Blown To Bits

Protest Rowling?

Thursday, April 24th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

It’s been a long time since I’ve been at a protest. I went to a few against the Vietnam War in 1969. I’ve observed some protests (hey, I was a dean). I’ve negotiated with protesters and counter-protesters (once managed to keep the pro-Israel and pro-Palestine students respectfully apart at opposite ends of Harvard Yard). I’ve even been protested against. But I’ve never suggested organizing one.

There’s always a first time.More...

J. K. Rowling will be Harvard’s Commencement speaker on June 5. She’ll get an honorary degree in the morning and be the principal speaker at the afternoon exercises.

So? Everyone loves her, don’t they?

Rowling aggressively protects the Harry Potter books, which is certainly her right. No reason why she has to put out a Creative Commons version (as we will do, once Blown to Bits has been in print for a while).

¬†But she is suing a librarian named Steven Vander Ark to prevent him from publishing a Harry Potter lexicon. Her claim that putting out the lexicon will ‚Äúopen the floodgates for anyone to lift an author’s work and present it as their own‚Äù is absurd. There are countless examples of published indexes and concordances. They do the authors no harm and probably do them good. I could not have read Joyce without my handy Skeleton Key to Finnegan‚Äôs Wake.¬†Ironically, Rowling used to think that Vander Ark‚Äôs site was swell. Probably she‚Äôs now decided to write a lexicon of her own and doesn‚Äôt want the competition.¬†Copyright law is out of balance, as we explain in Blown to Bits. The imbalance often takes the form, as it does in this case, of heavyweights using the law to sit on the little guys. But the analogies apply at all levels. Farhad Manjoo has blogged about the Harry Potter lexicon, pointing out that taking Rowling‚Äôs argument to its logical conclusion would prevent Google from indexing the Web and making advertising money from the index, unless it got explicit permission from each web site.¬†So I‚Äôm in favor of protesting Rowling‚Äôs anticompetitive abuse of copyright law. Unfortunately, your authors can‚Äôt organize the protest, since two of them will be busy in their official roles organizing Commencement itself!¬†

3 Responses to “Protest Rowling?”

  1. Tom Welsh Says:

    Although I haven’t read any of J K Rowling’s books, I can see her point too. Your mention of “Finnegan’s Wake” is not necessarily apposite, because I believe that book has been out of copyright for a while (I could be wrong though). The case of Google is entirely different, because the ethics of the Web are not those of traditional publishing. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, still has a page on the W3C Web site stating that no permission is required to link to any of his Web pages. The reason? Since the whole point of the Web is that pages link to one another, forbidding that is fundamentally futile. It’s like ordering a car with square wheels. At best, it’s utterly selfish; seeking to use the Web, which TBL gave away for nothing, to earn money while preventing others from benefiting. In a way, it’s like the difference between the ways the law treats alcohol and tobacco versus newer drugs like cannabis. Arguably, the older drugs are more harmful; but their use is sanctioned by immemorial custom. Likewise, printed books benefit from protections that do not (and should not) apply on the Web.

  2. Harry Lewis Says:

    Finnegan’s Wake was published in 1939 and the Skeleton Key was published by Joseph Campbell and Henry Robinson in 1944. The Amazon description says, “The authors break down Joyce’s “unintelligible” book page by page, stripping the text of much of its obscurity and serving up thoughtful interpretations via footnotes and bracketed commentary.” If Rowling wins, it seems to me that it would be risky for any future Campbell to write a similar analysis of any future Joyce’s work.

  3. loudmo ppi Says:

    Between me and my lazy husband, I won the argument on this subject because he did not agree with you.. :)