Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Harry Potter and the compendious lexicon

In broad strokes, since the full story is all over the news: Ridiculously famous author J. K. Rowling (along with her publishers) is suing dedicated fan Steven Vander Ark over the pending publication in print of The Harry Potter Lexicon, a listing of terms, people, places, spells and suchlike from Rowling's Harry Potter series so all-inclusive that Rowling herself admits to having used the online version for reference on occasion.

This is not the first time that print publication of an online reference work has led to legal wrangling. Eric Weisstein and Stephen Wolfram's disputes with CRC come to mind. Legal action is by no means inevitable in such cases -- I can spot at least one book on my shelf that was spun off of a web site without apparent trouble -- but when it does happen there is a sizable risk of stirring up a real hornet's nest.

In the Potter case, Rowling is not arguing with Vander Ark's right to maintain his lexicon. The basis of the legal suit is that the Lexicon uses too much copyrighted material from the books to fall under "fair use".

What's troubling here is that there didn't appear to be any issue while the lexicon was online, but now that Vander Ark is seeking to publish his version in print, and in competition with Rowling's own upcoming lexicon, comes the lawsuit.

Should the print version be treated differently from the online version? If so, why? The thrust of Rowling's legal argument appears to be that the print version is a commercial work. Whether the copying work is commercial is one of the four basic questions of fair use. That's all fine, except that the online lexicon carries Google ads, and fairly prominently I might add. So again, what's the difference?

There's an interesting technical issue in the background here, distinct from the well-known economic differences between web publication and print publication. Vander Ark's lexicon contains passages from the books because the books themselves are not directly available online.

If everything is on the web, then it's easy not to actually copy copyrighted material -- just link to it. Granted, it can be difficult to link to, say, a particular paragraph in a work, but it's not technically impossible. In practice, inclusion by reference (i.e., linking) works fairly well. Linking from a web page to a printed book, not so much. Even with the full seven volumes handy, and with links realized as "book B, page P, line L" or similar, thumbing through to an exact page and scanning for the right sentence would be a pain to say the least.

Likewise, once a web site goes to print, its links go dead. You do see URLs in footnotes and references fairly routinely, but not woven into the printed text. Putting down the book, pulling up a browser and typing in a link is no better than thumbing through a book.

This lack of interconnectivity makes the print and online versions potentially fundamentally different beasts, regardless of the economics of printing. In the case at hand, it encourages copying that would not take place if everything were online. Thinking it over, I'm not sure this really bears directly on copyright cases. Both versions of the Lexicon copy text because linking to print is impractical. However, it might help explain how we got here.

Perhaps this will all go away when everything is online, indexed and searchable, but I don't expect that to happen for quite some time.

1 comment:

earl said...

For what it's worth, thumbing through books, looking up Book B, Page, P, Line L (or Book B, Chapter C, Verse V) is an activity we used to call "research." A bit of a pain, to be sure, but also a lot of fun sometimes, and amazingly productive, considering, don't you think? The emerging system makes getting to Book B much easier (you don't have to own nearly as much wood pulp, or live near a major library. But is it that much easier to find line L? That is, if the site you linked from wasn't interested in L? You can get to B through Google if you heard about it from a friend, but then what do you do?