Thursday, August 21, 2008

Harry Potter and the little guy

Dear Rich: I have a question. Why should I care about the Harry Potter case? Isn't it just another example of a huge megacorp using copyright law to crush the little guy? I'm so glad you asked. I don't know why you should care about the Harry Potter case. And I don't know why you should care enough to ask me why you should care about it. I don't even know why you should care about reading the answer to your question. What people care about and why they care about it is a mystery to me.
The Harry Potter lawsuit -- in which a publisher and author are attempting to stop publication of a Harry Potter lexicon -- is not an unusual copyright dispute. Maybe you're too young to remember when J.D. Salinger successfully stopped a biographer from using his unpublished letters, or when ex-president Ford stopped The Nation from printing excerpts from his unpublished memoir. But you must be old enough to remember when the producers of the television show Twin Peaks stopped publication of a Twin Peaks guide, or when the producers of Seinfeld stopped a company from publishing a book of trivia questions about the Seinfeld television series. (Talk about being re-gifted!) In these situations, the courts have done a pretty decent job of separating those cases in which the author is being exploited (not a fair use) from those cases in which the author is being explained (fair use).
As for using copyright law to crush the little guy, that knee-jerk characterization may apply in cases of RIAA smackdowns but misses the boat here. (If anything, the little guy, armed with high-tech copying tricks, has collectively done more to crush copyright than any megacorp -- check out the many illegal Potters and the frivolous Muggles-related lawsuit.) The lexicon's author knew what was at stake when he proceeded and even insisted on an indemnity clause -- a provision that saved him from having to pay any attorney fees, damages, or court costs. (Kudos to his attorney.) Time-Warner and Rowling have been reasonable in permitting the free web-based version of the lexicon for years. The lexicon's publisher understood the realities -- the real money is made selling copyrighted units of content.