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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
Inside A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy

Agent-o-rama

Oh, a new Harry Potter lawsuit! This one began over in the UK and just jumped the Atlantic to the US.

As reported in The National Law Journal, “The latest suit, filed in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York, alleges that Rowling copied themes from Jacobs’ The Adventures of Willy the Wizard — No 1 Livid Land in her book Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Willy the Wizard was published in the United Kingdom in 1987, while Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was published in 2000. Willy the Wizard was not published in the United States. Jacobs died in 1997” and “The suit claims that Jacobs originally approached literary agent Christopher Little — who now represents Rowling — about helping him find a publisher for Willy the Wizard. In its statement, Scholastic refuted the claim that Little was Jacobs’ agent.”

And here is another report of Christopher Little denying he was Jacobs’ agent, from The Bookseller: “The statement read: “The claim that Ms Rowling’s agent, Christopher Little, was agent to Adrian Jacobs is simply untrue.”

As explained in the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law Blog, an import part of the plaintiff’s case is proving “support its argument that J.K. Rowling had access to Willy the Wizard while writing and publishing Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and that the works are “substantially similar,” the complaint outlines a list of suspicious circumstances and parallels in “theme, plot, characters, setting, and total concept and feel.”

The initial complaint filed against Scholastic is available via Scribd

Personally, the “substantially similar” items as laid out in the complaint don’t strike me, as, well, substantially similar.

To me, the far more intriguing thing is the access and agent. That is, that Jacobs and Rowling shared an agent and that establishes Rowling’s access to Willy the Wizard. Since Little is flat-out denying he was Jacobs’ agent, that adds the additional wrinkle of what does in fact create an agency agreement. While the complaint calls Little Jacobs’ agent, the description from the Willy the Wizard website sounds more like an agent’s typical rejection of a work that is not accepted for representation: “However his literary agent advised him that the work needed some re-writing and was densely packed with themes and concepts that needed expansion and development.  Adrian Jacobs was impatient to publish and not wishing to re-write , Adrian commissioned an illustrator- Nick Tidnam RBA and retained him to illustrate the manuscript. Cecil Turner of Bachman Turner published the book in October 1987. Some 5000 copies were printed. Adrian sent a large number of copies of the highly colourful finished book to his literary agent.”

The timeline is also interesting. Basically, it means that Little held onto Jacobs’ work for years and then gave Rowling access. Per the complaint, Little became Rowling’s agent in 1994, seven years after he was given the Willy the Wizard book. Six years after that, Goblet of Fire was published.

So, thoughts? Is agency law different in the UK? Should authors who sent their vampire stories to Stephenie Meyer’s literary agent years before Twilight was published by paying attention?

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About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is lizzy.burns@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. I find this whole thing to be completely ridiculous. If you carefully read the site, at no point does it make the claim that the “his literary agent” who he supposedly sent the “highly colourful” copies of his finished, 36 page self-published book (yes, 36 pages) or who told him that his book was too “densely packed with themes” is the same agent as Rowling’s. They are two separate claims.

    Just because you submitted your work to that agent does not mean they accepted it.

    My agent handles — as in actually represents the work to publishers under contract — a good half-dozen authors of vampire books. She is doing nothing unethical. Neither vampires nor wizards are original ideas. None of these authors are plagiarising from each other.

    The Nielsen Haydens (editors at Tor) covered this on making light in February (http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/012205.html) and one of the salient points in their blog post about it is that this is the kind of suit that comes from people who have never read ANY fantasy and do not at all understand the nature of ideas:

    ” [[ Jacobs’s 36-page book, also about a child discovering he has magical powers, — ]]

    If you threw us into prison and only fed us on days when we could supply the title of a published work that fits that description, we could stay alive for a very long time. Many of the works we’d name antedate Willy the Wizard. Perhaps their authors should sue the Adrian Jacobs estate. “

  2. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Diana, the factual allegations scream “plaintiff and their lawyer have only a shallow knowledge of books.” I’m reminded of all the non-writers who think their “original” idea is, well, “original.” And is all that is needed for a succesful book, as opposed to little things like writing, plotting, characterization, etc.

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