The recent news that J.K. Rowling might sue over the attempted publication of a Harry Potter encyclopedia on the grounds that she, exclusively, should publish all creations including Harry Potter so that she can handle the charitable donations of the proceeds, signifies an unwillingness to let her characters and books go. She sanctioned the creation of the encyclopedia for a free website, but when the author pursued book publication, she and Warner Brothers started legal proceedings.
Is this an issue of copyright violation, or is it? Disney has made countless appearances in court to protect their creations, yet this may not be directly analogous to Rowling’s situation. A character in a work of literature takes on a life of its own outside the text and outside the author, but as a character takes on independence, should s/he still be financially/legally attached to the original creator? Let’s put it more simply: if I decide to write a sequel to Harry Potter because I must know what happens, am I forbidden to do this because Harry Potter is solely owned by Rowling? What if I create a completely different plot, writing style, setting; does that still mean I’m forbidden? J.K. Rowling seems to think so.
One of the values of literature is that it talks with itself, meaning that ideas, motifs, characters, themes, raised in one work may be taken up in another. Allusion and homage are commonplace in literature. These are fancy words for literary theft, but they are condoned in the literary world because often these elements can highlight truths or ideas about the original work that were not apparent in the first form. Creating a sequel to Harry Potter could be consider a homage, or creating a novella about Dumbledore’s emotional past might be considered great fan fiction, but according to Rowling this is off limits. Can an author do this?
I was annoyed when Rowling provided critical information about Dumbledore after the publication of the Harry Potter series. This was the first time an author stepped forward to provide significant character information after the text was in the reader’s hands. Clearly, this information changes the interpretation of Dumbledore’s character, yet there is nothing in the text to help guide us. We are left relying on Rowling’s information, rather than the text’s. In this way, she has made the interpretation of Dumbledore’s character reliant on her verbal cues. J.K. Rowling is wielding control over a creation that may no longer be hers. Once a book enters the public sphere, it becomes public, and is open to as many interpretations as there are readers. When she eliminates, through legal precedence, the ability for authors to process Harry Potter through allusion, homage, reference, and revision, she is taking her texts out of the conversation of literature, disallowing them to breathe on their own.
Perhaps she would make the argument that an encyclopedia is not an allusion or homage, but a compilation of her work. She has a point; there is nothing original or enlightening about an encyclopedia; it is the essence of derivative, yet she may be setting a precedence to preclude other work with Harry Potter characters, and this is a shame. All things Potter should be allowed to permeate the culture, inspire artists, and influence writers; this is what great literature is supposed to do. Besides, if J.K. Rowling is as obsessed with creating original texts and keeping characters confined to first works, then why does so much of her work come from other literary places?
It’s time for J.K. Rowling to leave Hogwarts. She has created a wonderful world for us, and we are all grateful, but she is doing more harm than good when she tries to control treatment or interpretation of her characters. After all, she is not the only one who loves Harry.