Around the Common Room

Lots of Harry Potter in the news recently. Let’s go through a few important stories.

J.K. Rowling Sued for Plagiarism

Rowling and Bloomsbury are being sued; the charge is plagiarizing a story that J.K. Rowling says she’d never heard of before the first accusations in 2004. The supposed source material is the Adrian Jacobs’ book The Adventures of Willy the Wizard. Rowling responds:

“I am saddened that yet another claim has been made that I have taken material from another source to write Harry. The fact is I had never heard of the author or the book before the first accusation by those connected to the author’s estate in 2004; I have certainly never read the book.  The claims that are made are not only unfounded but absurd and I am disappointed that I, and my U.K. publisher Bloomsbury, are put in a position to have to defend ourselves.”

I’ve said before in a podcast that it’s easier than one thinks to write stories that are similar to what someone else has written – without ever having read the story. I once began outlining a seven-book series of fantasy fiction, only to find that many of my key ideas already existed in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books.

Infinitus Extends Formal Programming Submission Deadline

Interested in presenting a paper, joining a panel discussion, or running a workshop at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter this summer? Infinitus is happening in Orlando July 15-18, and you can be part of it. The deadline for submitting a proposal has been extended to February 28, so get yours in!

Also, be sure to read the most recent issue of Infinitum, the newsletter of Infinitus.

Mockingbird NYC Discovers Rowling’s Commencement Speech

A blog I’ve been following for some time (which, by the way, has nothing to do with mockingjays or The Hunger Games) recently discovered J.K. Rowling’s wonderful commencement speech at Harvard. It’s a great reminder of a great speech. Thanks to DZ for mentioning my work in the comments!

17 thoughts on “Around the Common Room

  1. On the plagiarism thing, I’m torn. On the one hand, it’s pretty absurd. And you’re quite right, Travis, that works of literature can end up looking very similar to others even without having read those works; it’s all part of the vast commonality of ideas, themes, character archetypes & plots.

    On the other hand, we know JKR & Bloomsbury have no qualms about suing anyone they believe has infringed the Harry Potter copyright, so for her to act all huffy about being sued seems a bit sanctimonious to me. But that just my opinion.

  2. The book – Willy the Wizard – came in as a donation to the place that I work. When I opened the book – I FREAKED OUT. It is Harry Potter. And not just a little – A LOT. Mind you the book is small – and Rowling took the ball and ran with it to the ends of the earth.

    Now – let’s say Ms. Rowling saw that book – which is from the 80s I believe – it’s a small book. Maybe she forgot. I don’t think she plagiarized on purpose. But – if she did – a portion of her billions goes to that author.

    Ok – on the other hand – it is easy to come up with an idea that’s already been done. (Travis – one of my ideas was also usurped way in advance by LeGuin!) Why didn’t she research the idea? And surely Bloomsbury has a responsibility to do that as well. This little book was not unknown at all. If it is in a Library of a child in California – surely it was everywhere. Somebody screwed up.

  3. This guy says that Willy the Wizard actually wasn’t that popular and at least in his neck of the woods, only 4 of the 10,000+ libraries had a copy.

    You can certainly tell that Willy the Wizard’s publishers/estate are focusing everything on this law suit right now. Notice this page from the website for the book, which goes out of its way to catalogue ideas Jacobs had in 1987 that ended up in HP.

  4. Chesterton wrote this about the alleged similarities between Buddhism and Christianity, but I think it also has some parallels to the alleged similarities between Harry and Willy the wizards:

    “The reasons were of two kinds: resemblances that meant nothing because they were common to all humanity, and resemblances which were not resemblances at all. The author solemnly explained that the two creeds were alike in things in which all creeds are alike, or else he described them as alike in some point in which they are quite obviously different. Thus, as a case of the first class, he said that both Christ and Buddha were called by the divine voice coming out of the sky, as if you would expect the divine voice to come out of the coal-cellar. Or, again, it was gravely urged that these two Eastern teachers, by a singular coincidence, both had to do with the washing of feet. You might as well say that it was a remarkable coincidence that they both had feet to wash….”

    (Orthodoxy, Chapter 8)

  5. So the author of Willy the Wizard, per his book’s own website, had lots of ideas that, even though they were “well-received” by publishers, nevertheless “needed re-writing.” However, the author didn’t want to do the actual work of rewriting, and instead found some minor publisher to do a very minor print run — 5000 copies of a 40-page kids’ book. And he gave “large numbers of books” to his agents — those would be books out of that 5000 that *didn’t sell* and went to some local schools to read from the book.

    Big whoop.

    There’s nothing here. Look at the vagueness of the elements that are supposedly plagiarized: Wizards take trains. Wizards need to earn money. Wizards have hospitals.

    Sorry. Show me someone with a published book about a wizard boy with a scar who doesn’t know that he’s a wizard, and we’ll talk.

    Maybe I’m just frustrated by a so-called “writer” who is, by his own representatives’ admission, “too impatient” (e.g., lazy) to rewrite.

    There’s nothing here. It’s a shame Scholastic/Bloomsbury has to waste money to deal with blighters like this.

  6. Thanks, Janet. That’s about the same tangent I wanted to go on, but you’ve got the experience, knowledge, and authority concerning copyright issues to do it.

    Someone has to explain to me why J.K. Rowling, after writing 3.5 highly imaginative, intricately-woven works of brilliant fiction would get halfway through Goblet of Fire and decide to plagiarize an obscure 36-page book for the second task. Like Janet said, all the other elements being cited are far too generic. Of course a magical world is going to need hospitals, an economy, etc. And as far as a school goes, Ursula LeGuin had that one down on paper in 1968, so the idea certainly didn’t start with Mr. Jacobs.

  7. Janet, I like it when you get angry.

    Do want to say, however, that Mr. Thing’s laziness is not really germane to the issue. The vagueness of the points of similarity is.

    Or maybe laziness – and greed – are the point. Because it sounds like it’s easier – and more lucrative – for this person to sue someone else, than to sit down and do what writers are supposed to do.

  8. I’ve dealt with a few actual (minor) instances of plagiarism in publishing. Suffice it to say, there’s simply no legal case here at all, just some publicity-hungry lawyers. And of course, any publicity is good publicity and the magic words “Harry Potter” get press coverage.

    Plagiarism is about taking somebody’s unique ideas or words. In other words, if the book was about a wizard named Barry Lotter and his teacher Mumblemore fighting the evil wizard Moldy Bart who killed Barry’s parents and gave him a scar… that might be newsworthy. But people riding on trains, competing in contests, and spending money? I can make a better case that someone ripped off a romance novel where this guy meets this girl and they fall in love but her father doesn’t approve….

    Also, speaking as a copy editor, when his editors told him it “needed re-writing”… Yeah. At least they were tactful.

  9. Of course it doesn’t really matter if she plagiarised or not. What matters is the strength of the arguements made in court. If it ever comes down to a jury I can forsee the ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ going to work. Then it won’t matter to all those people who haven’t read Harry. “Ah, she ripped off someone else’s work’ they’ll say… and so will journalistic vultures.

  10. Teresa Nielsen Hayden (an editor at Tor Books) has a rather lengthy blog post showing the lawsuit is completely without merit.

    (I am a long-time reader of The Hog’s Head, but this is my first comment.)

  11. Thanks Tom Brandt for posting. It always makes me happy when long-timer readers become posters. I hope that breaks the ice and you comment regularly

    I’ll have a good look at your link.

  12. Oooh! I remember reading “Ten Little Wizards” and “The Worst Witch” when I was very, very young. I loved books about orphans, boarding schools, and magic.

    I would love to read this cheesey Willy the Wizard book — it sounds awesome.

  13. @ Tom Brandt — Thanks for the link. That was a wholly enjoyable read. Minus the excerpts from WTW — something in my brain is now broken after looking at those…

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