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J.K. Rowling testifes: Fan’s book is ‘wholesale theft’

J.K. Rowling testified before a packed courtroom in a lawsuit to block publication of a Harry Potter lexicon, telling a judge that the book amounts to a “wholesale theft” of nearly 20 years of her hard work.
/ Source: The Associated Press

J.K. Rowling testified before a packed courtroom in a lawsuit to block publication of a Harry Potter lexicon, telling a judge that the book amounts to a “wholesale theft” of nearly 20 years of her hard work.

“We all know I’ve made enough money. That’s absolutely not why I’m here,” Rowling told the judge Monday District Court.

The British author sued Michigan-based RDR Books last year to stop publication of Steven Vander Ark’s “Harry Potter Lexicon,” claiming copyright infringement. Vander Ark runs the popular Harry Potter Lexicon Web site, and RDR wants to publish a print version of the site and charge $24.95.

Rowling claims the book is nothing more than a rearrangement of her own material and told the judge it copied so much of her work that it amounted to plagiarism.

“I think it’s atrocious. I think it’s sloppy. I think there’s very little research,” she testified. “This book constitutes wholesale theft of 17 years of my hard work.”

She also said she has recently started work on her own encyclopedia and plans to donate resulting profits to charity, though she added that she does not expect to complete it for two to three years because she wants to do it right. If Vander Ark’s lexicon is published, “I’m not at all convinced that I would have the will or the heart to continue with my encyclopedia,” she said.

RDR’s lawyer, Anthony Falzone, in an opening statement defended the lexicon as a reference guide, calling it a legitimate effort “to organize and discuss the complicated and very elaborate world of Harry Potter.” The small publisher is not contesting that the lexicon infringes upon Rowling’s copyright but argues that it is a fair use allowable by law for reference books.

‘I’m not delighted’
Rowling said she believed that a victory by Vander Ark could damage the Harry Potter name and embolden imitators.

“Should it be published, I firmly believe that carte blanche will be given to anyone who wants to make a quick bit of money, to divert some Harry Potter profits into their own pockets. ... I’m not delighted to have work I consider to be this shoddy associated with Harry Potter,” she said.

The non-jury trial will be decided by U.S. District Judge Robert Patterson Jr., who must determine whether the use of the material is legal because Vander Ark added his own interpretation, creativity and analysis. The testimony and arguments could last most of the week. Rowling will spend her breaks in the seclusion of a jury room, away from fans of her wildly popular series.

The trial comes eight months after Rowling published her seventh and final book in the series. The books have been published in 64 languages, sold more than 400 million copies and produced a film franchise that has pulled in $4.5 billion at the worldwide box office.

In sometimes emotional testimony, Rowling recalled starting work on the first book in 1991 when she was 25 and so destitute that she sometimes had to choose between purchasing typewriter ribbon and food. She said the Harry Potter characters were a fantasy world to which she could escape from the hard work of raising a child on welfare as a single mother.

Rowling choked up when her lawyer, Dale Cendali, asked what Harry Potter meant to her.

“I really don’t want to cry because I’m British you know,” the mother of three said. Then she added, “These characters continue to mean so much to me over a long period of time. It’s very difficult for someone who is not a writer to understand what it means to the creator. The closest you could come is to say, ‘How do you feel about your children?’ These books, they saved me.”

‘It offers precious little in return’
Rowling, who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, with her husband and children, also testified she had stopped work on a new novel because the lawsuit has “decimated my creative work over the last month.”

She said Vander Ark sometimes simply translated a Latin word. “Any 7-year-old with a pocket Latin dictionary could do that.”

“There are incorrect translations, there are incorrect etymologies and there are places where Mr. Vander Ark quite literally has not understood the books,” she said.

Outside court, she read a statement saying she was fine with lots of books in many languages that comment on or criticize Harry Potter.

“But the book in this case is different. It provided no analysis and virtually no commentary. It takes far too much and it offers precious little in return,” she said.

Vander Ark, 50, has said he joined an adult online discussion group devoted to the “Harry Potter” books in 1999 before launching his own Web site as a hobby a year later. The Web site attracts about 1.5 million page views per month and contributions from people all over the world.

He said he initially declined proposals to convert the Web site into an encyclopedia, in part because he believed until last August that in book form, it would represent a copyright violation.

‘I never censored it’
After Rowling released the final chapter in the “Harry Potter” series last July, Vander Ark was contacted by an RDR Books employee, who told him that publication of the lexicon would not violate copyright law, he said. Still, to protect himself, Vander Ark said he insisted that RDR Books include a clause in his contract that the publisher would defend and pay any damages that might result from claims against him.

He said it was decided that the lexicon would include sections from the Lexicon Web site that give descriptions and commentary on individual names, places, spells and creatures from Harry Potter stories.

Rowling acknowledged she once bestowed an award on Vander Ark’s Web site because, she said, she wanted to encourage a very enthusiastic fan.

But she said she “almost choked on my coffee” one morning when she realized Vander Ark had warned others not to copy portions of his Web site. She said she now has second thoughts about all the encouragement she has given to online discussions and Web sites devoted to her books.

“I never censored it or wanted to censor it,” she said, adding that if she loses the lawsuit, she will conclude she essentially gave away her copyrights by encouraging the Web sites.

“Other authors will say, ‘I need to exercise more control. She was an idiot. She let it all go,’” Rowling said.