Nothing breeds lawsuits like success. Apart from The Bible and the complete works of William Shakespeare, nothing has captured the hearts and minds of a generation of readers like the Harry Potter saga. In our modern age, of course, the price of fame is being subject to calumny and accusations of plagiarism, copyright infringement, and outright character theft. Although murmurings were made as far back as 2004 that elements of Harry Potter were contained in Adrian Jacobs 1987 book Willy the Wizard, the allegations were dismissed out of hand and the subject of much pooh-poohing in the literary community. Indeed, some commentators even went so far as to denigrate poor Willy as a poorly-written bit of fluff, and Potter author J.K. Rowling claimed never to even have heard of the book — which, in truth, was little known before the trustee for Jacobs’ estate filed suit against publisher Bloomsbury and Rowling in the UK last year. This week, the trustee has initiated the first of what appears to be a multi-continent litigation strategy by suing US publisher Scholastic in district court in New York amid widespread rumours (vigorously denied) that J.K. Rowling’s literary agent was actually Jacob’s agent as well.
At this point in the litigation the parties still are engaged in mudslinging, with Bloomsbury issuing statements claiming that Willy the Wizard was a “very insubstantial booklet running to 36 pages which had very limited distribution” and was of a “very poor quality,” and partisans on Willy‘s side saying all the nasty things you would expect about J.K. Rowling. I confess to not having read Willy the Wizard, nor engaged in a line-by-line comparison of the sections which are claimed to have been purloined, so I cannot opine with any personal authority about the quality of the claims being made — although I do find it difficult to believe that J.K. Rowling’s expansive universe of characters had its specific genesis in this slight tome. (Perhaps that merely reflects my respect for J.K. Rowling’s achievement in helping my children learn to read, and the pleasure I have taken in reading along with them). As I said, fame paints a target on your back for the hungry pack. To date, Harry Potter has beaten back all those who claimed to be his progenitors. You will, of course, recall that in 2002 at the height of the Harry Potter frenzy (when every 10-year-old in America seemed to be reading the new Potter book), Rowling successfully defended herself against a plagiarism claim made by children’s author Nancy Stouffer. Perhaps Willy will end up getting sanctioned just as Stouffer did for making up a false claim. We’ll have to wait and see if the truth will out, or remain forever lost in the shadows of Hogwarts and the Forbidden Forest.
I am a commercial litigator and intellectual property lawyer in Orange County. Although my practice encompasses a wide variety of business disputes, I have a particular fondness for, and am prone to wax philosophical on, the subjects of copyright and trademark infringement in music, literature, art, and film.