PotterWar

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Event
Event: PotterWar
Name(s): Heather Lawver and Alastair Alexander
Date(s): December 2000 - 2001
Type: campaign
Fandom: Harry Potter
URL: potterwar.org.uk (WBM version)
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

PotterWar was a fan response to a series of emails sent by Warner Bros. to the owners of many Harry Potter fansites instructing them to turn over their domain names or be faced with legal action.

They partnered with two other groups Defense Against the Dark Arts and BuffyBringers group.

See A History of PotterWar, As Told by 17-Year-Old Heather.

A fan in 2015 wrote:

In 2000 the first Harry Potter movie started production and the fan base was growing by the day. Fans from all over the world start using the internet as a place to share their Harry Potter love, many creating fan sites. Warner Bros was not happy about this because these fans sites were using words and phrases which were copyright, such as ‘Hogwarts’ and ‘Dumbledore’. Warner Bros started to send cease and desist letters to the owners of these fan sites. Bear in mind, most of the people running the fan sites at the time were around the age of 13.

Led by a girl named Heather Lawver, who was just 15 at the time, many of the people running these sites refused to shut down. Instead they organised a worldwide boycott, refusing to purchase anything Harry Potter that was owned by Warner Bros, only spending money on the original books.

And it worked. Warner Bros lost so much money during the boycott that they retracted the letters and allowed people to continue using the copyrighted words and phrases. Potterwar was a big win for the people and set a precedent, giving more freedom to what people could do online. [1]

Similar Occurrences

Some Comments: 2001

As this conflict was unfolding, Penny Linsenmayer, main mod for HPforGrownups, made the comments below at the popular Yahoo Group ParadigmOfUncertainty. Most of her response was a statement by Heidi8, repeated with permission at the mailing list:

Various people have asked about the boycott of WB's HP merchandise in response to their actions against HP website owners (including young children). It's my understanding that you can find out more information about this boycott & the underlying WB actions at:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/potterwar

I will say that my personal opinion is that WB, while being heavy-handed and perhaps short-sighted with respect to the younger fans, is within their rights. They own the rights to the name HP through their agreement with JKR, and they'd be taking lots of legal risks with respect to more serious offenders if they made exceptions for these fan sites run by kids.

[snipped]

Cyberspace law is very cutting-edge, in flux & well ... uncertain at the moment. The First Amendment (US Constitution) *cannot* apply to the internet though. That is a US law, applicable to US citizens. I don't keep enough with cyberspace legal developments to comment more fully.

Back to fanfic & copyrights, this subject came up recently over on HPforGrownups. One of our members (an IP lawyer) had the following observations to make (and she asked me to just quote them here for your benefit):

1. Disclaimers are a defense. They aren't an absolute defense, but if I were going to make a testcase out of some fanfic writer, I'd go for someone foolish enough to not include a disclaimer on their fanfic chapters (rather than someone who did).

2. Fanfic legality has *not* been litigated at this time. An article from last March said, "Fans of artists and artistic works borrow characters, situations and themes from pre-existing works and use them as resources for their own stories. The modern-day scribblers are housewives, students, average students; their parodies pay public tribute to popular narratives that capture their imagination. ... Although cease-and-desist orders are routine corporate practice, not a single case involving fan fiction has ever reached the courts."

None. Ever. Why? No clue. Cease and desist letters have, as we know, been sent to fanfic sites (like the Star Wars Slash sites) and I'm sure there's been a Fanzine or 2 which have received them as well - but no battle has ever gone to the courts and thus, since there is also no statute out there which says that Fanfiction is Not A Copyright Infringement, there is *no* law which affirmatively says it is or it is not an infringement (at least in the US). A 1999 Berkley Tech law Journal article (14 Berkeley Tech. L.J. 43) does discuss certain fan books, like a book about Twin Peaks which gives detailed plot summaries of each episode, and a book about "connecting" with star trek fans which likewise has extensive summaries of the novels, movies and tv shows, but that's not fanfic - and that (I believe) would be in Scholastic's purview here in the US, not Warner Bros, since Scholastic is the book company - and it's not like they've done anything about We Love Harry Potter [2] or that damned Schafer Book Of Stupidity [3] (tangent - has she a published email address? anyone want to send her an invite to this Egroup?)

I also found an excellent Loyola article from 1997 (17 Loy. L.A. Ent. L.J. 651) entitled Using Law and Identity to Script Cultural Production: Legal Fictions: Copyright, Fan Fiction, and a New Common Law which I highly recommend to any fanfiction writer with an obsessive interest in what is & is not legal. The article supports my earlier contentions on this list that it is possible to copyright a character, independent of the work in which said character is created, but the case law is mixed and confusing as to how deep and extensive that protection goes, especially with regard to fanfiction where the author is not claiming originality in the character. To quote from the Loyola article, "Quite possibly, fan fiction could affect the market for derivative works, such as novelizations of shows. The Supreme Court has noted that "the market for potential derivative uses includes only those that creators of original works, in general develop or license others to develop." There are several reasons to conclude that fan fiction does not fall within such a market. The nature of most fan fiction, which explores plot and situation possibilities generally refused by copyright owners, is such that it is unlikely to interfere with officially authorized publications. Romances, interior monologues, humor, vignettes, poetry, songs, and stories in which a main character dies would not support an official market. This is especially true because fan fiction often imagines rather earthshaking changes for the characters - marriage and death, (Hi Lori! [4]) among others - that the "canon" cannot accept without signaling the end ... So long as such stories are not official, they retain their appeal because the characters return unscathed in the next episode or official form.

Additionally, because fan fiction on the Web is essentially free, it does not use any monetary resources a reader might put aside for fiction consumption. Where distribution is free, the readership cannot prove that a viable market exists. Having to pay anything might deter almost everyone from reading, thus leaving copyright owners "no better off."

The writer agrees with me that disclaimers are legally ineffective, or almost so, but they also provide a way for the fanfic writer to both pay allegiance to the canon and demonstrate subordinance to it. Therefore, here's my This-Is-Not-Legal-Advice Statement: Fanfiction may or may not be copyright infringement, but you're definitely better off putting a disclaimer on it, and anyone who wants to risk being a test case on the question of whether fanfic is an infringement or not should go publish a Zine and send a copy to Warner Bros...

Again, the above points are not mine but someone on HPforGrownups who asked me to just cut & paste her earlier messages to HP4GU over here in

response to the current thread. [5]

Some Comments: 2011

What made Pottermore even more remarkable was its timing. Ten years ago, with the first of the Potter movies a few months from being released, the world of Potter fandom was riven by strife. The PotterWar — thus yclept by a London city councilman who leapt into the fray—pitted Warner Bros. against a citizen's army of Web-savvy kids. The movie studio was eager to protect the trademarks it had bought from Rowling; the kids were outraged that a giant corporation was threatening them with legal action for using the Potter name on Web sites they'd set up to celebrate the story. In the end, it was no contest: As Heather Lawver, the 16-year-old leader of the insurrection, told Henry Jenkins for his book Convergence Culture, "They underestimated how interconnected our fandom was." By the time the hapless company beat a retreat, it was being excoriated from British pulpits for placing children in its legal crosshairs. [6]

Some Comments: 2013

In 2012, Heidi Tandy wrote about some of her experiences with Warner Bros. and the decision by FictionAlley to become "an affiliate" of Warner Bros.

I used to be terrified of Warner Brothers.

Recently, I asked a friend to re-send to me a cease and desist letter that her fansite had received from WB in January of 2003, and when the subject line "C&D" showed up in my inbox, even though I knew it was going to be there, my heart skipped a beat and I had to catch my breath. Even after years of a good working relationship with Warner Brothers and Bloomsbury, J.K. Rowling's agents, Universal, and Scholastic, seeing those letters and that symbol in my inbox sends me right back to 2001 and 2002 and 2003, when we felt like we existed at their sufferance.

That's what fandom taught you, all those years ago. Anne Rice would send a nasty letter to FanFiction.net and they would delete all the fanfic based on her books, close the section, and bar comments in the forum. Paramount could come into a fan con with Cleveland law enforcement and close the vendor room for three hours, with no warning and no notice, and fans couldn't do anything about it. If someone uploaded the Sorcerer's Stone trailer to the Files section on your Yahoo group, and WB found out about it and complained to Yahoo, they might delete your entire community and everything in it; they didn't even have to provide a way for you to get in contact with the members of the community. It'd just be gone.

The large-for-that-time Harry Potter for Grownups Yahoo group, which hosted over 4,500 messages per month at its peak, suffered a few nerve-racking months when a former mod decided to retaliate against the community. Her complaints to Yahoo resulted in the deletion of one of the group's organizational mailing lists, and forced us to close the files section. If someone uploaded a random song, then had a friend complain to Yahoo, under their terms of service they could close a whole community down. Then, it got worse. After she unsubscribed herself from the mods' organizational list, the mod claimed complete ownership of the posts she had made, and only stopped her harassment when I successfully argued to Yahoo that she had granted the group a license to her posts for archival purposes.

If one individual could cause that much unrest, we thought, imagine what Warner Brothers could do if they learned about fandom!

Of course, they already knew. Fandom had already survived the domain name disputes of 2000 and 2001, where Warner Brothers sent Umbridge-esque threatening letters to teens around the world, insisting they hand over domain names that included terms from the Harry Potter series. Children and teens (and their lawyers) had pushed back by pointing out that their usages were non-infringing and non-commercial. But the disputes made it clear that Warner Brothers and J. K. Rowling were aware that fans existed, chatted, and created amongst themselves.

But was it true that fanfiction writers were bad fans, as journalist Christopher Noxon claimed in a sensationalized article in 2001 (which he rewrote in 2003, causing fans to panic when it was published again)? Was Warner Bros. waiting for a section of fandom to poke its head up, so they could lop it off? Was WB "likely to greet Harry Potter slashers with more takedown orders than tolerance"? Were "billable hours... about to start piling up"?!

Probably not, as I learned late in 2003 when I made my first visit to Warner Brothers' studios in Burbank to meet with members of the Harry Potter team and their intellectual property counsel. At every meeting, they were nice, friendly, and supportive of fans, fandom and fannish creativity -- even slash fanfic. In a way, our discussions were the direct result of a piece on the front page of the New York Times in May 2002. The Times article opened with a paragraph from a Harry/Draco AU (alternative universe! called "Snitch!" where the boys were gangsters in London circa 2010. They continued with a few quotes from me and others about fanfiction, ships, and storyline predictions.

The day after the article ran, when posts were popping up on Usenet, in Yahoo groups, and on FictionAlley about the havoc Warner Brothers and J.K. Rowling were surely going to wreak on the Potter fandom and all other fandoms besides, I got an email from the new manager of the recently relaunched WBShop.com site, asking if FictionAlley wanted to be an affiliate of their store.

They didn't want to shut us down. We could stay online, we could go on having and sharing fanfic and fanart, discussions, debates and all sorts of creativity, regardless of the ships/romances they included - and we didn't have to worry that they'd Expelliarmus our stories or pictures. That kind of contact from The Powers That Be - supportive, interested and curious - would start to occur more and more frequently as time went on, until an invitation to the Warner Brothers studio was, if not a common occurrence, at least a logical step. But that's the moment when everything changed. [7]

Resources

References

  1. What Potterwar meant for copyright, Brianna, March 22, 2015
  2. We Love Harry Potter, a 1999 book
  3. Exploring Harry Potter a 2000 book
  4. A reference to Lori Summers and the very popular Paradigm of Uncertainty.
  5. Penny Linsenmayer, mod at HPforGrownups: 7373Warner Bros. & HP DomainNames; Fanfic Legality, March 6, 2001
  6. From PotterWar to Pottermore: The extraordinary 10-year evolution of Harry Potter's world, July 11, 2011
  7. by Heidi Tandy in fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World (2013)