DON’T TOUCH MY HARRY!!: THE WRITER’S BATTLE WITH THE FANS

I’m reading the Harry Potter saga again –for the third time around– in preparation for my elective subject next semester. Also the academic materials that I’m going to use as background reading, and which include the Casebook recently edited (2012) by Hallett and Huey. In this volume there’s a very interesting piece by Pamela Ingleton, “‘Neither Can Live while the Other Survives’: Harry Potter and the Extratextual (After)life of J.K. Rowling,” in which the author examines very critically Rowling’s multiple attempts at limiting the use by other persons of any element of her saga. Rowling is, indeed, resisting the death of the author with all her might, just as –Ingleton argues– Voldemort resists his own demise.

No author can today totally restrain the use of their characters in websites for reference, or in fan fiction of any type (slash fiction included), unless they assume a certainly hostile stance against their own fandom. Authors can, however, do very scary things.

I’m not quite sure I fully understand the legality of the matter but the question is that Rowling sued in 2007 RDR Books when they tried to publish a print version of Steve Vander Ark’s website ‘The Harry Potter Lexicon’ (https://www.hp-lexicon.org/). Her argument was that the volume took too much material from her own books and that, anyway, she wanted to publish her own companion (which she never did). The judge agreed with Rowling but granted RDR Books the right to publish a modified version, arguing that “the Lexicon’s purpose of aiding readers of literature generally should be encouraged rather than stifled” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Harry_Potter_Lexicon). The book was published in 2009 as The Lexicon: An Unauthorized Guide to Harry Potter Fiction.

Now, the Lexicon webpage warns, sounding like one of Rowling’s Howlers, that “NO PART OF THIS PAGE MAY BE REPRODUCED IN ANY MANNER WITHOUT PERMISSION. HARRY POTTER, characters, names, and all related indicia are trademarks of Warner Bros. ©2001-2012.” Yes, Warner Bros., not JK Rowling –something Ingleton does not comment on. I do not know why Rowling gave rights to Warner Bros. over her work and I’ll have to assume this is part of their (lucrative) deal regarding the films. No matter how well-paid she is, the fact is that Rowling is no longer sole owner of Harry and company. This is very worrying, as corporations, whether in publishing or in film, have no real sympathy for the free circulation of culture –academic work included. Wikipedia’s entry for “Legal disputes over the Harry Potter series” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_disputes_over_the_Harry_Potter_series) is a much better horror story than Harry’s persecution by Lord Voldemort, believe me.

Although in principle, researchers and students should not worry about asking for permission to deal with any literary subject they wish to pursue, I’m beginning to wonder whether Warner Bros. (or other big brothers) will ever knock on our door. Some form of tolerance from authors and corporations applies to non-commercial websites but anything generating income is suspect –which leaves academic publications stranded in a (very dark) grey area. The Casebook I’m using has its own copyright notice and no warning about the contents being subjected to copyright by Rowling or Warner Bros. Technically, it is as ‘unauthorised’ as the book-form Lexicon (it’s fascinating to see how ‘author’ connects with ‘authorization’ in this context). If you ask me, I’m not sure whether unauthorised work can be restricted, though I grant that I do not see Rowling suing Palgrave Macmillan (even though they are making money out of her talent, not the Casebook authors).

Nor do I see either Palgrave Macmillan or RDR publishing something called The Lexicon: An Unauthorized Guide to Philip Roth Fiction. Clearly, the most popular fiction generates the more commercial spin-offs. Yet, then, I wonder why always those who already make so much money are the ones that most insist on defending their copyright. Even against admirers who only want to further publicise what they do. I understand the author’s protectiveness of her own work and I certainly believe that making money out of other people’s creativity is wrong. Yet, derivative or secondary work produced for non-commercial reasons by fans and academic seems quite another matter. And I very much doubt that RDR’s book has made millions.

So far, Rowling is giving his lawyers (and Warner Bros.’) plenty to work on but there’ll come a time, 75 years after her death, when Harry Potter will be out of copyright. Unless she has already hidden her horcruxes, Rowling won’t be able to control her hero’s fate. I cannot be sure that this is 100% positive, seeing the horrors produced on the basis of Jane Austen’s novels, but it’s the way culture works –much more so today, when younger audiences are used to sharing anything and everything on the net with little sense of property.

Food for thought…

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