Frivolous Lawsuits and Book Burning: Fruitloops Galore

The book world is sometimes a very weird place. In keeping with that, two news items caught my eye today…

Another Harry Potter Infringement Claim

According to this press release, the estate of children’s author Adrian Jacobs is suing Bloomsbury Publishing, alleging that J. K. Rowling stole the plot of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire from Jacobs’ 1987 book The Adventures of Willy the Wizard–No 1–Livid Land, and that Bloomsbury is in copyright violation for printing and selling Goblet. According to the press release,

Both books describe the adventures of a main character, “Willy” in Jacobs’ book and “Harry Potter” in Rowling’s, who are wizards, who compete in a wizard contest which they ultimately win. Both Willy and Harry are required to work out the exact nature of the main task of the contest which they both achieve in a bathroom assisted by clues from helpers, in order to discover how to rescue human hostages imprisoned by a community of half-human, half-animal fantasy creatures, “the merpeople” in Harry Potter. Many other similarities are described in the Claim filed by the Estate, which include the idea of wizards travelling on trains.

Shades of Nancy Stouffer, who in 2000 alleged that Rowling lifted ideas from Stouffer’s 1984 children’s fantasy The Legend of Rah and the Muggles! According to Australia’s The Daily Telegraph, the suit is being “promoted” by “Sydney celebrity publicist Max Markson,” who says that Jacobs’ estate is seeking an injunction to prevent continued sale of Goblet of Fire, and is also seeking a court order against Rowling to determine whether to add her as a defendant in the action. (Which seems odd. If you’re arguing plagiarism, wouldn’t the author be your primary target–especially when the author is as wealthy as Rowling?)

Stouffer’s suit was tossed out of court in 2002. Although much of the press coverage seems to be taking this new lawsuit seriously, I suspect that the Jacobs estate is heading for the same outcome. On investigation, Willy the Wizard proves to be a 36-page illustrated children’s book, somewhat vitiating comparison to Rowling’s 640-page young adult tome.

Also, while the press release prominently alleges that Jacobs “sought the services” of Rowling’s literary agent, Christopher Little–an attempt, presumably, to establish a connection between Jacobs and Rowling–there’s no evidence that Little was ever actually Jacobs’s agent (the recently-created website for Willy the Wizard several times mentions a “literary agent,” but never provides a name). Putting this together with the fact that nearly thirteen years divides the publication of Willy the Wizard from that of Goblet of Fire, I suspect it will be tough for the Jacobs estate to argue that Rowling ever had an opportunity to view Jacobs’s book.

Oh, but she could have found it in a bookstore, you may be thinking? Maybe not. Although I can’t find any specific info on Jacobs’s publisher, Bachman & Turner, the Willy the Wizard website reveals that Jacobs commissioned his own illustrations and was “impatient to publish” and didn’t want to re-write, as his unnamed literary agent apparently advised him to do. Along with the awful title and the rather-less-than-stellar writing, this suggests vanity publishing, to my suspicious mind at least. (Interesting possible parallel: Stouffer’s books were vanity published.)

Writing samples and illustrations (hope Jacobs’s estate got permission for those) can be seen at the Willy the Wizard website, which appears to have been designed with the lawsuit specifically in mind.

Would-Be Book Burners to Civil Authorities: Can We? Please?

What’s the world coming to? Used to be, book burners just went out and burned books. They didn’t bother with any silly stuff, like asking for permission. But in Wisconsin, four purported members of something called the Christian Civil Liberties Union have filed a complaint with the city of West Bend seeking the right to burn or otherwise destroy the West Bend Community Memorial Library’s copy of Francesca Lia Block’s YA novel, Baby Be-Bop.

According to this post from the American Library Association, the complaint describes the novel as “explicitly vulgar, racial, and anti-Christian.” Moreover,

“the plaintiffs, all of whom are elderly, claim their mental and emotional well-being was damaged by this book at the library,” specifically because Baby Be-Bop contains the “n” word and derogatory sexual and political epithets that can incite violence and “put one’s life in possible jeopardy, adults and children alike.”

As opposed to building a bonfire, which might ignite neighboring objects, such as children.

The CCLU’s complaint follows on a challenge by local residents to a number of titles in the library’s YA collection, and a decision by library trustees to leave the collection intact. There’s more coverage in this article from The Guardian.

(A web search on “Christian Civil Liberties Union” turns up plenty of discussion of book burning, but no info on this group. Methinks it was invented for the occasion.)


  1. I wonder if this was filed almost as a nuisance suit–that the plaintiff thought Rowling would settle to make it go away?

  2. I'm curious about Max Markson's involvement.

    He's a well known publicist – he takes 20% of all income from projects that he publicises.
    (So he's very, very expensive)

    So what is in it for him? Perhaps it's just a quick press release and doesn't take much time or effort, but it seems like it's still a move that is going to reduce his brand image.
    (And, despite all his detractors, he does have a very strong brand)


  3. Um, yes, I do. Call me a cockeyed optimist (or one who has experience with DMCA takedown notices, on both the giving and receiving end).

  4. I would guess Rowling would be thrilled if Jacobs tries to use a DCMA – Digital Copyright Millennium Act – takedown notice and perjures himself.

    Anyone sending a DCMA notice has to state under penalty of perjury that they have a good faith belief in copyright infringement.

    Here, Jacobs' attorney already said there were no common passages between Rowling's and Jacobs' books (so there can be no copyright infringement).

  5. When you send a DMCA takedown request, you have to include a link or reference to the content you claim was infringed. So it would be tough to use this purely as a nuisance tactic.

  6. The apocalyptic vision is being missed here.

    Imagine you direct publish your eBook and sell it via Amazon or Google or Sony or Apple.

    Along comes some SOB claiming Copyright infringement — like the above — and issues DMCA notices to those companies. Because the *DMCA* comes into play here with an eBook.

    They have no alternative but to remove the eBook.

    Another writer starved to death.

    Waking up yet to the protest that must arise?

  7. Have to wonder how the author of the 'sequel' expected Salinger to react. Perhaps they thought he was dead already.

  8. as far as I can tell, the Catcher In The Rye sequel is not satire or parody. Which would make it a derivative work.

  9. Yes, but the Judge's stay is only temporary while she more fully evaluates the case and whether there is infringement and no fair use.

    I think the decision will come down to whether the judge thinks this new book is a parody/satire, in which case Fair Use will dictate that it be publishable, or whether the Judge concludes it's a derivative work/sequel, in which case I think she'll make the injunction permanent.

    can't wait to see how it turns out. Supposedly she will rule in 10 days.

  10. a federal judge just ruled that the unauthorized Catcher In The Rye sequel does in fact infringe copyright, since Holden Caufield is a copyrighted character that was used without permission.

  11. The Jacobs book is quite obviously vanity published. Note that all the references on the website discuss that the manuscript was "well-received" by literary agents, and that "5000 copies were printed", but no word about actual publication/distribution or sales of actual books to actual buyers. The notion that JK Rowling could have plagiarized a vanity-published book with no sales distribution is completely ludicrous. Methinks this whole ruse was drawn up as a nuisance suit the plaintiffs hope that Rowling will settle just to make it go away. (HA! She won't. Rowling is the most powerful author in the world—she even outsells the Bible).

    And the Bible, coincidentally, is one of the filthiest books ever written. Ever read Song of Solomon? Now THAT is a great piece of porn!

  12. Book burning? Why not just not read it?

    But…but…then Other People wouldn't realize how offensive the book in question is!!!

    It's grandstanding for the lurkers, only in RL.

  13. (1) One reason that copyright nerds like me are sort of interested in Jacobs is that Australian copyright law does not have the strong dichotomy between ideas and expression found in American copyright law. That said, I think the lawsuit fails on civil procedure grounds long before one gets to the copyright issues…

    (2) Once upon a time — while I was in high school — one of the local religious bigots tried to get a book removed from the high school system on the grounds that it was unchristian and "promoted disrespect for authority." She didn't quite propose burning it… I think burning Fahrenheit 451 would have been obvious enough irony for even that idiot.

  14. This makes them sound like an eccentric mom-and-pop publishing house, rather than a vanity press.

    The obit was written by one of Turner's authors, so if payment was involved, I don't expect she'd mention it.

    Whatever the real nature of the publishing arrangement, editorial gatekeeping clearly didn't play a large part…

  15. Bloomsbury responds to Jacobs Estate lawsuit: "This claim is without merit and will be defended vigorously."

    Interestingly, it appears that the claim was first made in 2004 by solicitors acting on behalf of Jacobs's son.

  16. Yes, Jacobs's heirs are just trying to make a buck in a very sleazy way. The writing is absolutely execrable.

    When I googled Bachman and Turner, I got nothing about a publisher, but a lot of links to Bachman Turner Overdrive! Rock on!

    As for the book burner wannabees, what we can do is support our local public and school libraries in our communities when the nutcases go off on a tear, as happens from time to time in all places, sooner or later. Support bookstores, too, when they have "banned books" displays.

    And read a banned book now and then.

  17. Oh the publicity lawsuit, the ugliest "get rich quick" scheme ever. When will hack artists learn that this is not a way to instantly sell more of your work?
    You aren't going to win the lawsuit and although you will get media attention, you won't be flying off any shelves by doing this. The music industry is getting hit with these in a big way right now (Coldplay and Green Day are both fighting off copyright lawsuits). Such a waste of the legal system…

  18. On Book Burners:

    I wonder what these groups think of "1984"?

    Seriously, hearing this scares me quite a bit. If you don't want to read a book…well, don't. But just because YOU don't want to read it doesn't mean that I don't want to read it and take something meaningful from it, no matter what the content is. They don't have the right to make that choice for me.

    Limiting access to children – well, I believe that children are mentally stronger and better able to make decisions than we usually give them credit for, but I can understand the concern. Burning the book and preventing adults from making a decision to read it? Absurd.

    Also, yes, books can influence us. They can help break and remake our perceptions, and they usually manage to do it in a way that opens our minds if we allow them to. But they don't make decisions for you. They aren't dangerous creatures wanting to make your child their next meal and they won't be the one picking up the knife if someone makes the decision to become violent.

  19. At first, I was somewhat irritated by the second story, but I calmed down after some daydreaming about an accord struck between four elderly individuals to not rest until a single copy of a YA book is reduced to ashes.

    Here's a video on YouTube from the June 2 meeting of the West Bend Library Board.

  20. I'm baffled at how the Jacobs' book got published, frankly. I can point to more than half of the alleged "infringement" in standard indices of literary motifs. So yeah, bogus suit–it's just a lot of work to convince the average jury of that.

    I'm hoping that the book-burning suit has a counter suit demanding that the Bible be removed from public access for obscene references. Incest. Drunken sex. Same-sex love. Alcoholism. Rape. Erotic language meant to be sexually enticing. And honestly, let's get rid of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton–three pervy writers if I ever saw any.

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