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Harry Potter's Mom Picks a Legal Fight

J.K. Rowling's copyright dispute -- The ''Harry Potter'' author is working to keep unauthorized encyclopedias off bookshelves

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is a brilliant feat of imagination that got a generation of videogame- and TV-obsessed kids to pick up a book again. Now she's going to painstaking lengths to make sure that there's one book they'll never get to read.

Rowling took the stand in a Manhattan courtroom April 14 in an effort to block the publication of The Harry Potter Lexicon, a 400-page reference manual based on an online fan hub that Rowling herself once dubbed ''a great site.'' Citing her own plans to write a Potter encyclopedia, the author teared up while testifying. But the ordeal made her look like Draco Malfoy picking on Harry. In this case, Harry's stand-in is author Steve Vander Ark, who's working with tiny Muskegon, Mich.-based RDR Books to publish just 10,000 copies of the guide. (That's roughly 0.002667 percent of all the Potter books that exist worldwide.) It's hard to believe that Vander Ark's Lexicon would poach more copyrighted material than can already be found in other unauthorized offerings such as The Complete Idiot's Guide to the World of Harry Potter.

This case may wind its way through the courts for a while, but an ultimate ruling in Rowling's favor would set a dangerous precedent that could jeopardize film compilations, unauthorized biographies, and all kinds of pop culture guides that use snippets of the works they cover. ''Authors have a notion that, 'I wrote this and therefore I can control all uses of it,''' says Corynne McSherry, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. ''That's not really how it works. Anyone who's a huge Harry Potter fan is going to buy her [encyclopedia], too, and she's going to add value that no one else could.''
With additional reporting by Lindsay Soll

Originally posted Apr 18, 2008 Published in issue #988-989 Apr 25, 2008 Order article reprints