You’ll have heard the original news story: How, back in March 2000, American author Nancy Stouffer brought suit against J. K. Rowling and her publishers, claiming that Rowling’s hugely successful Harry Potter plagiarized her own children’s book, The Legend of Rah [and the Muggles], and her series of stories about “Larry Potter”, all of which were published in the mid-1980s.
I found her case unconvincing from the start. “Muggles” is not a new word, “Potter” is not an uncommon surname, and the other alleged similarities were nothing you couldn’t find in dozens of other works. Stouffer is just not all that credible. On her own website, she claimed that each of her titles—which were issued by a vanity publisher—had a first printing of 100,000 copies, and that all of them had sold out their first printings within a week.
Just for the record, that’s impossible. First, if they’d sold like that, you would have heard about them, they’d have been on bestseller lists, and they’d still be in print. Second, in order to get that kind of initial laydown in the stores, her publisher would have to have had a full-scale professional marketing & distribution setup already in operation. If you’re a real publisher, a setup like that is expensive but indispensable. If you’re a vanity publisher, it’s ruinously expensive and completely pointless. Third, both Borders and Barnes & Noble have confirmed that they turned down Stouffer’s books as being of inferior quality. If you’re interested, here’s a short review of The Legend of Rah, and an in-depth review.
Stauffer’s case didn’t prosper. Neither did she. Nobody wanted her books, and her first lawyer dropped her for undisclosed reasons that at this point scarcely need explaining. There’s been a series [1, 2, 3] of flavorful technical rants about the legal goings-on in the Stouffer case in Surreality Check, John Savage’s online journal about publishing law.
And what about J. K. Rowling? She’s been taking it like an author. Which is to say that this woman—current titleholder for “the English-speaking world’s most successful writer,” zillions of awards, whose works are passionately adored by an entire generation of children and many older readers as well, who’s had a successful major motion picture based on her work with the possibility of more, and whose new releases have the unprecedented power to soak up every last available scrap of excess capacity in the printing and binding industry when Scholastic seriously underestimates their initial demand—has been fretting so much over this one stupid case that it’s kept her from finishing her latest book.
They’re like that. I swear.
The case has now been settled. The court ruled in J. K. Rowling’s favor, which is not surprising in the least. They stuck Nancy Stouffer with the legal costs, which if less of a foregone conclusion is still not surprising. The juicy part is that they nailed Stouffer with an additional $50,000 fine for bad behavior. This is where it gets interesting.
My own impulse would have been to argue the content of the books; to say that coincidental similarities (Muggles, Potter) happen far more often than casual readers imagine, and that themes and motifs recur in literature almost as predictably as repeats in the background of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. And in fact the judge has ruled that the similarities between the works are minimal. But most of the judgement is taken up with a discussion of the evidence Stouffer submitted in support of her case:
The motion for sanctions is based upon Stouffer’s alleged perpetration of a fraud upon the Court, namely her production of at least seven pieces of falsified evidence: (i) the altered Playthings advertisement that was attached to her counterclaims (SAAC, Exh. 12); (ii) the altered copies of The Legend of Rah and the Muggles (Choe Decl. Exh. 17-20); (iii) the altered copy of the “RAH” screenplay (SAAC, Exh. 18); (iv) drawings of “Muggles” merchandise that were altered to include the word “Muggles TM” (Choe Decl, Exh. 63); (v) altered copies of Larry Potter and His Best Friend Lilly (Choe Decl., Exh. 24-27); (vi) the forged invoices that purport to record sales by BCI to Great Northern Distributors (SAAC, Exh. 16); and (vii) an altered draft agreement between BCI and Warner Publisher Services. (SAAC, Exh. 17; Choe Decl., Exh 37).The judgement—which is shorter and more readable than you may fear; do have a look at it—fascinates me because testimony pops up from so many areas of the industry the public doesn’t normally hear from—copyright registration, wholesale book sales, illustration, print technology, typography and imaging, and I’m not sure what all else. Here’s a sample:
Stouffer has produced booklets entitled The Legend of Rah and the Muggles that were allegedly created by Ande in the 1980’s. However, plaintiffs have submitted expert testimony indicating that the words “The Legend of” and the words “and the Muggles,” which appear on the title pages of these booklets, could not have been printed prior to 1991. … According to plaintiffs’ expert witness—whose testimony Stouffer does not rebut—the printing technology employed in the application of those words to the title pages was invented in 1985; however, because the specific printer used to print those words was between six and ten years old at the time the words were printed, “The Legend of” and “and the Muggles” could not have been placed on the title pages before 1991 (i.e. four years after Ande’s bankruptcy). Stouffer concedes that these additional words were added to the title pages of the booklets after the booklets were originally printed, although she does not know exactly when the words were added or by what printing method.When the case first started, I thought it was possible that Nancy Stouffer was one of those poor deluded souls who have so few ideas themselves, and are so unfamiliar with the process of having them, that they think any similarity between their own (invariably unpublished) work and other authors’ published work must be deliberate plagiarism. But not now. The extent of her forgeries rules that out. She’s a fraud—and a damned stupid one, too.
John Savage of Surreality Check writes to say that I understated just how ignominious the judgement was for Nancy Stauffer. He has …
… Just one minor quibble, and (of course!) it’s a technical one: the Stouffer matter has not been settled at all. There was no settlement, but a summary judgment against Stouffer. (Think of it as a trial before the judge where all the evidence is on paper, instead of live witnesses, and that the judge has to find that “no rational jury” could find otherwise—or it DOES go to a jury trial with live witnesses.)