Harry Potter and the Copyright Lawyer

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News Media Commentary
Title: Harry Potter and the Copyright Lawyer
Commentator: Ariana Eunjung Cha
Date(s): 18 June 18 2003
Venue: washingtonpost.com
Fandom: Harry Potter
External Links: Harry Potter and the Copyright Lawyer, Archived version
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Harry Potter and the Copyright Lawyer is a 2003 article about the legality of fanfiction. It has the subtitle: "Use of Popular Characters Puts 'Fan Fiction' Writers in Gray Area."

It says that the "explosion of these part-original, part-borrowed works has set authors of fan fiction against some media companies in a battle to redefine the line between consumers’ right to "fair use" and copyright holders’ rights to control their intellectual property."

Rebecca Tushnet comments that "We don’t grow up hearing stories around the campfire anymore about cultural figures. Instead we get them from books, TV or movies, so the characters that today provide us a common language are corporate creatures."

The article says that J.K. Rowling has unofficially sanctioned some fan-fiction sites by leaving them alone but has been alarmed by the more explicit material out there.

The author is "flattered by genuine fan fiction," said Neil Blair, an attorney for the Christopher Little Literary Agency, which represents Rowling. But she has been alarmed by "pornographic or sexually explicit material clearly not meant for kids."

Christopher Little began sending out letters last year because it feared "the dangers of, say 7-year-olds, stumbling on the material as they searched for genuine [Harry Potter] material," Blair said in an e-mail response to questions.

Vicki Dolenga, 31, writes for RestrictedSection.org, which features about 1,200 stories, many of which involve Harry Potter characters engaging in sexual relations or violence. She said some media companies’ aggressive actions against selected sites is stifling the creativity of writers who want to explore more mature themes.

In part as a response to publishers’ legal entreaties, one Web site, FanFiction.net, removed all NC-17 stories, including Dolenga’s. So in the fall of 2002, she and some friends founded RestrictedSection.org as an outlet for their work. The cease-and-desist letters followed. Dolenga said the group has hired a lawyer and is not taking any stories down.

"My opinion is that if we aren’t making any money off of it, it shouldn’t be any of their business," Dolenga said.

The article mentions that FanFiction.net alone hosts 75,000 Harry Potter stories, but there are other sites as well.

Among the most popular sites is Sugarquill.net. It prides itself on its selectivity and takes only those submissions that it believes match the tone and spirit of Rowling’s first four novels. Sugarquill, founded two years ago by Jennie Levine and Megan Morrison, two friends from Baltimore, now hosts more than 500 writers and artists who have created 1,300 stories and 650 illustrations, cartoons and other pieces of art. The site was named after a candy that appears in Rowling’s novels. (In book three, Harry’s friend Ron Weasley says, "Really excellent sugar quills, which you can suck in class and just look like you’re thinking what to write next.") The site is run by volunteers and funded by the women’s savings.

A staff lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation is also interviewed on the topic of copyright and fanfiction:

Copyright law protects "derivative works," but it’s not clear whether the use of names or characters or histories fall into that category. On the other hand, the law also protects people’s fair use of material from copyrighted books for such things as newspaper articles and criticism. The ambiguity also raises a slew of questions about who owns the fan fiction, about what might happen if, say, the author of the original piece lifted material from fan fiction or if fan-fiction writers take from other fan-fiction writers.

Fan Comments

While this article focuses on the Harry Potter fan fiction base, it mentions by name multi-fandom sites I'm sure many of us have visited. The article comes off as fair and is reasonably presented--and for that I'm grateful--and the fans interviewed are mostly presented as intelligent, educated, creative people who just happen to have a *weird* hobby. But I still get the cold shivers when the powers-that-be get their noses publicly rubbed in our hobby. [1]


  1. ^ comment at Venice Place Mailing List, quoted anonymously (June 18, 2003)