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Yesterday afternoon Judge Patterson of the Southern District of New York ruled that Steven Vander Ark’s “Harry Potter Lexicon,” an encyclopedia intended to chronicle the famous Harry Potter series, infringed on J.K. Rowling’s copyright for the series. The Harry Potter Lexicon began as a fan website dedicated to serving as “the ultimate Harry Potter reference.” The site defined Harry Potter terms, created Harry Potter timelines, and even identified mistakes in the Harry Potter books. Rowling never took issue with the Lexicon in its free website form, but after Vander Ark and RDR Books unveiled a plan to publish the website as a book, Rowling filed suit.
The court found that the “Lexicon appropriates too much of Rowling’s creative work for its purposes as a reference guide….” Judge Patterson ruled that the Lexicon’s use of Harry Potter material was “substantially similar” to the Harry Potter series, and therefore infringed on Rowling’s rights as an author. However, Judge Patterson was careful to distinguish the Lexicon from other companion books, commenting that “reference guides to works of literature should generally be encouraged by copyright law because they provide a benefit [to] readers and students.”
While Rowling heralded the decision as a victory for the “right of authors everywhere to protect their own original work,” many legal scholars wonder if this decision grants Rowling an unhealthy level of control over the Harry Potter world. Anthony Falzone, leader of the Fair Use Project at Stanford University, served as co-counsel to defend Vander Ark and RDR books because he believed the Lexicon to be “the sort of important and transformative work that fair use has long protected.” The Fair Use Doctrine, based on Constitutional rights of free speech in the First Amendment, allows for limited use of copyrighted material for scholarly or research purposes. Reference guides and companion books like the Lexicon were often thought to be covered by the doctrine.
There is some legitimate concern that yesterday’s decision may stifle the very creativity that copyright law is designed to protect. If authors of reference works will be forced to count the number of words and limit the number of ideas that can be “appropriated” from the original source, will such scholarly works lose some value to the literary community? Has this decision found the right balance between an author’s intellectual property and readers’ rights to new forms of creativity and self-expression?
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