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A few thoughts on copyright

I’m picking up on a meme that’s been floating around (well, been hammered into our collective skulls by the press) by writing about this, but the subject of copyright and the Harry Potter lexicon has been bothering me for a week or two.  Somewhere in the middle of all of this is the notion of asking permission, and it’s barely been mentioned. As an academic writer, I have occasion to quote from the work of other authors, and while there’s a legality around the notion of ‘fair use’ for review, extract etc, if I’ve ever quoted a larger piece or used material verbatim for a similar purpose then I generally do my best to ask first.

And unpacking that seems to provide half an answer to the Rowling/Lexicon shenanigans. The only time anyone’s ever said no to a request (JG Ballard, in my case) we simply didn’t do anything more with the project, and all was fine. No lawsuits, no litigation. I’m sure the reality of the Vander Ark case makes things a good deal more complicated, not the least being that Rowling herself used the material (when it was a website, and therefore not making anyone much money, I note) as a resource while writing the later Potter books, but if anyone had asked permission in the first place, might this have been avoided. Neil remarked that his “main reaction is, having read as much as I can about it, given the copyright grey zone it seems to exist in, is a “Well, if it was me, I’d probably be flattered”” which seems to me to be the most sensible, and frankly human, reaction to the scenario.

My colleague Professor Edward James’ letter to the Independent addresses the ramifications of any decision:

If she wins, critics, academic or otherwise, who build careers on other people’s creativity could find themselves with serious legal problems. Those lucky people who rely on harvesting the creativity of safely-out-of-copyright people such as Shakespeare are fine, but those useful citizens who want to write guides to Tolkien or Pratchett or Battlestar Galactica had better watch out.

And he has a point. Hopefully the judge will see sense.

Discussion

One comment for “A few thoughts on copyright”

  1. Yep, my Illustrated History of Copyrighted Ideas has hit the skids. They’re taking me to court, apparently.

    Posted by mongo | April 28, 2008, 7:28 pm

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