Ted Striphas has a great account in The Late Age of Print of the legal battles surrounding unauthorized adaptations of the Harry Potter novels. All the usual “Media Piracy” elements are in play here: “windowing” practices for massive global hits that make them unavailable for months or years in developing countries. Extensive local adaptations and commercializations at lower prices. The zero point of originality determined by who has the most lawyers. Among the nice touches: a Dutch court splitting hairs over whether Harry Potter was itself a derivative work.
Despite Rowling, Warner Bros., and other authorities’ intensive global efforts to police their coveted Harry Potter copyrights and trademarks, fakery has proven to be endemic to the book series. Consider what China Today calls “The Chinese Harry Potter Epidemic,” or a spate of “Harry Potter read-alikes” circulating in and around the country. These include books like Harry Potter’s Sister, author Serge Brussolo’s book Girl Wizard Peggy Sue, which Chinese publishers retitled and repackaged—apparently without the author’s consent—hoping to cash in on China’s Pottermania. Then there’s The Magic Violin, a novel purportedly written by nine-year-old Bian Jinyang. As with Harry Potter’s Sister, Bian’s publisher attempted to capitalize on the explosive popularity of the Harry Potter series by reissuing the book under the title China’s Harry Potter.
South Asia, too, has seen its share of Potter knockoffs. Because Harry Potter’s official release in Hindi only occurred in November 2003—six years after the first Potter book’s official release there in English—Indian translators had ample time to produce and circulate their own unofficial translations of the series for free (to those with access) over the Internet. In contrast, the authorized Hindi translation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, published by Bopal-based Rakheja, reportedly sells for 165 rupees, or about $5.00.56 Meanwhile, China’s Harry Potter seems to have found its Indian counterpart in Harry Potter in Calcutta, where, in author Uttam Ghosh’s story, our hero interacts with a host of classic “characters from Bengali literature.” Harry’s adventures in Calcutta were cut short, however, after his publisher, under pressure from Warner Bros., decided to discontinue the book.
In 2002 author Dmitry Yemets penned the first installment in the series, the 413-page Tanya Grotter i Magicheskii Kontrabas (Tanya Grotter and the Magical Double Bass), and over the next four years he and his Moscow-based publisher, Eksmo, released an astonishing ten more Grotter volumes (fig. 13). The books typically sell for about $2.50, or less than half the going rate for the officially sanctioned Potter books published in Russia; in many stores they are placed alongside the authorized Potter volumes. Although Tanya’s sales figures trail those of Harry’s, her numbers are nonetheless impressive. During a nine-month period between 2002 and 2003, Russian booksellers reportedly sold 600,000 copies of Tanya’s adventures, compared to about 1.5 million copies of Harry’s escapades….
Yemets openly admits to having drawn inspiration for his title character and key aspects of the young heroine’s adventures from the Potter book series. Similarly, he insists that his books are parodies that, suffused with Russian culture, deserve to be exempt from international intellectual property restrictions.
The parties finally squared off in the Netherlands after publisher Byblos announced in early 2003 its intention to produce the Dutch translation of Tanya Grotter and the Magical Double Bass. The company began by mak- ing the already delicate situation even worse when, in its spring 2003 sales circular, it boldly described young Tanya as the “Russian ‘sister’ of Harry Potter.”…
Byblos’s attorneys weren’t content merely to defend Yemets’s book. They went on the offensive, challenging the substance of Rowling’s own copyright. Like numerous scholars and critics before them, the attorneys noted that Rowling had appropriated many elements of the Potter stories—orphan tales, British boarding school dramas, fantasy stories—from already existing literary materials, only some of which were in the public domain. At worst, they contended, Yemets’s novel was a derivation of an already derivative work. If that were the case, what would be the point of adjudicating the legitimacy of one author’s acts of appropriation over those of another? At best, they insisted, Tanya Grotter and the Magical Double Bass was a substantially original work whose differences flowed from Yemets’s creative acts of appropriation.
I might have been sympathetic to this argument, but Byblos lost it.
The court nevertheless was unequivocal in its findings: Yemets was “free to build on earlier literature, but then with his own story. The conclusion must be that [Tanya Grotter] is an unauthorised adaptation of [Harry Potter].”
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