JK Rowling: probably not a plagiarist

Paul Raven @ 18-06-2009

Poor old JK Rowling; whatever you may think of the Harry Potter books (I think they make passable doorstops), there’s no denying that her success has brought her into the firing line of a lot of resentful (and less successful) creatives. As reported at TechDirt, Rowling is once again being accused of plaigiarising someone else’s work in order to create Hogwarts et al.

In these trigger-happy times of copyright law, cases like this are bound to come up – though it’s telling that you you have to make it pretty big before anyone will bother suing you. But the long-term implications and precedents are important to writers and other creatives – especially in science fiction and fantasy, which thrive on what has been described as their ongoing conversational nature. In a genre where building on (or dismantling and deconstructing) the ideas of your predecessors is an integral part of the game, a few successful suits of this type could open the gates to a flood of smaller cases; it seems there’s plenty of copyright lawyers who don’t care how spurious a case is provided there’s a chance of a decent fee. Here’s TechDirt‘s Mike Masnick:

The whole thing is pretty silly, of course. The publisher is vehemently denying any copying, and it seems unlikely that any copying did actually happen. However even if you did grant the premise and say that Rowling was “inspired” by some other book, so what? Did it really change the economics of the original book? If anything, this latest claim is just a clear money grab, designed to give new attention to a long-ignored book. No one could claim with a straight face that Rowling’s work took away any value from the other book.

Masnick also links back to an incident from last year that shows that not quite everything Orson Scott Card says is reactionary bigoted claptrap (though this example has some serious sexist undertones); commenting on the Harry Potter Lexicon case, Card pointed out that Rowling’s agressive defence of her own intellectual property hasn’t done her any favours, and that the world of literature is entirely based upon the adoption, adaptation and reuse of other people’s ideas. In defending herself against these latest accusations of plagiarism, she actually weakens the arguments she used to win the Lexicon case. Which all goes to show that copyright justice frequently boils down to a game of who can afford the better legal team… so, no news there, then.

Just to be abundantly clear, here, I’m not trying to claim that copyright law works in a way it doesn’t. The point I’m trying to make is that, as a reviewer, critic and wannabe writer of fiction, I’m well aware of the fact that there are only a few handfuls of basic story plots and character archetypes from which to start writing. The art of fiction is to flesh those essentials out into something new, but equally it’s possible to deconstruct and boil down any story into a simple synopsis that can make it sound remarkably similar to any number of other stories, without there having been any hint of deliberate copying involved in their creation. If we know that as readers and writers, how can we support a legal framework that can so easily exploit these phenomena in the name of financial gain?

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