The Corner Office: Battling the 'Potter' Goliath
The Harry Potter Lexicon (HP-Lexicon.org) was started by librarian and “Harry Potter” enthusiast Steve Vander Ark as an online index of everything you ever wanted to know about the famous boy wizard and his imaginary, magical world, as told in the mega-selling “Harry Potter” book series.
When Michigan-based, independent publisher RDR Books attempted to turn the site—visited by more than 25 million people annually and at one time praised by “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling—into a printed encyclopedia, it grew into a David versus Goliath legal battle, pitting Rowling and Warner Bros. (which owns the intellectual property rights to the “Potter” books and movies) against Vander Ark and the publisher.
Rowling sued RDR, claiming that publishing the Lexicon Web site as a book infringed on her copyright. The court ultimately agreed with her and barred the book’s publication. RDR appealed the ruling, then withdrew that action, and eventually opted instead to publish a new, sanctioned version of the book titled “The Lexicon,” which hit bookshelves in January.
Here, RDR’s publisher, Roger Rapoport, discusses how his small company handled the international media blitz that surrounded the legal battle and why he decided to publish a new version of the book that seemed destined to never reach bookshelves.
● Why was the first “Lexicon” book considered copyright infringement, but the second, published version is not?
Roger Rapoport: The new book complies with the fair use guidelines that are part of New York Federal District Judge Robert Patterson’s decision on the earlier book. …. The judge ruled that lexicons are legal and added that the author of a fictional work does not have a monopoly on companion, nonfiction works such as A-Z encyclopedias or lexicons. He then spelled out, for the first time in a federal court decision, how reference books of this kind could be acceptable under fair use. It was those guidelines that Steve followed when writing this new “Lexicon.” Our opponents … issued a statement saying that the new book was fine with them.
● What changes were made to the first version so that you were able to publish it?
Rapoport: Added to the book was a great deal of new critical commentary on hundreds of entries [and] additional etymologies. Potential plot spoilers were taken out [as well as] references to two small companion books Rowling wrote, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and “Quidditch Through the Ages.”
● Why did you decide to proceed with publishing “The Lexicon”?
Rapoport: Because a lot of people were still asking for it. … One buyer told me that he wished he had [“The Lexicon”] when his daughter started reading the series in the second grade. No index or encyclopedia for the books existed until now. Readers are very passionate about this. … This is why we wanted to publish the book from the beginning. We knew there was a need and a want.
● How did you handle the level of attention and intense media coverage surrounding the lawsuit?
Rapoport: When this first happened, there was an amazing number of reporters here, but … it was a real blessing to deal with reporters who were very up-to-speed on what was going on. And the coverage was very evenhanded, so that made it much easier. It did get a little ugly on the Internet and blogs. … We kept in touch with our regular customers and made sure to answer all [of their] questions.
… We also wanted this experience to help other people. We set up a nonprofit with the Right to Write Fund with Stanford Law School. (The school also helped represent the publisher during the lawsuit.) It [was created] in the hopes of helping other publishers and authors who are dealing with these types of lawsuits. We don’t want to see anyone else have to go through this. This will [provide] authors confronted with First Amendment issues [with] a place to get quick answers and help.
● Did the lawsuit and the publicity help or hurt your company?
Rapoport: Well, advance orders of [“The Lexicon” were] strong, and we have had calls from major accounts. I would say it has benefited the company.
We have more than 30,000 orders for “The Lexicon.” … From the first day we announced this, we have been getting calls about [it]. … 30,000 orders [is] a lot for a publisher of our size … and especially in this economic climate. Orders are usually low unless you are publishing a John Grisham [novel].
● “Harry Potter” issues aside, what are the biggest challenges your company faces as an independent publisher?
Rapoport: Meeting demand, like all publishers. … You can never afford to be out of a book. We do a lot of forecasting.
And then there are the new books—launching them properly. Those book tours are very labor-intensive and very expensive, but they are the best way to promote a new title. It’s much easier to get coverage [in a particular area] if the author is in town. We try to do a lot of high-profile events. Conferences and tours are critical to us.
The biggest challenge is finding really good manuscripts. …
● How are you being affected by the current economic crisis?
Rapoport: It hasn’t affected us yet. … There are still lots and lots of orders, even discounting the “Harry Potter” book. The backlists have gotten very strong, and I credit the Internet with that. We’re not cutting back in any area.
Melissa Busch is an associate senior editor at North American Publishing Co.