Harry Potter case illustrates blurry line in copyright law

For a time, "Harry Potter" superfan Steven Vander Ark seemed to be living a geeky dream. ( AP )

His Web site - an obsessive catalog of spells, characters and creatures in J.K. Rowling's novels - was a hit among fellow fanatics. He spoke at conventions. Journalists sought him out for interviews. He was a guest on NBC's "Today" show.

Better still, Rowling knew who he was. She gave his site, The Harry Potter Lexicon, an award and confessed that she occasionally used its online encyclopedia as a reference. Warner Bros. invited him onto the set of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." He even made it on to the DVD, appearing in a documentary included as a special feature.

But all that changed after a little-known publishing company, RDR Books, announced it would release a print version of the lexicon. The author and Warner Bros. sued, asking a judge to block publication on the grounds that it violated copyright law, and the case went to trial this week.

The dispute has thrust Vander Ark into the middle of a closely watched case that illustrates the muddled state of copyright law enforcement when it comes to the Web.

Computers have given just about everyone the ability to copy sections of books, movies or songs and whip them into something new that they can post on the Internet.

The Web is awash with fan-produced material that could be the subject of a copyright fight, from remixed pop songs, to new fiction based on existing characters from books and TV shows, to countless tribute videos cut together with clips from TV shows or films.

"There is almost a parallel universe," said Alan Behr, an intellectual property lawyer in New York. "On the Internet, people basically do things you would never do in print."

And, for the most part, Behr said, the big media companies that own the material being mashed up and manipulated let it slide. There are simply too many offenders to chase, he said.

Warner Bros. and Rowling took a different approach when they sued on Halloween last year. During a three-day trial that concluded Wednesday, Rowling savaged Vander Ark as a plagiarist and a thief, saying the lexicon ripped off too much material from her books. It all reduced Vander Ark to tears at one point during the trial.

It was a surprising departure for Rowling, who has encouraged so-called "fan fiction" and once said there is nothing wrong with people writing new stories for her characters, to share with friends.

The author and her lawyers said they were stirred to action by the proposal to move the Potter lexicon from the anything-goes Web, where it was available for free, into book form, where it would compete directly with a Potter encyclopedia that Rowling plans to write herself.

In short, by deciding to sell his material, Vander Ark was stepping across a line. He was no longer just an enthusiastic fan, but a professional and potential competitor - fair game for the lawyers.

The question now for the courts is whether the lexicon itself violates copyright law, and the decision may not be easy.

U.S. rules allow for the "fair use" of copyrighted material in unauthorized works, but there are limits. Journalists may quote from films and books when writing a review. Scholars can use excerpts from a novel while penning an author's biography.

Generally, the call on whether such uses are legal comes down to how much material was taken and how different the end product is from the original work.

Lawrence Pulgram, an intellectual property lawyer who represented Napster in a copyright fight with the rock band Metallica, said deciding where to draw the line is rarely easy.

"Fair use is the most erratically applied doctrine in copyright," he said.

Works like Vander Ark's lexicon fall into one of the tougher categories. It takes the form of an A-to-Z list of the hundreds of characters and place names from her books, followed by brief entries summarizing how they fit into the plot. There is also information on the origin of some of her characters in mythology and folklore.

Rowling and her legal team acknowledged that readers' guides like the lexicon are, in fact, allowed under the law, but made the case that Vander Ark simply took too much material.

U.S. District Judge Robert Patterson Jr. indicated that the case could go either way and encouraged both sides to settle. He suggested that a creative negotiation might produce a book that both sides could live with.

Rowling said during her testimony that Vander Ark could still do his book, as long as he changed it to take less of her material.

"I never ever once wanted to stop Mr. Vander Ark from doing his own guide. Never ever," she said, before asking the judge again to block it in its current form.

RDR Books Publisher Roger Rapoport said he was open to the idea of revisions but said that neither Warner Bros. or Rowling have indicated a willingness to compromise.

He also questioned whether there was a danger in granting artists too much control over books about them. Should an author, he asked, be able to kill any unauthorized biography, simply because they don't like it?

"We would have to get approval before we could write or publish on people's work. They would control critical commentary on their work, at any time, whether it is our kind of book or an Associated Press article," Rapoport said. "It would create total chaos in the area of critical commentary. Frankly, I don't think that would be good for anyone, even the authors themselves."

Patterson is not expected to make a decision in the case for at least a month.

Iran’s Rouhani asks for release of frozen assets in Iraqi banks
Iran’s Rouhani asks for release of frozen assets in Iraqi banks
Accumulative life insurance market in Azerbaijan grows
Accumulative life insurance market in Azerbaijan grows
Iranian medicine importers awaiting approval of FATF related conventions
Iranian medicine importers awaiting approval of FATF related conventions
Loading Bars
Spanish La Vanguardia: Return to Azerbaijan's Karabakh after war
Azerbaijan’s export of ferrous metal products down
Turkmenbashi Oil Refineries opens tender for purchase of gasoline
Britain's M&S expands online business to over 100 markets
Dustbin of history - place for former Armenian president Kocharian, 'Karabakh clan' - historian
Khazar Consortium opens tender to purchase cementing unit
Turkey’s food retail chain Migros to bolster gender-equal workforce and greener stores
Iran Mercantile Exchange working to expand sale of goods
Iran reveals COVID-19 data for March 8
Modi to inaugurate Maitri Setu between India and Bangladesh on Tuesday
India's Covid Vaccine Rollout "Rescued The World": Top US Scientist
India pre-eminent partner of US in Indo-Pacific region: Blinken tells Jaishankar
Bachendri Pal to lead all women team aged above 50 in a 5 month long Himalayan expedition
Satellite set for Mar 28 launch will provide near real time images of borders, quick monitoring of natural disasters
Sikh Fighter Pilot Memorial In UK To Honour Indians Who Fought In World Wars
IMF, Georgia review agenda of bilateral cooperation
Iranian President and Irish FM discuss JCPOA
Iran reserves strategic basic goods
Iran’s Rouhani asks for release of frozen assets in Iraqi banks
Iranian parliament approves increase of salaries to aid low incomes
Iran not to allocate Nowruz gasoline quota due to COVID-19
Uzbekneftegaz establishing production of import-substituting products for industrial enterprises
Iran to obtain its funds frozen in Iraq
Georgia opens new enterprise with support of Rural Development Agency
Interest in entrepreneurship growing among women in Azerbaijan
Export of cotton from Azerbaijan greatly increases in Jan. 2021
Mubarek oil&gas production dep’t owned by Uzbekneftegaz to increase natural gas production
Uzbekistan reveals its COVID-19 data for March 8
Iran unveils number of mining facilities put into operation
Japanese businessmen visit Azerbaijan’s Guba genocide memorial complex (PHOTO)
Development of Iran's Siyahmakan oil field launched
Nearly half of non-oil sector taxes in Azerbaijan falls on mobile operator in 2020
Azerbaijan's Azercell reveals number of processed requests in 2020
Azerbaijan's Jan. 2021 imports from EU show increase
Accumulative life insurance market in Azerbaijan grows
Iran capable of building long water transfer pipelines - Iranian VP
Deliveroo launches London IPO after business surges in 2020
Iran to publish final report of the downed Ukrainian jet soon
No direct or indirect relations between Iran and US - Iranian Foreign Ministry
Approval of FATF related bills would increase Iran's export revenue - Iranian Union
Iranian medicine importers awaiting approval of FATF related conventions
Turkey records slight decrease in car exports abroad
Cement exports from Turkey to global markets grow
Azerbaijan shows footage from Zangilan's Garagoz village (VIDEO)
Turkey's revenues from export of grains, legumes to global markets up
Moscow hosts opening ceremony of another 'Gifts of Azerbaijan' stand
Turkmenistan sells diesel fuel, gasoline to number of countries
Baku celebrating International Women's Day (PHOTO)
Kazakhstan's exports to Portugal plummet amid COVID-19
Kazakhstan boosts trade turnover with Lithuania
Oil supply to exceed demand in 2022, says JP Morgan
Georgia sees decrease in COVID-19 cases
Uzbekistan's gold deposit ranks in list of world's biggest gold mines by production
Azerbaijan's digital infrastructure project to generate Digital Silk Road between Europe, C.Asia
U.S. says all options on table for a decision on Afghanistan
Growth rate of agricultural production in Turkmenistan increases
Uzbekneftegaz reveals volume of oil products manufactured in 2M2021
Azerbaijan's First VP congratulates Azerbaijani women on International Women's Day
JP Morgan reveals 2021 oil demand & supply forecasts
Boom in Iran's housing sector create new jobs for local force
JP Morgan says OPEC to boost supply in 2021
OPEC crude output to exceed 30 mbpd in 2022 – JP Morgan
Uzbekistan, India talk mutual phytosanitary permits for agricultural products
Turkmenistan exceeds plan for transport, communication sector
Weekly review of Azerbaijani oil market
Nepal PM Oli receives first jab of Indian-made COVID-19 vaccine
Iran's economic development declines
IAM Construction LLC to reconstruct facility in Azerbaijan’s Seaside Park
Azerbaijan’s state interests on Azerbaijani-Armenian border protected at highest level
China's focus on annual GDP targets gives greater policy flexibility
Iran's CBI reveals amount of loans issued in Iran's trade sector
Buy/sell operations at Iran Mercantile Exchange on the rise
Iran kicks off development of Ramin oil field in Khuzestan Province
Iran reveals amount of loans issued in housing and construction sector
Iranian currency rates for March 8
Iranian banks issue big loans to agricultural sector
Iran boosts development of Zilayi oil field
Iran boosts exports via Zanjan Province
Iran's exports to Azerbaijan not on high enough level - Ali Jahangiri
State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan enters top five most transparent sovereign wealth funds
Large-amount loans issued in Iran's services sector
Excavations at Iran's South Pars gas field continue
Significant work done on water and electricity sectors in Iran – minister
Azerbaijan’s Buta Airways low-cost airline to resume flights from Baku to Ukraine’s Kyiv
Iran implements plan to maintain, increase extraction from several oil fields
Turkmenistan sees increase in trade turnover volumes
Japan government spokesman says timing of Biden-Suga meeting undecided
Exports to Iraq via Mehran crossing top $460m
Kazakhstan’s daily COVID-19 case count stands at 653
Weekly review of Azerbaijani ICT sector highlights
GE nears deal to combine aircraft-leasing unit with AerCap
Reopening schools a "national effort" to beat coronavirus - UK PM
Iran to construct new seaport making it largest in country
France ramps up weekend COVID-19 vaccinations after slow start
U.S. administers 90.35 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines
Swiss agree to outlaw facial coverings in 'burqa ban' vote
UK reports 82 new COVID-19 deaths
White House cites 'active threat,' urges action despite Microsoft patch
Iran's South Pars Gas Company declares gas production volumes
President Ilham Aliyev makes Facebook post on International Women's Day
All news