It did not work out for me to produce original stuff today, but this article in the New York Times caught my eye. In it, the Chinese are having a riproaring good time with Harry Potter. J. K. Rowling’s subcreation is a huge hit even in the Middle Kingdom, and there, copyright doesn’t mean what it means here. Mostly, it means nothing.
Quick sidenote: today was the first day back to work at Newnan Crossing, and one of the boxes waiting for me was the box from Bound-to-Stay-Bound containing our two copies of Deathly Hallows. As I pulled the books from the box, I noticed an orange slip of paper in each. They were my warning notice to keep them secure and not to display them or show them to anybody before 12:01 am, July 21. In other words, if I had been there to open the box when it came in, I would have had copies of the final book before any of the rest of you. Behold the power of the librarians! Bwahahaha!
Anyway, copyright in China. In China, you can buy Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows from their equivalent of Scott’s Bookstore or Barnes & Noble. You can also buy it on the street, photocopied and bound, for a lot less. But you can also buy Harry Potter and the Showdown, by Li Jingsheng, a textile factory manager who had bought the first six books to read to his son, and in response to his son’s wanting to know how it ended, wrote his own, 250,000 words worth.
Mr. Li made the mistake of posting his version on the intertubes, where it quickly logged 150,000 readers, and now you can buy it on the street. Not that Mr. Li is making money off it: Chinese pirates will rip off anyone, not just billionaire Scottish authoresses. (Mr. Li’s readers have begged him for book eight, which he has already begun, unlike the ungrateful Ms. Rowling.)
But you can also buy (and I’m getting to a point soon, I promise) Harry Potter and the Hiking Dragon, Harry Potter and the Chinese Empire, Harry Potter and the Young Heroes, Harry Potter and Leopard-Walk-Up-to-Dragon, and Harry Potter and the Big Funnel. I’m not too sure about that last one.
Rowling’s publishers have of course taken steps to quash all this, but I’m sure once you get over into the Qinghai province, you don’t have much of a presence as a Western litigator.
So here’s the deal: wow. A fifth of the world’s population is so taken with your creation that they have an entire black market economy based on it. Wow. They’re writing their own, melding it with their own culture. It cannot be suppressed, and their government’s pretty darn good at suppression.
Copyright, as we’ve said before, was put into place to protect a creator’s work for a limited time so that he/she can make money from its sale before it gets subsumed by the Commons. But it does get subsumed by the Commons, precisely so that the rest of us can use it to spur our own creations, be it Harry Potter and the Big Funnel or The Winter’s Tale (yes, I’m looking at you, Mark Helprin.)
Now, when Joanne Rowling was a starving artist with a wee bairn, then absolutely Bloomsbury and Scholastic should have guarded her interests with as much ferocity as the law allows. And yes, I know that legally nothing is different now that she’s the world’s first billionaire author. But you know what? It is different. Copyright was designed to allow her some space to get income off her creation if she could, and I think, by any standard, she’s done that. She can’t even give it all away in her lifetime, and it’s not as if the end of the series is the end of her income. She is, to put it mildly, filthy rich.
I also think she’s done more than amass an unimaginable fortune from her copyright: she has given the world a huge gift to their narrative pool. Enormous. Stupendous. Unequalled in the 20th/21st century, even. Harry Potter burst the bounds of normal copyright considerations years ago, look at all the fanfic online, the slash fiction, the YouTube parodies, and now an entire Chinese industry. A completely alien culture has taken her work and run with it, churning the narrative pool in what I think is a very exciting way. If I had made a fortune off of William Blake’s Inn, I’d be thrilled to see the entire planet riffing on my stuff. Shoot, even if I hadn’t made a fortune, I’d be thrilled.
So while I support the lawyers in their quest to shut down the fake Deathly Hallows sales or the books that purport to be actually by J. K. Rowling, that’s a direct violation of the ethos of copyright, I am not so supportive of any efforts to suppress the rest of it. If I were Rowling, I’d instruct my lawyers to go collect all of it. I’d want my personal copy of The Big Funnel. Translated, of course.