Rowling leaving the courthouse on Wednesday.
Having filed suit against Muskegon, Mich.-based publisher RDR Books last fall, J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. saw their case tried in federal court this week. The trial centered around RDR’s intended publication of The Harry Potter Lexicon by Steven Vander Ark, based on Vander Ark’s Web site of the same name, which included an alphabetical listing of and details about all of the characters, spells, places and creatures in Rowling’s Harry Potter universe. Rowling and Warner Bros. contended that the language in the Lexicon was plagiarized from Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, companion books and other materials.
On multiple occasions, U.S. District Court Judge Robert P. Patterson expressed his opinion that this was a case that “could be settled and should be settled” out of court, as well as his concerns that the case seemed “lawyer-driven” as opposed to “client-driven,” but the case proceeded nonetheless. In opening remarks, the plaintiff lawyer Dale Cendali stated her intention to show that the Lexicon “takes too much and does too little” with Rowling’s work, while Anthony Falzone, for the defense, said that Vander Ark had met the standards of fair use in his adaptation of the material.
Rowling’s testimony on Monday was certainly one of the most anticipated moments in the trial, and she delivered an emotional account—tearing up at one point—of how the trial has disrupted her own creative process, and she underlined the importance of the case for all authors’ rights. “These characters mean so much to me,” Rowling said. “It’s difficult for someone who’s not a writer to understand what it’s like.” She said she found the Lexicon’s manuscript to be a “travesty” and noted that, in particular, her own Potter companion books, Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, had been “plundered” by the Lexicon.
RDR publisher Roger Rapoport also testified on Monday. RDR had approached Vander Ark about adapting the encyclopedic section of the Lexicon Web site last summer, and Rapoport was questioned on whether RDR attempted to rush the book to market to capitalize on publicity surrounding the release of the seventh Harry Potter book. He responded that it was simply a matter of “getting books out quickly,” adding that “in publishing that’s very common.”
Rapoport was also asked if he had attempted to keep the Lexicon secret from houses that publish Rowling’s books, and about RDR’s apparent attempts to sell foreign rights for the book, even after receiving cease-and-desist letters from Rowling’s and Warner Bros.’ attorneys. On the allegations of secrecy, Rapoport said, “We don’t generally talk about our books until they’re ready to go,” and of his unresponsiveness to the attorneys, he stood by his prior claim that a family tragedy had prevented a more timely response.Asked about RDR’s indemnification of Vander Ark against any potential claims of copyright infringement (which is the opposite of the usual contract provision), Rapoport testified that it was something he felt “very comfortable” doing.
Publishing executives and academics took the stand on the second and third days of the trial as expert witnesses, offering opposing opinions on whether the Lexicon might find success in the market and compete with Rowling’s own current works and long-planned Potter encyclopedia, and the degree to which the Lexicon itself could be considered a work of reference.
Suzanne Murphy, v-p and publisher, trade publishing and marketing at Scholastic, Rowling’s U.S. publisher, called the Lexicon’s potential “first to market” advantage a “key selling point,” and added that the book “had the potential to do quite well,” based on the popularity of the Lexicon Web site. However, Bruce Harris, current publishing consultant and veteran publisher of Crown and Workman, said that, based on his research and experience, the Lexicon wouldn’t pose a threat to an author as popular as Rowling.
Speaking to the Lexicon’s usefulness as a reference tool, Dr. Janet Sorensen, a professor of literature at the University of California, Berkeley, said that the book fit on a “spectrum” of guides to literature and that she herself found it helpful when navigating Rowling’s world when preparing for the trial. Jeri Johnson, senior tutor and fellow at Oxford University’s Exeter College, however, found the Lexicon’s quality lacking and said that it didn’t meet the definition of any standard type of reference book.
Vander Ark testified on Tuesday and delivered emotional moments of his own, breaking down at one point like Rowling. When asked if he still considered himself part of the Harry Potter community, after amending his answer of “I did” to “I do,” he said, “It’s been difficult because there’s been a lot of criticism and obviously that was never the intention.” Vander Ark defended his work as a “ready reference” for fans of the series and said that he himself looked forward to reading Rowling’s own encyclopedia, if and when she wrote one.
“Are we or are we not the owners of our own work?” asked Rowling when she returned to the stand on Wednesday during rebuttal, as she compared what she saw as the theft of her words to the removal of all the plums from a cake she might have baked. She also objected to the idea that her fame meant she had less of a right to her own creative content. “Somehow because my work is successful, I’ve weakened my own right to copyright?”
Following closing arguments by Cendali and Falzone, the parties agreed to a May 9 deadline for filing additional documents to Judge Patterson, so a ruling should not be expected for some time.