Pop Culture

Judge: ‘Harry Potter’ case could be close call

J.K. Rowling and a publisher who wants to release an unauthorized lexicon to her Harry Potter novels should try to settle the copyright dispute out of court, a judge said Wednesday. U.S. District Judge Robert Patterson Jr. said the copyright infringement case was a legal close call, involving unresolved areas of American law, and was almost certain to end in years of appeals. "I think this case, with imagination, could be settled," Patterson said on the third day of the trial in Manhattan federal court. The judge made a similar suggestion at the close of Tuesday's court session. The lawyers for both sides have settled some sections of the suit, but appear to be resolved to continue the litigation. Lawyers for the British writer and Warner Bros., which holds intellectual property rights to the Potter books and films, rested their case Wednesday morning, saying they believed they had proven that "The Harry Potter Lexicon" took too much copyrighted material from Rowling's work. The lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Dale Margaret Cendali, said she still planned to call Rowling to the stand for a second time later in the trial to rebut testimony offered by the defendant, RDR Books. So far, the trial has featured two days of emotional testimony, first by Rowling, then by the fan who wrote the unauthorized guide, former middle school librarian Steven Vander Ark. The court has also heard from dueling experts from the publishing industry. Suzanne Murphy, a vice president at Scholastic, which published the Harry Potter novels in the U.S., testified for the plaintiffs that the lexicon could find plenty of buyers, even though it is a somewhat "poor" book largely put together by fans. The lexicon is mostly a print version of portions of an expansive Web site created by the 50-year-old Vander Ark. Assembled in just a month, it is organized like an encyclopedia and includes lists of characters, creatures, places and spells from the novels. Vander Ark's publisher, RDR Books, solicited testimony from publishing consultant Bruce Harris, who said the book was likely to sell only a few thousand copies to dedicated Potter fans and presented no threat to Rowling's sales.

In his opening statement, RDR lawyer Anthony Falzone 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.

The nonjury trial will be decided by Patterson, 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.

The trial comes eight months after the publication of Rowling's final book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." The seven 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.