Harry Potter and the Prosumer Prosecution Predicament

jk_rowling_colors.jpgRob Boostrom, a Ph.D. Student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale sent me this news flash about the way Joanne “J.K.” Rowling is interacting with some of the Harry Potter fans who have made her a British billionaire richer than the Queen. And this one has lessons to behoove all marketers, methinks.

The story, from Yahoo’s OMG entertainment news site, is titled “JK Rowling bashes ‘Harry Potter Lexicon.” Harry Potter author Joanne Rowling has filed a lawsuit in Manhattan against a fan named Steven Vander Ark, for trying to publish an unauthorized reference work entitled the Harry Potter Lexicon.

Mr. Ark is what I’ve termed a “superfan” in my thesis dissertation work. He is the editor of a web-site, also called the Harry Potter Lexicon, which contains fan-created essays and encyclopedic material on the Potter universe. Check it out. It contains lists of spells and potions found in the books, a catalog of magical creatures, and a listing of the different people mentioned in the wizarding world. In short, the fans have gone through the different books in the series and cataloged the material, presenting it in a new way. And this is one of many such sites that do things like this.

Rowling has accepted the fan-based web sites, but-in old school fashion-does not want the work published on paper. Even by a small Muskegon, MI-based published called RDR Books. RDR Books’ website contains lots of very interesting material on the lawsuit.

One of the main bases of the lawsuit, according to the OMG article, is that Rowling “intends to publish her own definitive Harry Potter encyclopedia.” So the main reason here seems to be that J. K. Rowling wants to publish her own book, apparently to make even more money. A lot of the community comments on this new story (there were a whopping 3679 this morning) are about how greedy Joanne seems to be. “Doesn’t she have enough money?” Those sorts of comments. Then there are those who defend her, citing her legendary rags-to-riches story” “You go, girl. Protect what’s yours,” they say.

Her statements are indeed interesting and paradoxical. She says that failing to accept her position to restrict fan’s freedom to publish derivative works will lead, in the end, to less freedom for fans to work with material online: “a severe alteration of author-fan relations.” Hmmm. That must be much worse than suing them for publishing a few fan-like books.

The attorney for RDR Books, Lizbeth Hasse, said last week that Rowling is seeking a monopoly over the work, which is not part of copyright law. She called the lexicon-making activity of the fans ” a very legitimate literary activity, like a reference book or a guide to literature.” Apparently, Joanne Rowling thanked Steven Vander Ark, and has praised the online lexicon.

Ms. Hasse is certainly correct that there is a long history of fans working through authors’ material and collecting it in a way that is “fan-friendly.” That’s a very fannish activity. I wrote about such fan activity in my thesis, in which I relate this activity to “Superfans.” I again quote from Kozinets (1997):

bjo_trimble.jpg“Bjo Trimble exemplifies a superfan. Bjo (pronounced “bee-JOE”) was one of the original series’ fans responsible for the letter writing campaign that saved the show from early cancellation and resulted in the third season of Star Trek (a decisive season in Star Trek history because, without it, there would not have been sufficient episodes for syndication).”

With some help from Gene Roddenberry, Bjo and other fans organized and implemented the successful and very famous campaign and, in many Star Trek culture members’ perception, started the age of television activism, a media-related form of consumerism. She also wrote one of the first, and still one of the best, fan reference works on the original Star Trek series, the Star Trek Concordance, which was professionally published and gained mass distribution and collectible status.

startrekconcordance_1.jpgThe Star Trek Concordance was the Harry Potter Lexicon of its day. It collected the episodes, credits, cast, and plot summaries of the Star Trek television shows-all of the 79 original episodes, plus the 21 animated episodes. The concept for the book was based on a privately printed fandom publication established by Dorothy Jones Heydt in 1968. Trimble worked on the book extensively and it was first published professionally by Ballantine Books in 1976. Later, the book was endorsed by Paramount Pictures.

The big difference in these cases was that Gene Roddenberry was the quintessential community manager. Her knew how to work with–not against–his creation’s enthusiastic fans, to share his creation, to use fandom to spread influence and build allies. Roddenberry and the fans were  on the same side. I can’t imagine Gene Roddenberry (to fans, he is always referred to as “Gene”) suing Bjo Trimble for writing the Star Trek Concordance instead of him. In fact, I’m sure he thanked her for it.

Bjo Trimble was also one of the founders of the first and longest-lived consortium of Star Trek fan clubs, the Star Trek Welcommittee. “Among active members of the Star Trek culture, Bjo Trimble is a star. She had her own set of roles that complimented and enhanced Gene’s. Her ability to bring active fans together and draw them to Star Trek conventions is comparable to the drawing power of an actor from one of the television series. She is thus a frequent guest at cons. In convention brochures, she is described as a “superfan.” In one of the Star Trek conventions on whose planning committee I worked, Bjo was considered as a fan guest because she was not only a star, but still considered “one of us” (Kozinets 1997).

In my Ph.D. dissertation, my behavioral observations of fan activity revealed a category of fan not accounted for in past written accounts of the types of fans. To quote the unpublished thesis:

This type of fan was the “superfan,” a person who had risen from the ranks of fandom to become a celebrity, someone famous for being a fan, someone paradoxically who was “one of us” and yet now elevated and apart from common fandom. The mixed emotions that can come from such transcendence of “common fandom” seem evident in a conversation I had with Wilfred, a fellow FanTrek member, when we were minding fan club tables together at a fan-run convention.

“It’s funny,” Wilfred said, rubbing his eyeglasses on his yellow sweater. “A couple of friends of mine, old friends, were guests of honour at [something] con in Niagara Falls, New York [just recently]. They were sitting at an autograph table, with a lineup of people getting autographs. And I wondered if I should have asked them for their autograph.” He laughed, a boyish, high-pitched little giggle (Convention Fieldnotes, 10.28.1995).

This is a high-status category of fan, where the average Joe Shmoe consumer turns into a “superfan.” The person is valued as equivalent to celebrities, as valuable producers of material for further consumption. These superfan and the “Trekkie” fan classifications seem to transcend descriptive delineation by providing cultural archetypes of sacred achievement and profane degeneration -the angels and demons of the Star Trek fan community.” From the elevated producer-consumer to the denigrated, passive über-consumer-these categories defined fandom relative to levels of active ascendancy or torpid thralldom.

Is Steven Vander Ark a “Superfan”? Does he have drawing power? Linking power? Community power? Would he be a guest at a Harry Potter Convention (and there have been many thus far)? 

I’ve been writing and thinking about prosumers for all of my academic career. “Prosumers” are those groups of productive-consumers that Marshall McLuhan first theorized about in the 1960s, and Alvin Toffler named in the 1980s in his book “The Third Wave.” We’ve know they exist for a long time, but there are very few thinkers (until recently) who have thought about them and their social and business implications. Two brilliant exceptions-both of them at MIT-are Eric von Hippel, with his essential work on lead users, and Henry Jenkins with his pioneering work on fan culture.

It seems to me that after flirting with this topic for about a quarter of a century, we are finally starting to take prosumers and the prosuming that they do seriously. But we lack a vocabulary for what is going on. We lack frameworks to put it in. We lack theories to help make sense of it. So much of what is being written is description without theory or organization.

During the late 1990s, we were seeing a lot of this “sue the fans” activity. I wrote about it in several places. Grant McCracken wrote about it in his masterful classic “Plenitude” (a book everyone interested in popular culture and consumption should read). Henry Jenkins has been writing about it and still is. Stephen Brown has noted it in his work on the Harry Potter phenomenon.

This recent lawsuit is a sign that businesses (and Rowling is, in this case, without a doubt, acting as Rowling, Inc.) still don’t know how to deal with active, creative, participative fans. According to Stephen Brown of the University of Ulster (and a one-man publishing empire himself), there has been a long-standing “uneasy” relationship between Harry Potter fans and Rowling (Brown 2007; in the Consumer Tribes volume).

“[Rowling’s] legal representatives have been quick to quash any infringement of copyright law. School plays based on the boy wizard are forbidden, Tributes websites have received threatening cease-and-desist letters. Legitimate schools of witchcraft have been shut down by order of Warner Bros. Books about the phenomenon have been removed from sale….” (Brown 2007, p. 185).

Indeed, Prof. Brown, who has written a wonderful book on the marketing of the Harry Potter phenomenon entitled “Wizard! Harry Potter’s Brand Magic” (Brown 2005) characterizes the three “phases of development” of Rowling’s relationship with her fan community. It began with “enthusiasm” and a reciprocal relationship. It later developed into “exasperation” as she became frustrated with and tired of all the attention. Finally it developed into “exploitation” and she discovered how to direct and use the fan community to achieve her own ends.

The idea of exploitation doesn’t leave much room for superfans. Superfans are powerful. Superfans are builders, creators, doers. Superfans are connectors. Superfans are a challenge to creator’s “official” legally-entrenched power. They are out to produce, as we noted in the Consumer Tribes volume. They are entrepreneurial. They are members of inno-tribes, creative groupings. They are pushing at the boundaries of our current system, opening up gaps for new institutional arrangements in which consumers have the power to do much more than traditionally consume.

Here’s what is interesting for our greater understanding and theory development.

“The consumption of the superfan has likely now become professional -since they are being paid by fans to be up-to-date, the avocation has become vocation. Superfans attend conventions in order to promote their newest book, to sell, sign and personalize, as well as to teach and commune with other members, sharing in the experience in a way that real “stars” -outsiders, actors, distant phenomena-will not, and perhaps can not. Superfans are famous for being fans, for their distinction in consumption practice, their cultural competence, their ability to act as communication channels and sources. The endlessly devoted consumer becomes the endlessly invoked producer, the subject of advertising now its object, the market self made self-marketer. At the superfan level, consumption has been replaced by production: the cycle is somehow at this stage satisfyingly complete” (Kozinets 1997).

We don’t really know what superfans are, or what they can be.

• Are they only there to be exploited and used for our own gain?
• Are they WOM & PR promotion machines—for good and for bad?
• Are they a breeding ground for community-building activities?
• Are they ambassadors?
• Are they partners who have financial and legal rights?
• Are they managers in training?
• Do they have any rights, any claims to the brands, symbols, and myths that they purchase and play with?
• What are the tradeoffs involved in dealing with them?

These issues are ones that many brand managers are increasingly facing. Both as an opportunity and as a threat. And not just in the media industries. Some very interesting books have been written recently that begin to grapple with these issues and how to address them. Three that I like are The Culting of Brands by Douglas Atkin, Citizen Consumers by Ben O’Connell and Jackie Huba, and Brand Hijack by Alex Wipperfürth.

When someone creates a video parody of your ad-what do you do? When someone creates a blog or a web-site that uses your brand in a negative way, steals your music, insults your trademarks, inverts your characters, what do you do? A video of the Jolly Green Giant trying to pick up Betty Crocker in a singles bar appears on YouTube: what do you do? A ripped mashup rap song about your brand starts gaining massive play. Kids start teaching each other how to turn cans of WD-40 into deadly weapons: what do you do?

This isn’t just about the straightforward use of your branded material. This isn’t just about taking your brand and making classifications or books out of it. Superfans, superconsumers, active innovating prosumers are everywhere. Building alliances. Building knowledge. And every quarter they are growing in power. The possibilities are nearly endless…

There are lots of ways to deal with them.

And not all of them involve legal prosecution.


Atkin, Douglas (2004), The Culting of Brands: When Customers Become True Believers, New York: Portfolio.

Brown, Stephen (2005), Wizard! Harry Potter’s Brand Magic. London: Cyan.

Brown, Stephen (2007), “Harry Potter and the Fandom Menace” in Cova, Bernard, Robert V. Kozinets, and Avi Shankar Consumer Tribes, Oxford and Burlington, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann, 177-192.

Kozinets, Robert V. 1997. To boldly go: A hypermodern ethnography of Star Trek fans’ culture and communities consumption. Ph.D. dissertation, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

McConnell, B. and J. Huba. 2006. Citizen marketers: when people are the message. Chicago, IL: Kaplan.

McCracken, Grant (1997), Plenitude, Toronto, Canada: Periph.: Fluide.

Wipperfürth, Alex (2005), Brand Hijack, New York, NY: Portfolio.


  1. ingeborg March 13, 2008
  2. Robert Kozinets March 14, 2008

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