Why Harry Potter fans can’t compete

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World bestselling author J.K. Rowling and Time Warner go to trial March 13 against Steven Vander Ark’s unauthorized encyclopedia, the Harry Potter Lexicon. The court’s decision may crack down on how much creative freedom fans have over any work.

Unofficial Web sites boasting discussion forums, news, trivia and fan fiction for books, TV shows, movies and video games–anything from Harry Potter to Lost to Star Trek to Final Fantasy--may be impacted. Entertainment opens the door to new universes that fans revel in by allowing their imaginations to soar. Many authors, such as Joss Whedon who created the Buffy series, and is currently writing season eight in comic book form, embrace fan contributions as free promotion.

Plagiarism is sometimes blatant, and other times unintentional. The latter happens frequently because the lines around plagiarism are so grey. According to dictionary.law.com, plagiarism is “taking the writings or literary concepts (a plot, characters, words) of another and selling and/or publishing them as one’s own product.”

So it seems that only Rowling should be able to publish books regarding Harry Potter. Yet, bookstore shelves are crammed with scores of unauthorized Harry Potter reference books by various authors such as The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the World of Harry Potter by Tere Stouffer and The Book of Harry Potter Trifles, Trivias and Particularities by Racheline Maltese.

As long as Vander Ark cites Rowling’s books as his source, he has not violated copyright anymore than hundreds of other authors. Reference books should be allowed as long as the original author receives royalties from the profits. It would be similar to legalities surrounding music. Anyone can cover a song without permission from the initial artist as long as they give the original creator royalties.

In the past, Rowling reported to the media that she supports fan fiction. Web sites such as fanfiction.net and sugarquill.net possess thousands of stories based on Harry Potter. Francisca Solar, disappointed by the fifth Harry Potter book, wrote her own sequel, The Decline of the High Elves. The book became an online hit, generating 80,000 positive reviews from global fans that thought it was better than the Rowling book. There was no lawsuit against Solar. Instead, Random House offered her a book deal for her own series La Septima M.

Yet, since 2002 Rowling has filed lawsuits against Russian author Dimitri Yemetz’s series about Tanya Grotter, who wears round spectacles and attends a school named Abracadabra for delinquent witches. He states that the characters and stories in his books are based on Russian folklore, culture and traditions parodying the Harry Potter series. Parodies can use characters or similar characters and ideas without violating U.S. laws against plagiarism, according to www.plagiarism.org. Still, due to Rowling’s litigation, Yemetz’s books cannot legally be published in English.

These are just some examples of how the lines of plagiarism are blurred. The consequences for plagiarism are steep, regardless of whether it is accidental or not. According to www.plagiarism.org, “If a plagiarist receives more than $2,500 for copyrighted material, he or she may face up to $250,000 in fines and up to 10 years in jail!”

Plagiarism is also more prevalent than one may think. According to the surveys in US News and World Report “75 percent of college students admitted cheating, and 90 percent of college students didn’t believe cheaters would be caught” and “almost 85 percent of college students said cheating was necessary to get ahead.”

Stephen King has stated several times, “The story is more important than the writer.” I couldn’t agree more. The Harry Potter series has rocketed Rowling to the 2007 and 2008 Forbes billionaire lists, but more importantly, some readers have admitted that the books have changed their life. Perhaps it gave them the motivation to read more. Perhaps it gave them inspiration, relaxation or happiness through tantalizing their imagination. It may be a different story if Rowling was some small fry, but now she is almost as much an icon as Harry Potter. Regardless to what others publish about Harry Potter, any of Rowling’s books will still sell millions of copies.

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