rowling stated that she had begun work on the project in earnest. In September 2009 we were treated to a comment from fellow novelist Ian Rankin that Rowling “had been making family trees of all her characters,” only to learn from her publisher the following week that “the encyclopedia simply remains something Ms. Rowling would like to complete sometime in the future.”

In recent interviews, Rowling has unequivocally stated that she still intends to write the encyclopedia, but has been vague when pressed for details on the timing of its release. Rowling euphemistically refers to the Encyclopedia as “The Scottish Book,” an oblique reference to Macbeth, which as every theater-goer knows is only to be called “The Scottish Play” — and nothing else — unless the speaker wishes to invoke the curse of Macbeth. Among the many tragedies attributed to the curse, in 1672 the actor playing Macbeth substituted a real dagger for the blunted stage one and killed Duncan in full view of the audience. During a performance in New York in 1849, a riot broke out in which 31 people were trampled to death. In 1937, during Laurence Olivier’s first portrayal of Macbeth, his sword shattered and flew into the audience, striking a patron who immediately suffered a heart attack.

Given the superstitious tendencies of a writer whose chief villain is known only as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, Rowling’s enigmatic reference is perhaps unsurprising, but no public hue and cry has been heard in connection with Harry Potter that can even remotely compare to Macbeth’s ill-fated fortunes. Perhaps Rowling fears that the breadth of detail envisioned by the Encyclopedia — which is rumored to include such diverse subjects as directions for splitting one’s soul into a Horcrux, how Lord Voldemort obtained a new body, and the backstory to Florean Fortescue’s murder — will give rise to a curse of its own.

Of course, while all of this is superficially interesting if you are a Harry Potter fan, from an intellectual property standpoint it would be decidedly ho-hum but for the fact that Rowling filed suit against a fan-created online encyclopedia called the Harry Potter Lexicon.  Originally the brain-child of librarian Steve Vander Ark, the Lexicon — as one would expect from something called a lexicon — lists characters, places, creatures, spells, potions and magical devices, as well as analyzing magical theory and other details of the series. Famed for publishing one of the first timelines of events occurring in the Harry Potter universe, the Lexicon has been used as a reference source by Rowling herself, who admits that:

This is such a great site that I have been known to sneak into an internet café while out writing and check a fact rather than go into a bookshop and buy a copy of Harry Potter (which is embarrassing).

Notwithstanding her purported admiration for it, when RDR Books proposed to publish a print version the Lexicon, Rowling filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in New York District Court seeking to enjoin its publication.  Although the court recognized that authors do not have the right to stop the publication of reference guides and companion books about literary works, it nonetheless found that Vander Ark had exceeded the ambiguous boundary of “fair use” and ruled against the Lexicon and its valiant cohort of defenders. The upshot of the legal battle was that a less-than-comprehensive (and therefore less-than-exciting) version of the Lexicon was vetted and permitted to be published under the disingenuous title The Lexicon: An Unauthorized Guide to Harry Potter Fiction.

Personally, I prefer the aptly-named Complete Idiot’s Guide to The World of Harry Potter, which suffers only from the fact that it attempts to be a scholarly work rather than the tongue in cheek farce that I would like to read and hope to find in an alternate universe. Perhaps if Ashton Kutcher ever gets around to making a sequel to The Butterly Effect, I’ll be able to find the version I’m really interested in.

2 comments

  1. Nota bene: For you nascent Potter-ites who stumbled onto this thread, you should be aware that periodic updates on Rowling’s proposed Encyclopedia are posted at The Leaky Cauldron. Occasionally, The Pottermore Insider contains additional tidbits of note.

  2. John Potter says:

    You can find more information on Rowling at her official Pottermore blog, which is actually pretty cool. There’s some great drawings for a special edition of the book(s) there.

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