‘Harry Potter’ Author J.K. Rowling Sues Publisher Over Unauthorized Encyclopedia

Writer worries 'Harry Potter Lexicon' will take proceeds away from planned charity reference book.

J.K. Rowling said the only “Harry Potter” encyclopedia she wants to see is the one she’ll write for charity — so she’s seeking to prevent a competitor’s compendium from coming out, claiming copyright infringement.

Along with Warner Bros., which owns the copyright and trademark to the seven-book series, the author filed suit Wednesday in Manhattan, New York, federal court against independent publisher RDR Books, which plans to publish on November 28 a 412-pager called “The Harry Potter Lexicon.” It’s based on the Web site of the same name and written by Steve Vander Ark, a noted librarian in the “Potter” community who runs the site, which Rowling herself has called “a Web site for the dangerously obsessive; my natural home.” “This is such a great site that I have been known to sneak into an internet café while out writing,” Rowling once wrote, “and check a fact rather than go into a bookshop and buy a copy of Harry Potter (which is embarrassing).” Rowling wasn’t the only one — the DVDs of the “Harry Potter” films also borrowed liberally from Vander Ark’s work, RDR publisher Roger Rapoport told MTV News.

“Warner Bros. has told Steve Vander Ark they’re on our site every day,” Rapoport said. “They’ve borrowed, without permission or credit, the Hogwarts timeline, which isn’t in the books, as a DVD extra. They’ve updated it in between editions of the DVD, as the site’s been updated, using word-for-word language, down to our typographical errors.”

At first, Vander Ark and Rapoport didn’t mind Warner Bros.’ usage of their material but encouraged it, as it was a mutually agreeable relationship. Vander Ark was to be featured on the next DVD, via an interview feature done with A&E. “At least that was the plan before,” Rapoport said. But according to the lawsuit, RDR Books sent a cease-and-desist letter to Warner Bros. in mid-October regarding using the timeline on the DVDs, claiming this infringed upon the Lexicon website. In the suit, Warner Bros. calls this claim of copyright infringement “a complete fabrication.”

Despite Rowling’s claim that the Lexicon encyclopedia would interfere with plans to release her own, Rapoport doesn’t think there would be a conflict. “There are dozens of books in print all over the world, critical reference books just like ours,” he said. “And everyone knows that any book she writes will not be hurt by anyone else’s book. That’s obvious, right? Any book she does will sell well. Any book we do isn’t going to hurt her.”

Rowling disputes that the printed version of the Lexicon would be a critical work, “which would be entirely legitimate,” she said in a statement. “Neither I nor anybody connected with Harry Potter has ever tried to prevent such works being published.”
Indeed, some 46 books published by Penguin, Broadway, Ulysses Press and many other publishers are presently available in bookstores and libraries, and as RDR Books points out, none of those books were enjoined by the courts, even those that borrowed word-for-word from the Lexicon without the author’s permission.

“From what I understand, [the Lexicon] is not criticism or review,” Rowling wrote. “It is, we believe, a print version of the Web site, except now the information that was freely available to everybody is to become a commercial enterprise. It is not reasonable, or legal, for anybody, fan or otherwise, to take an author’s hard work, reorganize their characters and plots, and sell them for their own commercial gain. However much an individual claims to love somebody else’s work, it does not become theirs to sell.”

Rowling isn’t concerned about her own profits, she said, but what would have been donated to charity. “It’s old news that I hope one day to write the definite Harry Potter encyclopedia, which will include all the material that never made it into the novels,” she wrote, “and that I will give the royalties from this book to charity. I cannot, therefore, approve of ‘companion books’ or ‘encyclopedias’ that seek to pre-empt my definitive Potter reference book for their authors’ own personal gain. The losers in such a situation would be the charities, that I hope, eventually, to benefit.”

Rowling previously wrote the “Potter” reference books “Quidditch Through the Ages” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” under the aliases Kennilworthy Whisp and Newt Scamander, respectively, and proceeds for both went to Comic Relief.

Rapoport countered that the Lexicon’s impact on publishing would be to help sell Rowling’s work even more. “Anyone who reads this would have read all the novels,” he said. “And if they hadn’t, they would have to go out and buy them. I’m flattered they think we’re a threat, but the book is basically on the Web site and has been on the Web site all this time. People can go and read it there if they’re concerned.”

Additionally, RDR Books claims, publishing the Web site content actually benefits underprivileged children and those in impoverished nations who might not have access to computers or the Internet to read the Web site. RDR Books also claims that the lawsuit wastes financial resources that could have been given to one of Rowling’s favorite charities.

Warner Bros. and Rowling’s argument in the lawsuit is that the existing Web site is very different from the intended book, since one is free and the other is for sale, and accordingly, they seek damages for any profits to be gained from the book, which then would be given to charity. In a separate statement, Warner Bros. said it was seeking to protect Rowling’s rights to produce a future book.

Meanwhile, Rowling has a limited-edition “Harry Potter” companion work that she’s about to auction off for charity. Rowling’s created seven copies of “The Tales of Beedle the Bard” (a fairytale book Dumbledore leaves to Hermione in “The Deathly Hallows”), all leather-bound, embellished with semi-precious stones, handwritten and illustrated by herself. One copy of the seven (the “Moonstone” edition) will be sold at Sotheby’s, with an asking price at $60,000, to benefit the Children’s Voice, a charity the author co-founded to campaign for the rights of institutionalized children in Eastern Europe. “I could not think of any person with less of a voice, more disenfranchised, than a child with mental-health issues or mental illness who’s been taken from or given by their family to an institution,” Rowling told the BBC. “I couldn’t think of anyone more vulnerable or anyone more in need of an articulate voice.

“There is a curious disassociation in my mind between the work I’ve done and the money I’ve got, because the rewards seemed so enormous,” she added. “I think they do bring a certain responsibility. If you’re any kind of a human being, you’re going to think, ‘How do I do some good with this?’ ”

“The Tales of Beedle the Bard” will be on display to the public for a period before the auction on December 13, and the other six have been given away as thank-you presents to those most closely involved with Harry Potter over the past 17 years. A commemorative catalog about the book is also available via Sotheby’s, with proceeds to benefit charity.

“People kept saying to me, ‘You’ll be glad to have a break from writing,’ when of course I wasn’t taking a break at all,” Rowling told the BBC. “I was literally writing out — because these are handwritten books — these new stories. It’s not about Harry, Ron and Hermione, but it comes from that world. It’s been a wonderful way to say goodbye. It’s like coming up from a deep dive.”