Friday, May 02, 2008

OSC Rants on J.K. Rowling's Copyfight

Orson Scott Card is a practical novelist, whose stories are usually character-driven to the end and bear the marks of a fantastic storyteller. Perhaps it's merely the benefit of being subject to an editor, but Card's books rarely seem slapdash or sloppy.

As a casual writer, Card's maturity varies. He's written some great political analyses, but he's also written columns making snap judgements of those who disagree with him or dismissed films for irrational reasons.

But his comments last week regarding J.K. Rowling's lawsuit against RDR Books, publishers of the upcoming Harry Potter Lexicon, cross the line of all good taste and fairness.

The story so far: The Harry Potter Lexicon has existed in online form for quite some time, as an encyclopedia of sorts to the Harry Potter series. Rowling has remarked on the site's accuracy and detail in the past, even using the site for reference while writing her books. She called the site her "natural home", and it's even possible that much of the timeline for the later books was cribbed from the Lexicon's research.

Recently, the site planned to expand its reach through publisher RDR Books by publishing a book containing most of the information on the site, titled (drumroll please) The Harry Potter Lexicon. Now, this sort of thing is protected under Fair Use and copyright laws protecting the publishing of annotated scholarly works, no different than thousands of other such guides published every year as companions to a wide variety of material. Provided that the books are sourced properly and do not contain large passages of the author's original material, everything's fine and dandy.

But not to J.K. Rowling. She's been gearing to publish an HP Encyclopedia of her own (an awesome prospect for fans of the series, to say the least), and felt oppressed by the release of this new book. Her opinion of the Lexicon changed dramatically until she finally threw a Ron Weasley-sized tantrum, regretting having ever said anything positive about the website. All of this culminated in a lawsuit filed last October, still ongoing. As the copyfight wages on, Rowling feels that her creativity has been "crushed" and wonders if she will have the heart to release her own encyclopedia.

But she's twisting the legal system to get her own way. RDR Books has all the rights to publish their book, and J.K. has the right to release her own encyclopedia. With her additional rights as author, she can even include new material or embellish upon existing material beyond what is included in the books. RDR's "scholarly work" is limited to direct referential information from the series - the extent protected by law.

It's fairly clear that Rowling is acting emotionally and holds the Potter universe close to her heart. But it would be a pity if her encyclopedia never gets released because she doesn't understand copyright law; it's plain that the quality of her book would blow the Lexicon out of the water and the resulting sales would speak for itself. Why bother getting the government involved, especially when you have no legal case?

Back to Orson Scott Card. In a new article posted on his site, he says he feels that that Rowling stole the plot for her novels from Card's own Ender's Game (wherein he merely generalizes the storylines of both series until they appear to match), then brings up past accusations of plagiarism levied against Rowling by other writers. Of course, all of these accusations (including Card's) are merely examples of appropriation of ideas, perfectly fine under copyright law provided that the usage is sufficiently indirect.

It's true, as Card says, that "authors borrow words from each other"; creativity does not exist in a vacuum. And it's true that Rowling is letting her emotions get in the way of the legal rights of a book publisher and some very devoted Harry Potter fans. But Card really steps over the line when he resorts to unhinged personal attacks:

"Talent does not excuse Rowling's ingratitude, her vanity, her greed, her bullying of the little guy, and her pathetic claims of emotional distress."

And, toward the end:

It's like her stupid, self-serving claim that Dumbledore was gay. She wants credit for being very up-to-date and politically correct -- but she didn't have the guts to put that supposed "fact" into the actual novels, knowing that it might hurt sales.

What a pretentious, puffed-up coward. When I have a gay character in my fiction, I say so right in the book. I don't wait until after it has had all its initial sales to mention it.

Rowling has now shown herself to lack a brain, a heart and courage. Clearly, she needs to visit Oz.

This overblown reaction is surprising; Card's been a fan of the series in the past, joining the ranks of authors like Stephen King in celebrating it as far more than mere childrens' fiction. He even wrote a neat, lengthy analysis of the character of Severus Snape prior to the release of the final book. Why the sudden change? Card plainly has a bone to pick with Rowling, and it's up to the rest of us to figure out just what on earth has him so darn angry and sensitive. It can't just be the gay Dumbledore issue. Could it be?

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