Blind Man with a Pistol

The Tears of J.K. Rowling

“I really don’t want to cry,” came the impassioned plea from J.K. Rowling. “Because I’m British.” J.K. Rowling testified Monday in the copyright case Rowling vs. RDR Books. RDR Books wants to publish the Harry Potter Lexicon, the work of American librarian Steve Vander Ark (who claims to have read the series more than 50 times). The Lexicon, originally a website that once received a fansite award from Rowling herself, organizes and alphabetizes any nugget of information contained in the world of Harry Potter. Rowling calls the book “wholesale theft of seventeen years of hard work.” RDR Books and their counsel, Anthony Falzone of the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society, call it fair use.

Rowling’s testimony is curious. One wonders why she needs testify in a copyright case at all; she had certainly never done it before, even in defending against plagiarism charges levied at her. But what strikes me most about her testimony is the emotional, personal tenor of her testimony.

Those characters meant so much to me over such a long period of time. It’s very difficult for someone who is not a writer to understand what it means to create something. It’s the closest thing to having a child.Those characters saved me. Not just in a material sense – though they did do that. There was a time when they saved my sanity.

As Ed Pilkington wonders in the Guardian article linked to above, why has a copyright case testimony turned into a treatise on a writer’s relationship to her art? Why the threatened tears, the appeal to pathos?

As mentioned above, Rowling and Warner Bros. had no complaint when the Lexicon existed only as a website. It was only after Vander Ark wanted to make a profit off his work that the plaintiffs pursued legal action. If these characters “meant so much” to Rowling, why didn’t she protect them earlier instead of rewarding the site for its dedication and utility? (Incidentally, according to Falzone, Rowling employed the site as a a fact-checking aid while writing later volumes in the series.) Could it be because as long as the Lexicon was offered free, it simply expanded her fanbase and burrowed the roots of Hogwarts deeper into the public consciousness?

Make no mistake: the lines Rowling is trying to buttress are financial ones, not boundaries of artistic integrity. According to Tim Wu (a former assistant of Judge Richard Posner), “Rowling is overstepping her bounds. She has confused the adaptations of a work, which she does own, with discussion of her work, which she doesn’t.” Rowling is shoring up her ability to profit at the expense of artistic integrity, not to preserve it. Or, as Lawrence Lessig puts it, copyright protection “was meant to foster creativity, not to stifle it.”

Perhaps, in her tearful reminiscing of her impoverished writer days, Rowling should consider letting Harry grow up. After seven barnburner novels and seven more blockbuster movies, perhaps it’s time for Harry to saddle his Quiddich broom and make his own way in the world.

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