Just in case readers are going blue in the face with breathless suspense over J K Rowling's lawsuit (see SFX #166 and #169), she and Warner Bros won. RDR Books was forbidden to publish its US print edition of Steve Vander Ark's Harry Potter Lexicon website – not without substantial changes.
Everyone "knew" this was an open-and-shut case. They just had violently different opinions about who should win. Rowling's fans mostly cheered her on, though some condemned the suit as possibly opening an attack on the open exchange of Potter analysis and fanfiction. Free-speech warriors (always concerned about abuse of copyright law) and SF author Orson Scott Card (still disproportionately outraged by JKR's little tease about Dumbledore being gay) likewise felt that she and Warner were horrid bullies who deserved to lose.
Judge Robert P Patterson didn't find it to be one of those easy "Hey, let's just cut the baby in half" decisions. The hearing was in April 2008 with a verdict expected soon after, but his lengthy judgment didn't appear until September. Read it at www.justia.com (search on "rowling warner"), as number 92 of 96 documents in the case. By now there may be more: RDR had until 7 November to file an appeal.
Like Rowling herself, Judge Patterson saw no objection to Potter reference books in general. He seemed unmoved by the author's plea that the Lexicon would undermine sales of her own planned Potterpedia (with profits virtuously going to charity). His key point was that the Lexicon "copies distinctive original language from the Harry Potter works in excess of its otherwise legitimate purpose of creating a reference guide." The legal balance may well have been tipped by use of material from Rowling's semi-joky Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, both arranged as alphabetical reference books that couldn't be either ignored or easily paraphrased.
However, the assessed damages were exceedingly modest, if not as insulting as the 1878 case when the painter Whistler (famous for having a mother) sued the critic Ruskin, won, and was granted exactly one farthing. Taking it into account that the Lexicon hadn't been published and so no actual harm was inflicted, our judge opted for the minimum $750 award for each Potter book that got pillaged. Seven novels plus two companions tot up to $6,750, which in Rowling/Warner terms is chicken-feed: RDR's legal fees were surely much more. Remember the recent Forbes magazine calculation that day and night, sleeping or waking, JKR earns a fiver every second?
Steve Vander Ark – not in fact a party to the lawsuit – is philosophical about the verdict and had already moved on to a safer project, his In Search of Harry Potter travel guide to Potterish places. He told me: "I don't feel bad about the decision, actually. I think it was very well thought out and fair. My only real regret is that we couldn't come to a settlement, which I think would have been by far the best solution, as it would have shown that both sides honestly wanted to work together to solve this problem amicably."
Yes, but RDR made that difficult by refusing to show Warner's lawyers the draft Lexicon book and instead referring them to the website – which is very different, with much, much more direct quotation from the Potter saga. Was this awkwardness a deliberate strategy, I wonder? RDR, formerly an obscure small press, got a hell of a lot of publicity from the Lexicongate trial. Boss man Roger Rapoport bragged to the Detroit Free Press that, as they reported, "the legal tangle has boosted business for his company." Another cheeky move by RDR was to demand access to all JKR's Harry Potter Encyclopedia drafts, as proof that she really was working on that book. Naturally this request went down like the traditional lead balloon.
Meanwhile, Supreme Justice Orson Scott Card dissented from Judge Patterson's learned opinion. He'd already written, or rather blogged: "Rowling's hypocrisy is so thick I can hardly breathe ... Her greedy evil-witch behavior now disgusts us ... What a pretentious, puffed-up coward." After the verdict he declared "contempt for Rowling" and accused her of "frustrated greed." Oh dear.
I hope it's all over now, so newshound Langford can stop tracking this litigation and its interminable discussion threads at The-Leaky-Cauldron.org and Wiki.fandomwank.com (see "Lexicongate"). My brain hurts, and I don't even have a lightning scar on my forehead.
David Langford has since heard that, at the very last minute, RDR filed notice of appeal. Will this madness never end?
Later: the appeal was withdrawn and the book published in substantially revised form in January 2009, with Rowling's permission if not her active blessing.