Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Vander Ark/Rowling Brouhaha

I feel as if I need to comment regarding the lawsuit filed by J.K. Rowling against Steve Vander Ark and RDR Books.

I feel obligated if for no other reason than I publicly lauded Mr. Vander Ark previously on this blog when I castigated the interview of Jo Rowling conducted in 2005 by Melissa Anelli and Emerson Spartz and suggested that Vander Ark would have been a better choice.

I think at this point I need to make a disclosure about my previous interactions with Steve.

I consider him to be an acquaintance, not a fandom friend. I doubt that he would disagree with that assessment.

I have fandom friends. Some I have met in person, others only via the warmth of email correspondence.

A few fandom friends I have met in person. I also have fandom acquaintances that I have met, but have not developed any sustained correspondences.

In all likelihood, Steve probably does not really know or care who I am.

My fandom credentials were based primarily in the shipping realm and that is a topic he did not care much about.

I've corresponded with him a few times over the past six years. It would have been intermittant and also not at any real length. I have also met him twice.

Once was at Nimbus when he gave a presentation with my friend Penny Linsenmayer on the Geography of Harry Potter and I introduced myself to him after the talk. The second was at Sonorus this past June when I introduced myself to him before the talk.

Our talks were brief and well, perfunctory. I did not reference our intermittant email exchanges, nor try to engage him in speculations.

He may or may not have even recognized my name since I am sure he has corresponded with thousands of fandomers, whilst I could probably claim a tenth or less of that number.

Okay? I know him, but not well.

He came across as being the consummate fan. He was devoted to the Potterverse and spent countless hours obsessing over the minutest detail.

In fact it is due to his wildly popular website that I first realized some of the discrepancies in the books. Small, seemingly insignificant details such as dates of events not meshing with calendars. Or even the whole Marcus Flint being a burly 6th Year Slytherin in the first book, and that Flint should not still have been at Hogwarts during the third book.

Hence the term "Flint" to describe canon mistakes or "inconsistencies."

Steve is a powerful public speaker and his slide show presentation at Sonorus was fabulous.

I was not surprised to learn that he wanted to write a book chronicling all the work he did analyzing the series. I think there is a market for his book.

I was surprised to learn that Jo Rowling sought to stop the publication of his book.

First of all, I do not believe that it will compete at all with any future definitive encyclopedic book on the Harry Potter series that she will write.

It cannot.

She said that she would provide backstory for characters that due to space and other plot considerations did not appear in the books.

I for one would love to know more, much more about Sirius Black. Forget Dumbledore's sexuality, I want to know about Sirius's sex life. I want to know if he was straight, gay, bi-, tri- or a monk. If she does that, I will certainly buy one more of her books.

I expect that she will include things in her tome that have been cut from the books due to editorial decisions. She had an "Easter Egg" on her website of a song she wrote for Nearly-Headless Nick that was cut from the book. She also included sketches she made of characters. Those are cool extras. Things that Steve Vander Ark in a million years could not create, because he is not the author of the Harry Potter series.

He is merely someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time analyzing the series and categorizing it.

The two are not the same.

Anyone who is a fan of the series that is willing to plunk down $30 for Steve's book will certainly be willing to purchase Jo's book once it is available.

That said, I have read the lawsuit that was filed and am a bit dismayed at the response by RDR books.

It appears by the various press coverage that they have not provided Rowling or her legal representatives with a manuscript of the forthcoming book.

I do not understand why they were unwilling to do so.

If they were as careful to not infringe on her intellectual property rights as they claim, then they should have nothing to hide.

I do not know if they consulted with intellectual property attornies during the pre-production of the book or not, but they should have.

Just because J.K. Rowling's publishers have not sued the publishers of other Harry Potter companion books in the past is no guarantee that they would not in the future. If you were to have great chunks of text in the book, I would expect that she would want to be compensated.

They should have had an eye towards that possibility.

If they did not, then they were ill advised on the project.

According to The Leaky Cauldron's coverage, the initial correspondence by the lawyers representing Warner Brothers issuing cease and desist letters to RDR Books constituted:
"an attempt to open a dialogue. "

There is also this summation of the position from RDR:

RDR claims not to have given JKR’s people a copy of the book because “we don’t have a copy to give them…because the book hasn’t been published yet.” Asked why they didn’t hand over a manuscript, Mr. Harris said, “how would it benefit us in any way? This is the result of a barrage of letters from their lawyers in the last two months. Late i the game they came forward and wanted to see the manuscript, after they’ve been threatening to sue us and everything. How is it going to help us in any way to show them the manuscript except to provide them with more information. At this stage are they going to say, ‘Oh, we’re sorry?’ and go away? I don’t think so.”

Excuse me, but if you have garnered the interest of WB's lawyers they will want to make sure that their legal rights have not been infringed. Prior or post publication if they do not like your book, they will probably sue.

Warner Brothers is a huge company, RDR Books is a small publisher. I would bet that WB is can afford to incure massive legal bills more than RDR Books.

Even if the judgment goes RDR's way and they are allowed to publish the book as is and without giving any monetary compensation to WB, there is no guarantee that any judge will obligate WB to pay RDR's legal bills.

I think RDR should have shown their manuscript to Warner Brothers' legal counsel and then made any modifications if that would have resolved the issue.

None of the approximately 30 companion books on the market received any permission from Jo Rowling, Scholastic, Bloomsbury, Raincoast, or Warner Brothers as far as I am aware. This is the first time that I believe she has sued to stop a companion book.

One other interesting thing to note is that there is another Harry Potter themed book that might be released on the same date of November 28th, 2007 that Steve Vander Ark's book is due out. This book actually has the word "encyclopedic" in its title:

Mugglenet.com's Unofficial Harry Potter Companion: The Encyclopedic Guide to the Books, Movies and More by Emerson Spartz and Ben Schoen.

However, then again that book might have been killed.

It is listed on Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk. There are no cover images, but that is not an unusual thing for Amazon.com . I have seen forthcoming books that are due out in paperback that would have the same cover as the hardcover version not having an image shown on Amazon.

The Canadian site has a different availability date than the American or British websites. It says:
Availability: Currently unavailable. We don't know when or if this item will be back in stock.

More ominous is that the book is not mentioned anywhere on the publisher's website. One would think that since their best selling title was the previous Mugglenet.com's book that they would proudly be mentioning a follow up book by the same authors.

They aren't.

The only mention of an upcoming title for their teen category is Secret Book of Dragons due out in January 2008.

So it may be that Ulysses Press was contacted by JKR's lawyers and the project was scuttled.

If so, I'd like that to be part of the press coverage.

If on the other hand, the Mugglenet.com book comes out later this month and Ulysses Press worked with her lawyers to alleviate any concerns regarding her intellectual rights, then I think that should be discussed in the press coverage as well.

Moving on to a related topic:

The disputed timeline.

I remember after the DVD of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets came out that there was a bit of elation in the fandom. Because we thought it settled the question of Hermione's age.

People were wondering (and debating) whether or not she was born in 1980 or 1981. Was she eleven years old when she started at Hogwarts on September 1st, 1991 or only ten?

There were a few canon clues, but none definitively answered that question.

Steve Vander Ark took the position that canon suggested 1981, but that 1980 could not be ruled out.

He put 1981 on his timeline on the Harry Potter Lexicon.

On the DVD extras, they had a timeline of the Wizarding world. It also said 1981.

Then again, according to Steve it was his timeline verbatim.

Supposedly, JKR signed off on the timeline and the fandom started to think that the question of Hermione's age was resolved.

Of course we now know that she was born in 1980. Otherwise Hermione would still have been an "underage witch" at the beginning of Deathly Hallows and that would have seriously impacted the plot.

Steve Vander Ark has sued Warner Brothers for taking his timeline for their DVDs without his permission. He is seeking compensation.

I do not know the dollar amount he is seeking.

Warner Brothers disputes his claim.

Frankly, without having access to all the primary documents, I believe that the likely scenario is someone at Warner Brothers was assigned to come up with some elements for CD-Rom for the DVD extras. These are things that would insure that fans actually purchase the official studio DVDs and not just buy pirated copies of the feature length films.

I can envision a twenty-something assigned the task who found Steve's website and decided it was cool and snagged it. Without even sending him a notice or asking for permission or even offering some money to him.

They could have offered him a few hundred bucks for the privilege, which would have probably been less than Warner Brothers' snack budget for a single day of filming. More importantly, I think Vander Ark would have been elated to have his name and website URL appear on a Warner Brothers DVD.

Instead, I believe this proverbial twenty-something just put that timeline in the in-box of their boss and the executives at Warner Brothers never knew its origins.

I do not believe that Warner Brothers knowingly violated his copyright. However, if one of their employees did the deed, I believe they are still legally responsible.

(Note: I am not a lawyer. This is simply my personal opinion and how I would come down if I were a juror and if the facts of the case were as I hypothesized.)

I look at the cover of Steve's book and I concur with the lawyers from Warner Brothers. There is not a prominent disclaimer on the front cover stating that this book is not endorsed by J.K. Rowling like the one by George Beahm. It could be considered as misleading by consumers. Then again, other companion books have not included such disclaimers on their front covers and she has not sued them.

Oooooh, I discovered another ominous sign. Steve's book is no longer listed on Amazon.com. I was going to reference his cover from there and could not find it. Not under his name, nor under the title.

It is still listed on Amazon.ca and Amazon.co.uk - both have the publication date as November 5th. I wonder if it will actually ship or if the lawsuit will halt its distribution in other countries.

If anyone in Canada or in the U.K. has ordered the book and gets it, please let me know. I am curious as to whether or not it will be blocked.

Overall, I find this whole affair to be dismaying.

I think the marketplace is large enough to accomodate a hard copy version of the online Harry Potter Lexicon that J.K. Rowling praised and an encyclopedic book by the author herself.

I also wish that the publisher for Steve Vander Ark had shown more professionalism in this matter.

Time will tell what happens in court, but it is not a happy day for the Harry Potter fandom-at-large or the publishing world.

Linda
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