The clash of perspectives between author J.K. Rowling and Warner Brothers versus Michigan-based publisher RDR Books was evident from the beginning of the first day of testimony today in U.S. District Court in downtown Manhattan. The defense’s lead trial counsel David Hammer introduced his client Roger Rapoport, RDR’s publisher, as “the person without whom none of us would be here today,” after which the plaintiffs’ counsel, Dale Cendali of O’Melveny & Myers, noted that Rowling might better fit that description.
The case centers on RDR Books’ intended publication of The Harry Potter Lexicon by Steven Vander Ark, which is based on the Web site of the same name that Vander Ark has maintained for the past seven years. During opening arguments, Cendali said that the plaintiff would demonstrate “massive, wholesale and willful copying” on the part of RDR and would seek a permanent injunction against the book’s publication. Anthony Falzone, head of the Stanford University Law School Fair Use Project, said that “transformation is at the core of fair use,” and that Vander Ark met the standards of fair use in his adaptation of Rowling’s material.
Rowling was the first witness, and during questioning by Cendali, she explained the sometimes dire financial straits she faced during the seven years it took her to write the first book. She choked up for a moment when asked what Harry Potter meant to her. “These characters mean so much to me,” she said. “It’s difficult for someone who’s not a writer to understand what it’s like. These books—they saved me.”
Rowling testified that she found the manuscript for the Lexicon to be “lazy” and a “travesty,” adding that it merely paraphrased her works and didn’t add anything other than “facetious asides and etymologies of the easiest kind.” She noted that her own companion books would suffer particularly if it were allowed to be published. “Quidditch[Through the Ages] has been plundered by the Lexicon. I see no reason anyone would buy it,” if the Lexicon were to be published.
Throughout cross-examination by Hammer, Rowling’s tone remained pointed. Of her decision to give the Lexicon Web site a “fan award” in 2004, she said that it was more of an “A for effort,” and that it had been a reflection of the amount of time invested in the site—not its quality. Rowling noted that many entries in the Lexicon seemed inadequate and brief; when Hammer responded that the quantity of material might have been a factor in the length of entries, she said, “It’s a lot of work. I remember because I did it.”
Rapoport was cross-examined following Rowling’s testimony (Vander Ark isn’t named in the suit, because the indemnification clause in his contract with RDR holds the publisher, not the author, culpable for any potential copyright issues). When asked why he would agree to be responsible for any possible infringement, Rapoport said, “It was something I felt very comfortable doing.”
The publisher was also asked if RDR attempted to rush the book to market to capitalize on publicity following the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathy Hallows. Rapoport denied the allegation and said that his company only wished “to get it out in a timely way.” The publisher also denied being aware of Rowling’s own plans to publish an encyclopedia of the Potter universe when he first contacted Vander Ark in summer 2007.
Rapoport was grilled on possibly exaggerating Rowling’s quote about the Lexicon Web site to promote the book as well as attempting to keep the Lexicon secret from houses that publish Rowling’s books—both of which he denied—as well as RDR’s continued attempts to sell foreign rights for the book, even after having been sent cease and desist letters by Rowling and Warner Brothers’ attorneys.
After Judge Patterson adjourned the courtroom for the day, Rowling gave a brief statement in front of the courthouse. “It gives me no pleasure to take legal action, but I am here today because I felt very strongly about an important issue that affects everyone and not just me,” she said. “If books that plagiarize other works are permitted, authors, fans and readers stand to lose.”
The trial will resume Tuesday morning at 9:30 and is expected to last several days.