Harry Potter and the Plagiarist's Spellbook

As my dissertation is once again gnashing its teeth at me -- these things turn on you if you don't feed them -- I thought I'd spend a minute luxuriating in yet another run-in of contemporary pop culture and my eighteenth-century literary interests.

For a more detailed and no doubt intelligent explication of what follows, I refer you to this article.

The item in my glib and unnecessarily condemnatory post title is (as those of you more versed in Harry Potter paratexts and fan fiction generally will know) more than a collection of the charms scattered throughout Rowling's series of books. I haven't been to the site whereat the document originated and frankly I can't be asked, but from what I've gathered it seems one Steven Vander Ark has compiled a collection of Potternalia and organized it into something of an online reference source (a "Harry Potter Lexicon"). It got accolades and commendations from Rowling herself and was generally well-thought of until someone got the bright idea of putting it on paper and making it available for sale, thus taking it out of the comfortably not-for-profit world of web-based mega-coterie circulation. Rowling et al. have (somewhat suddenly) labeled Vander Ark a thief and a plagiarist and are suing him for copyright violation.

The legal representative of the press behind the lexicon calls it a legal way "to organize and discuss the complicated and very elaborate world of Harry Potter."

Rowling says the lexicon "fails to include any of the commentary and discussion that enrich the Web site" and calls it 'nothing more than a rearrangement' of her own material."

The haphazard application of fair-use principles and the number of virtual violators of copyright law can render the web a sort of Knockturn Alley with respect to intellectual property. What's REALLY at stake is Rowling's not wanting someone horning in on her future profits--she plans to put out her own Potterpedia and is understandably, if jealously, guarding her market share. But it's more fun to consider the question from the perspective of originality, and the old problem of what it is precisely that an author owns. In terms of legal action, this question goes back at least to the early 18th century, when the passage of the Statute of Queen Anne in 1710 first established authorial ownership privileges. The author, as the act would have it, "owns" the arrangement of the words that constitute the text. This arrangement is unique and cannot be duplicated without the author's giving permission or receiving compensation, within a stipulated number of years.

That's all well and good, and though the act was scarcely enforced (hardly any authors presented cases before courts in the first ten years of the act's passing) it still set up something of a groundwork.

The issue, however, complex as it is, gets even more complicated with the case of encyclopedias, which is what the HP Lexicon purports to be. Throughout the eighteenth century, and particularly in its latter half and last quarter, encyclopedias pilfered from primary sources and each other with relative impunity. William Smellie, compiler of the first Encyclopedia Britannica, claimed to have put the thing together with a pair of scissors. Though he wrote a few entries himself, he touted his great contribution to the world of knowledge as having far more to do with the arrangement and organization of his materials than his role in producing the materials themselves.

One might also think of the quasiencyclopedic texts put out in the wake of Richardson's Clarissa, which are probably more in keeping with this case: a book or books the length of which make information organization difficult necessitate (and I think necessitate is a reasonable word to use, here) a kind of generic intercession. Something must help the reader to organize the information by deconstructing the system it constituted; the mind cannot hold it all at once, and must look elsewhere for assistance on those occasions when supplementary memory is required. The novels, because they are novels, and because the generic codes that delineate them from encyclopedias have nicely hardened up in the aftermath of Tristram Shandy, no longer have embedded encyclopedical (another neologism!) features. Novels scarcely ever have indexes (editions of Richardson's novels did), and some very few have glossaries (the articles refer to Vander Ark's text as an encyclopedia, he calls it a lexicon--there's a difference, but don't ask them what it is).

This is not to say that Vander Ark hasn't stepped over the line; his A-Z rearrangement of Rowling's texts may well constitute a violation of current US and/or UK copyright law. What I take immense pleasure in is the fact that this problem of copyright and encyclopedic reconstitution has been around for a couple of hundred years and we still haven't entirely sorted out precisely how to deal with it.

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