What's up with JK Rowling and Harry Potter Lexicon?

JK Rowling with her final Harry Potter Book - Credit: REUTERS
JK Rowling with her final Harry Potter Book - Credit: REUTERS

Update: JK Rowling wins case

JK Rowling has won the case she and Warner Bros brought against Steve Vander Ark and RDR Books. The presiding judge, Robert Patterson, ruled in favour of the Harry Potter author and blocked the publication of the print version of Vander Ark's Lexicon. Judge Patterson agreed that the proposed reference book "...appropriate[d] too much of Rowling's creative work..." without adding original commentary of value.

JK Rowling and Warner Bros sue Vander Ark and RDR Books

JK Rowling testified in New York in the court case she and Warner Bros brought against Steve Vander Ark of Harry Potter Lexicon and RDR Books.

The successful lawsuit was to prevent the publication of an encyclopedia of the Harry Potter universe for profit, an act that Rowling says is direct theft of her copyright and a violation of her right to publish her own encyclopedia for charity.

Judge imposes restraining order on Lexicon book

In early November 2007, the publishers of a print version of the Harry Potter Lexicon website were restricted from continuing with the publication of the book until February 2008.

Vander Ark and RDR Books refused to see sense and Rowling was forced to go ahead with the lawsuit. Because Rowling intends to publish her own Harry Potter encyclopedia, Vander Ark's book would conflict with her interests as the original author of Harry Potter.

What's this all about? Read on.

Harry Potter Lexicon

The Harry Potter Lexicon is a Harry Potter fan website created by Steve Vander Ark in 2000. It is one of the most comprehensive encyclopedic Potter fan sites on the Internet, and in 2004 JK Rowling awarded the Harry Potter Lexicon a fansite of the year award together with three other sites.

Capitalising on Rowling's universe

With the release of the final Harry Potter book, Deathly Hallows, fans encouraged Steve Vander Ark to offer the information on the Harry Potter Lexicon in printed format. RDR Books agreed to publish the Lexicon.

Despite good virtual relations between JK Rowling and the electronic Harry Potter Lexicon, she and Warner Bros decided to file a complaint regarding the publication of the print version when they were informed about it.

As Jo said on her website, "It is not reasonable, or legal, for anybody, fan or otherwise, to take an author's hard work, re-organize their characters and plots, and sell them for their own commercial gain. However much an individual claims to love somebody else's work, it does not become theirs to sell."

Why a Harry Potter encyclopedia is not Fair Use

In the first "anti-JK" link below under "Others don't agree", the blogger claims that millions of reference books abound in libraries related to the fictional universes of authors.

However, what this blogger has failed to take into consideration is that every author has the exclusive right under their copyright to create derivative works of their own work.

Steve Vander Ark is breeching JK Rowling's copyright by publishing something that she wanted to publish herself. Vander Ark's use of Rowling's material is not Fair Use because he has simply rearranged Rowling's material into categories, without adding any original commentary of his own. It is not his work, but a collection of Rowling's work. This is the issue at stake.

Content copyright © Elsa Neal, 2007-2011. All rights reserved.




Comments 17 comments

Kenny Wordsmith profile image

Kenny Wordsmith 8 years ago from Chennai

Hmmm I don't have a stand on either platform. I'm confused.


daoine profile image

daoine 8 years ago Author

I've added a link above to an article I wrote which may help to explain the fair use/derivative work issue a bit better (Further explanation on fair use and derivative works)


relache profile image

relache 8 years ago from Seattle, WA

It's interesting how many other fandoms have allowed derivative works to be created. And it's hard to say J.K. is really being a stick in the mud since she has said she wants to create her own lexicon and donate all the proceeds to charity. In the end, her lexicon would draw millions of dollars for thousands, whereas the fan-created lexicon would only benefit a handful of folks.


kerryg profile image

kerryg 8 years ago from USA

Most of the fans I know support JKR in this argument. The Lexicon is a tremendously useful resource, but it is little more than a reorganization of Rowling's work. Large sections of it are quoted more or less verbatim from the books. Many of the published "guidebooks" to Narnia and Middle earth, for example, include extensive analysis or outside research into the real world influences of the text. What little analysis the Lexicon provides is mostly through essays written by people OTHER than Steve Vander Ark, essays which he planned to include in the published book without consulting or crediting the original authors. It's on this last point that he really lost the support of a large chuck of the fandom.

A lot of us are keeping an eye on this situation because of the fair use implications, but in general, fanfiction is original work based on characters or scenarios created by JKR, etc. It does not directly quote large sections of text and it is not published for profit (not without the permission of the copyright holder anyway). It in no way compares to what Vander Ark was trying to do.


daoine profile image

daoine 8 years ago Author

Absolutely. Also, Jo has a ton of notes that she's made while writing the books that have never been made available to Steve Vander Ark or anyone else (except for the fun pieces that were featured as extra content on her website). The best person to compile a lexicon is Jo herself, or someone she nominates and gives all her material to and liaises with while it is being produced.


tr 7 years ago

Sorry but JKR is a half-ways talented author. Once the hype is done the writing itself is really not average and not that original: LOR-Hobbit: ring wraiths,the giant spider, the ring possesing the wearer, dementors Hagrids spider and the locket possesing HP. Also the old HBO special about the school for withches. Other than a few cute names her books have way two many flash backs and the first 4 books were rather boring the characters have no depth at all. JKR owes WB a great many thanks for the fame of HP because the movie version both concepts and ideas are better.


daoine profile image

daoine 7 years ago Author

There are only 36 basic plots available to any author - so, no, nobody is claiming that JK Rowling's Harry Potter is the most original story out there. Lord of the Rings was inspired by Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen - every story has precedent. Jo Rowling overwrites and under-edits, but despite that she tells an enjoyable story that taps into themes and elements that speak to her readers.

Except for caricatured characters like Uncle Vernon, Rowling's characters have a great deal of depth to them - more depth than many fantasy books written for this age group. Just think of the complex motivation behind Snape, Aunt Petunia, Dumbledore, and Neville, for example.

As for the movies - of course they have promoted the fame of HP. Movies open up an entirely new audience for the story, many of whom go back to read the books afterwards. And it is easier to capture attention with visuals than written blurbs.


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 7 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

Great hub, daoine. The big thing here is that Vander Ark did not ask for perimission and JKR did not grant it. Had Vander Ark asked for permission first, this would not have gone as far! Kerryg, those encyclopedia were fine and ligit and went smoothly in the publication process. One of the conflicting with all of this as with most things is money. Vander Ark most likely didn't want to give JKR her slice of the pie.


daoine profile image

daoine 7 years ago Author

Thank you Dohn121.


daoine profile image

daoine 7 years ago Author

On the point about asking permission: it seems to me that Vander Ark suspected that permission wouldn't be granted therefore he decided not to ask formally and instead chose the "Oops, I thought you would approve" line because JKR had already endorsed his fan website. He was hoping for just a slap on the wrist and a "don't do it again", but to be allowed to go ahead with what he had started.


NateSean profile image

NateSean 6 years ago from Salem, MA

Fan ficition is a breach of copyright, definitely, but as long as the writer allows it there's certainly nothing wrong with it so long as the fan fiction writer does not make any financial gain off of it.

I remember reading this on Rowling's website and I felt for her that she seemed hurt by Vander Ark's actions. I always liked the Lexicon and the essays and articles you could find there but I was opposed to them publishing it.

The only thing I hate is that publishing the Lexicon is illegal but if you went to Borders the week before Deathly Hollows was released you would find a ton of books entitled "Why Snape is Evil" and "Why Harry Will Die" and other such works.

I wonder if Rowling will get into any entanglements with Borders bookstore since those books were basically derivative of her work as well.


Jarrod1240 profile image

Jarrod1240 6 years ago

I've always wondered exactly what this lawsuit was about. Thank you for clearing this up for me. This hub was very informative and I hope to follow more of your publications at a later date.


daoine profile image

daoine 6 years ago Author

Thank you Jarrod.


shethra77 5 years ago

I think J.K.r. will have to use Vander Ark's work in order to produce her own. It is notable that the work she says she had in progress in 2008 is still not out yet.

The Lexicon has been useful to thousands of people, and the print version is just an expansion of that. I'm glad he redid the Lexicon and put it into a publishable form. How many long years after the series' end are we supposed to wait with bated breath before Ms. Rowling gets around to all this HP stuff she says she is working on? Vander Ark had it finished already; at least, he had finished the hardest part, all the classifying and organizational stuff. Clearly, it was not so difficult to preserve a useful tool and remove all the stuff she found objectionable.


daoine profile image

daoine 5 years ago Author

I'm just surmising here, as I can't speak for JKR obviously, but if this were me I might feel a bit sour about trying to put together something after someone had already stolen it from me and made me go through a lawsuit to stop it. I think it is perfectly understandable that she might not feel like working on an encyclopedia and may be trying to come up with a different angle to it or something completely different so that it doesn't get associated with this mess.

She has every right to be livid, actually.

Vander Ark could just as easily have spent his time writing original commentary on the HP universe and saved himself and Rowling a lot of difficulty. But that would have involved some work of his own rather than just classifying and organizing someone else's.

Personally, I'm not waiting for anything with bated breath. The series is complete. Rowling has said she is finished. If she does decide to produce anything else in the HP universe (like Beedle the Bard) then it will be a bonus and not something the fans are left waiting for. And it will likely be for charity, I'm sure.


Min20 16 months ago

I have recently visited the Harry Potter Lexicon again, and I'm sad to see that it has been basically discontinued. I can understand that people were no longer willing to work on it after what happened, but I feel that was the saddest outcome of the whole affair.

I admit when I first read about it I was shocked Steve wanted to publish the Lexicon and earn money with it. It's been done before, but the Lexicon was never just Steve's work, there were a lot of other people involved in it. Also, it's just something that seems anathema to the whole fanwork and fanfiction community, the very basis of it is to NOT ask for money for the privilege to use someone else's work in yours.

I think Steve was misguided and somewhat naïve to even try this, and dragged into it by his publisher (he should have backed off immediately when the possibility of a lawsuit was mentioned).

And here is the other issue no-one is really talking about. Before this lawsuit I had a very high opinion of JKR as a person, but the way she acted and some of her comments during the lawsuit destroyed that respect I had for her. I wonder if anyone else feels the same way? First of all, the way she said she wanted to publish her own lexicon and Steve had made that impossible. No. Just, no. No-one would hesitate to buy a lexicon by JKR and buy one by SvdA instead, especially when everything is available for free online. The obvious reason is that all of JKR's notes include tons of information that's not in the lexicon. Also, it hasn't happened yet, which makes me suspect it was made up for the sake of the lawsuit.

Then, there were a number disparaging comments that the lexicon was sloppy, and didn't include a lot of research, which were simply untrue. They were not only hurtful for Steve, but also the other people who worked on the project. What made them worse was that she admitted before that she used the lexicon as a reference guide herself. As someone who used the lexicon for reference, I have to say that it pointed out a number of errors in the books, mostly math/timeline related. The whole work on the timeline was amazing! That does not matter at all for JKR's original work, and does not diminish it, but to call it sloppy when she herself was using it, and it might even have helped her because it was more organized than her own notes was petty. And it makes one wonder if she was planning to use that information in her own encyclopedia somehow.

Well, that was seven years ago and seven is the most magical number. I wonder if people still think about this today. I certainly do every time I research something Harry Potter related and find Wikipedia lacking, and I find myself virtually placing a rose on the lexicon's grave. I'm glad JKR won the lawsuit and defended her right. I wish she would have been more Dumbledore'ish about it.


Wavie profile image

Wavie 15 months ago

By now we should know that only J. K. Rowling has enough information to make such a lexicon. She is constantly releasing new info so anyone else's take on it would be wrong. A fan is at risk of releasing a lexicon with false info with the way they can interpret the limited knowledge on certain subjects. I'm hoping that Jo will release a lexicon someday and when she does it'll be stacked with tons of information.

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