‘Harry Potter’ Author J.K. Rowling’s Copyright Case: Behind All The Legal Jargon

Case against 'The Harry Potter Lexicon' hinges on the doctrine of fair use — but what does that mean?

It’s a setup that could find a place in “Harry Potter” itself: One is powerfully magical, learned in the ways of witchcraft and wizardry, in control of an empire that spans generations and continents. The other is a boyish figure, whose large, round glasses and mop of dark hair dominate a childish face.

It’s unofficially a duel between the richest, most successful author in the world and a 50-year-old librarian, but the case of J.K Rowling v. RDR Books , now playing out in a federal court in New York, doesn’t hinge on magical knowledge, superior weaponry or even powerful friends, but on a somewhat-complicated U.S. law known as the doctrine of fair use.

So what, exactly, is fair use, and why is Rowling arguing in court that “The Harry Potter Lexicon” breaks the guidelines established for it to work? And why can we quote liberally from “Harry Potter,” at seeming random if I like (“Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!”), while Steve Vander Ark is being enjoined from doing what, at face value, appears to be the very same thing?

The answer lies in a piece of legislation only 30 years old and the four provisions it outlines as the foundation of fair use.

First, to understand the case, it’s important to understand the basic principles of copyright law, a constitutional right that essentially grants artists and inventors exclusive rights to their writings and discoveries. As the author of the seven “Harry Potter” novels and their two companion books, that right, in this case, naturally belongs to J.K. Rowling.

But like most rights, even constitutional ones, that principle is not absolute. Under the Copyright Act of 1976, others are allowed to incorporate copyrighted materials “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship or research.” When we quoted “Harry Potter” above, our use clearly fell into the category of “news reporting” and was therefore not a breach of copyright law.

The central issue of the court case is whether “The Harry Potter Lexicon,” an encyclopedic reference of all things Potter, falls into any of the above categories as well.

To determine whether or not it does, the court will use four main guidelines:

1. The “purpose and character of the use.” In simple terms, this boils down to an opinion on whether the work is “transformative,” meaning, does it add to the culture’s appreciation and/or knowledge of a work, or does it merely seek to supersede the original?

This is the point of contention most argued in the court case, with lawyers for Rowling insisting that “Lexicon” “takes too much and does too little.” In other words, it adds little or no commentary or criticism.

By way of example, take our recent shot-by-shot analysis of “The Dark Knight” trailer and assume it wasn’t for a news organization. The article was a second-by-second look at the trailer — there’s not a copyrighted shot that we didn’t describe in detail or, in some cases, pull for readers to view. But each shot was then obsessively dissected, and the hope, of course, was that we added to the discussion of the work while not superseding the original. Writing about the trailer didn’t stop anyone from actually watching it.

Rowling’s lawyers argue that “Lexicon” does not meet that burden, that it is in no way transformative but is merely derivative. It simply “rearranges the furniture of Rowling’s novels,” attorney Dale Cendali said in her opening statement.

The defense, meanwhile, argues that the value of the book far outweighs its use of copyrighted material.

Under this guideline, a judge may also take into account the profit motives of a particular work. Hence, the repeated questions in court Monday over whether “Lexicon” was more a money grab or a “passion” project.

2. The “nature of the copyrighted work.” Is it fiction or nonfiction, published or unpublished? This guideline isn’t particularly applicable in this case, as nobody argues, for instance, that Dumbledore or Harry Potter are in any sense “real.”

In testimony Monday, Rowling touched on this when comparing a description she wrote of a “Chinese fireball” with one from “Lexicon,” stating that it wasn’t as if they were both describing giraffes. “It’s not as if we are describing something that exists outside my imagination,” she said.

Interestingly, under this guideline, if Rowling actually had a written copy of her long-promised “Harry Potter Encyclopedia,” it might be afforded protection even though it was unpublished.

3. “The amount … of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole.” How much of the whole text appears in the work? Generally speaking, the less you use, the more likely that it’s fair use, but of course there are instances in which you can quote the entirety of something and get away with it.

At its most basic, this guideline asks whether or not a user takes only the material needed for his or her intended purpose. Vander Ark’s purpose, of course, is to be a comprehensive compendium of all things Potter, so naturally he’s going to be taking a lot.

4. What is the effect of the use on potential market value? Will the publication of “The Harry Potter Lexicon” take away from sales of “Harry Potter” or stop anyone from seeing the movie, buying toys or going to the soon-to-be opened theme park? Almost certainly not, of course. But it’s an avenue Rowling’s lawyers are exploring in earnest. This was especially evident in Rowling’s testimony. “This trial has decimated my creative work over the last month,” she said. “You lose the [plot] threads and worry whether you’ll be able to pick them up again. Should my fans be flooded with a surfeit of substandard books — so-called lexicons — I’m not sure I’d have the will or heart to continue.”

In consideration of this guideline, courts ask: Is the work a direct substitute? (It would be, if Rowling had written her own encyclopedia.) They also ask: Could potential harm exist beyond being a direct substitute? (It could if Rowling didn’t write her own encyclopedia.)

Using the above guidelines, what do you think of Rowling’s case? Sound off below.