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Industry Questions Raised by "Potter" Encyclopedia Suit

Updated 4/17/08

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling testified earlier this week against a publisher that wants to release the unofficial Harry Potter Lexicon, a print adaptation of Steven Vander Ark’s popular Potter encyclopedia site.

From the New York Times:

… Ms. Rowling said the proposed Lexicon book flouted her plans to write her own encyclopedia and donate the proceeds to charity. She argues that Mr. Vander Ark’s book could deter fans from buying hers.

The article says the legality of the Lexicon hinges on the originality of the title, but this suit also raises broader theoretical questions that plug into many of the free/open shifts we’ve recently covered.

For example, if the Lexicon is successfully released and Rowling follows through with her own encyclopedia, will Rowling’s concern come true? Will her edition falter because the Lexicon has already claimed the market? Or, will awareness and publicity raised by the Lexicon boost Rowling’s title? Going a step further, does Rowling even need awareness at this point? (Probably not …)

The release of both encyclopedias would also provide a real-world test of official vs. unofficial value. Does an “unofficial” encyclopedia — even a thorough one — trump an “official” edition? Or, would Rowling’s brand and resources marginalize the unofficial title?

Finally, is there an opportunity in the middle ground (and is there a roadmap for other publishers)? The article notes that Rowling and her publisher have been open to Potter fan sites, but what if that openness extended to a formal path for fan-created Potter material? This could take the form of small print runs for “good bet” titles like Van Ark’s Lexicon, and print-on-demand services for marginal/niche topics.

Update (4/17/08): Judge Robert P. Patterson says this disagreement could be solved with creativity. From Publishers Weekly:

Patterson reiterated that he felt this was a case that “could be settled and should be settled,” and that it would only take “a little imagination” to make that happen.

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