Tuesday, September 09, 2008

But you can keep the Google Ads

Today Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling won a lawsuit against Steven Vander Ark for violation of copyright law. This is a very unique case because it involves the attempted book publication of a web site's content—content which the original author had explicitly endorsed. Vander Ark compiled an exhaustive lexicon of the Harry Potter universe, put it online at hplex.org and—because there's not yet an official lexicon anywhere—Rowling herself had expressed gratitude: "This is such a great site that I have been known to sneak into an internet café while out writing and check a fact rather than go into a bookshop and buy a copy of Harry Potter (which is embarrassing)."

Now watch carefully. Rowling's explicitly acknowledges the usefulness of Vander Ark's site, yet when Vander Ark attempts to publish the contents of his web site, Rowling sues him... and wins. Rowling's intent was to prevent Vander Ark from making money from her work in book form, but Vander Ark already makes money from Rowling's work through the Google Ads on his web site. Why is it okay for Rowling to laud Vander Ark's work on one platform, but sue him when he moves that content to another platform?

The answer is pretty clear—compared to the web, published books are still considered a lucrative business. I don't think anyone knows how much Vander Ark has received from Google Ads, but it's probably not as much as he would have received from a book deal. However, as the web continues to dominate the marketplace, traditional profits are likely to shift away from published books and shift towards the internet. Authors will then face an interesting dilemma: either hire lawyers to sue the gajillion fan sites out there making money off their work, or accept that fan sites are likely to bring more value to their work... and thus, more money.

Would Vander Ark's lexicon have brought added value to Rowling's works? Undoubtedly. Would Rowling's books have made more money because of Vander Ark's published lexicon? Obviously. So if you were Rowling, often touted as more wealthy than the Queen of England and thus not someone hurting from a missed paycheck, is it really in your best interests to sue your greatest fan and run the risk of souring your reputation to your other fans? A better option might have been for Rowling to join forces with Vander Ark... or publish her own lexicon with her own (priceless) commentary. After all, how could Vander Ark's book ever really compete with Rowling's own lexicon?

Had this lawsuit happened a year ago, I'd have squarely sided with Rowling: "It's obviously some dude trying to make a buck off of her years of hard work." Now, after seeing how piracy can actually help content gain a broader viewership, I take a much different tack: "If Vander Ark's derivative work adds more value to Rowling's years of hard work, let him make as many lexicons as he sees fit. But if his lexicons take value away from her work, she should aggressively shut him down."

Either way, Vander Ark had foresight: he told his book publisher he'd only publish his web site on one condition: the publisher would have to cover his legal fees should Rowling ever sue him.

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