Legally Speaking: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Frivolous Lawsuits

By John G. Browning | Aug 15, 2011

The final movie in the Harry Potter saga, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2," has set box office records worldwide, just as the series of J.K. Rowling books which inspired the films have shattered sales records themselves and secured a permanent place in the hearts of children and adults alike.

Add in all of the merchandise tied to the tales of the boy wizard and his friends at Hogwarts, factor in the wildly popular theme park attraction at Florida's Universal Studios, and you can understand how J.K. Rowling went from welfare mother to billionaire.

But with commercial success come the lawsuits, faster than you can say "Litigatorum Malefactorum," and even the most powerful spells and wands aren't enough to spare those behind the Harry Potter empire from something potentially darker and more powerful than Voldemort—muggles with lawyers.

One of the current lawsuits is over the wizardly-looking font used on tons of bags, T-shirts and other souvenirs crowding the shelves of gift shops at the "Wizarding World of Harry Potter" attraction in Orlando. A company called P22 that creates typefaces "inspired by Art, History, and sometimes Science" has sued NBC Universal for $1.5 million in damages, claiming that the studio misappropriated its "Cezanne" font and is using it on all kind of Harry Potter memorabilia. Maybe they can settle this over a couple of pints of Butterbeer.

Another legal challenge came with the adaptation of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." In the book, there is a dance held for the young wizards at Hogwarts, and the entertainment at this dance is furnished by a band called the Weird Sisters. Since in real life there is a Canadian folk band called the Wyrd Sisters, Warner Brothers decided to err on the side of caution and offer the group $50,000 for the rights to use the name.

However, the band refused, and even took the film studio to court, demanding $40 million and trying to get an injunction against the film's release. Even though the case was dismissed and the judge denied the injunction, the filmmakers wrote the Weird Sisters out of the movie version.

That's a shame, because the Wyrd Sisters weren't exactly plowing original ground themselves; the term "Wyrd Sisters" appears in William Shakespeare's "Macbeth," referring to the three hags or witches toiling over their cauldron in the beginning of the play (Shakespeare himself borrowed the concept of the three crones foretelling Macbeth's future from the three Fates or Norns of Greek and Norse mythology, respectively).

Other lawsuits have been the more typical allegations by other authors claiming to have been the real creators of Harry Potter. In 1999, U.S. writer Nancy Stouffer alleged that J.K. Rowling had infringed her copyright, pointing to a series of activity booklets for children that she had written, including "Larry Potter and His Best Friend Lilly" and "The Legend of Rah and the Muggles."

However, Rowling and her publisher beat Stouffer to the courthouse, and won a declaratory judgment that no infringement had occurred. Among other setbacks for Stouffer, the court found that she had submitted fraudulent documents and testimony (including changing pages years later to retroactively add the word "muggle"). It dismissed Stouffer's case, ordered her to pay $50,000 for a pattern of "intentional bad faith conduct," and also directed her to pay part of the plaintiffs' attorney's fees.

In June 2009, the estate of the late children's book author Adrian Jacobs sued J.K. Rowling and her publishers for copyright infringement. The lawsuit claims that "substantial parts" of Jacobs' book The Adventures of Willy the Wizard: Livid Land showed up in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Rowling denied the allegations, pointing out that she had never seen, read or even heard of Jacobs' book until the lawsuit was filed. In January of this year, the American legal proceeding against Rowling and her publisher (Scholastic) was dismissed, with the judge finding that there were insufficient similarities between the two works to constitute plagiarism. The UK version of the lawsuit is still going on, however.

Naturally, with a franchise as valuable as the Harry Potter series, its owners have frequently resorted to legal action of their own to protect their interests—not from the evil Voldemort or the nefarious Malfoy clan, but from would-be infringers and other assorted evildoers.

The latter category has included everyone from a security guard at a book distribution center (who allegedly stole pages from "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" and threatened to sell them to the media if he wasn't paid off), to retailers who have sold copies of the books before their release date, to the organizers of a Hindu religious festival in India that allegedly featured a giant Hogwarts replica.

Some of the would-be Harry Potter imitators against whom Rowling and company have sought injunctions are almost laughable. For example, in 2002, an unauthorized book called "Harry Potter and Bao Zoulong" began appearing for sale in the People's Republic of China.

The fake book not only wasn't written by Rowling, it actually consisted primarily of the text of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit," with most names changed to those of characters from the Harry Potter universe. The Bashu Publishing House later paid a fine and published an apology for printing the novel.

Rowling's concerns are not unfounded; in 2007, it was estimated that approximately 15 million pirated Harry Potter novels were circulating in China alone. The author and her publisher have taken action against an Indian publisher to stop the publication of "Harry Potter in Calcutta," against a Russian publisher for its tales of a female apprentice wizard in "Tanya Grotter and the Magical Double Bass," and even against the Indian studio behind the Bollywood film "Hari Puttar: A Comedy of Terrors."

In the movies, of course, you can take on such evil forces with a trusty wand, a spell or two, and some sage advice from the wise Dumbledore. In the real world, though, you need help from those who have truly mastered the "dark arts"—the lawyers.

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