On the heels of my previous post, concerning a 2000 copyright infringement suit brought against author J. K. Rowling, comes news of new allegations that the Harry Potter scribe may have lifted material from a fellow writer. The author in question, the late Adrian Jacobs, penned a little-known 40-page children’s book back in 1987 — a decade before the first Potter release — called The Adventure of Willy the Wizard, No. 1 Livid Land. According to the Jacobs estate, which is initiating the suit, it was he and not Rowling who first conjured up “the idea of wizard prisons, hospitals and schools.” Rowling has responded by saying that the charges are “not only unfounded but absurd.” The Jacobs estate estimates that the suit could be worth a billion dollars.
I don’t have much information about the case beyond the press reports to which I’ve linked above, so I want to be cautious about offering too much commentary here. I will say, however, that I find it difficult to accept the plaintiff’s claim that Rowling’s borrowings are “substantial,” given the brevity of the Willy book. This sounds to me like an attempt to claim ownership of a general concept, which would contravene the longstanding idea-expression divide within U. S. copyright law. In a nutshell, the law says you can only copyright the specific iteration of an idea, and not the idea itself. Everything in this case consequently hinges on the question of the specificity of Rowling’s alleged borrowing.
The Willy case reminds of another recent one. In 2006, Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown was sued by the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, who alleged that Brown had absconded with 15 central themes from their book, as well as its basic plot architecture. But the judge in the case, Justice Peter Smith, disagreed. In his ruling he noted: “It is true that aspects of the Central Themes can be traced through the textual parts identified by the Claimants. That is because the Central Themes are too general and nothing significant is to be concluded from that identification.” (Hats off, by the way, to Justice Smith. Apropos of the bestselling book in question, he laced the ruling with a secret code of his own.)
Even if the allegations made by the Jacobs estate ultimately don’t hold up in court, they nevertheless underscore a tension that lies at the heart of all of the Harry Potter litigation — including that brought by Rowling herself. We’re dealing with a book series that, however original in its own right, nonetheless makes copious use of themes, character types, and narratives that are ubiquitous in Western culture. The fact that there’s significant overlap with the work of other writers shouldn’t surprise anyone, least of all J. K. Rowling.