Follow up to Harry Potter and Cultural Property: Goblins as Allegory 1

In yesterday’s post, I postulated that Rowling’s treatment of copyright was similar to Goblin’s treatment of their creation.  I said:

in the latter case of copyright, Rowling seems to take the disposition of the more calculating goblin Griphook, claiming her entitlement to own, and therefore prevent others from claiming an interest in her cultural property.

Today’s inbox welcomed a message from a friend that teaches at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville School of Law, Gary Pulsinelli, pointing me to a paper he wrote in 2008 drawing a similar analogy.  The article titled: “Harry Potter and the (Re)Order of Artists: Are we Muggles or Goblins?” appeared in volume 87 of the Oregon Law Review, page 1101 et seq.  I am posting the abstract below with a link to where you can get the article:

In “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” author J.K. Rowling attributes to goblins a very interesting view of ownership rights in artistic works. According to Rowling, goblins believe that the maker of an artistic object maintain an ongoing ownership interest in that object even after it is sold, and is entitled to get it back when the purchaser dies. While this view may strike some as rather odd when it is applied to tangible property in the ‘muggle’ world, it actually has some very interesting parallels to the legal treatment of intangible property, particularly in the areas of intellectual property and moral rights. Because of the way these parallels have been developing and growing, we seem to be becoming more goblinish in our willingness to recognize ongoing rights in artistic objects, including allowing the artist to collect a commission on subsequent resale of the work. Practical and social considerations suggest that we are unlikely to go as far as recognizing a permanent personal right in the creator that lets him or her reclaim such an object after a sale or other transfer is made. However, we are moving closer to recognizing some forms of the collective right that the goblins actually seem to demand, a cultural moral right in important cultural objects that enables the descendants of that culture as a group to demand the return of the object. Thus, we muggles may not be as far from the goblins as we may have at first believed. 

Please feel free to send me more references or drop them in the comments.


The Subtle Irony of Cultural Property in Harry Potter and Cultural Property IN Harry Potter 4

One of the many projects I have been working on this summer is writing a paper on the Property theory present in the Harry Potter novels (titled When Chattels Choose).  One of the truly interesting things about property represented in Harry Potter is the ambiguous relationship of ownership to the property. In the legal world, we see ambiguity in property most visually resolved in torts landscape — nuisance as the ever developing tool of property allocation.   We could even argue (as I will later this year) that nuisance theory is quite akin to intellectual property disputes.

For now, lets turn to how property disputes are resolved in the Harry Potter world.  Consider all the property that is described in the magical world — just about every piece of property may be reoriented to new ownership, even without the express consent of the “owner” — a choice of the chattel, we might say that alleviates the need for disputes. Let me offer just a few examples:

  •  After Sirius Black dies and Dumbledore informs Harry that he is the heir of 12 Grimmauld Place, Dumbledore considers it questionable whether Harry is actually entitled to Grimmauld place and asks Harry to perform a simple test to determine his legitimacy.   The property orients itself to its proper frame of ownership, regardless of the will of the previous owner and notwithstanding the acts or non-acts by the party actually entitled to ownership.  See Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
  • Wands “choose” the master.   And wands may be reoriented if “captured” properly.  Consider the distinction between Harry disarming Draco Malfoy to become the master of all wands that Draco Malfoy was master of (including the Elder Wand) and Voldemort killing Severus Snape expecting to become master of the Elder Wand thereby.   The wand simply chose whose conquest mattered more for the purposes of its loyalty.  See Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 
  • The Sword of Gryffindor is described as cultural property by two different characters. First, the Minister of Magic Scrimgeour, after informing Harry that he was given the Sword as a part of Dumbledore’s will, later informs him that the sword is not susceptible of ownership.  Rather, the sword is cultural property which may present itself to any Gryffindor.   Interestingly, the Goblin Griphook describes the sword as cultural property, though not that belonging to Gryffindors, but belonging to Goblins, since they made the sword.  The sword apparently chooses the cultural affinity of its ownership by choosing Harry and then later choosing Neville Longbottom.  See Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
  • Snitches (the golden balls used in quidditch games are said to have “flesh memories. As Scrimgeour says to Harry: “ A snitch is not touched by bare skin before it is released, not even by the maker, who wears gloves.   It carries an enchantment by which it can identify the first human to lay hands on it, in case of a disputed capture.  This snitch” — he held up the tiny golden ball – “will remember your touch, Potter.” Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

There are no doubt others, but what seems clear is that property has the capacity of choice in the world of Harry Potter.  That impartial choice acts as the great equalizer that by forcing “fair” redistribution of property according to certain characteristics and with certain presumptions of fairness.  First, it seems the the magical world is not adverse to basic rules of construction that equate to fairness.  First capture of the snitch equates to fleshly connection upon first capture; capturing a wand fair and square gives one rights in the wand (and others apparently); and property may be passed from one wizard to another according to expectations that they have.  These rules are mirror images of our world of property allocation with the exception that magic alleviates the need for dispute resolution — the property simply knows to whom it should belong.  Unlike a fox or whale, which may be fairly disputed who began the pursuit, who caused the capture, or whether the party who secured the bounty did so fairly, the magical world’s fairness quality is determined not by ambiguity, but by clearly choosing chattels.

What caught my attention, though in thinking through this scheme is the irony of property choice theory that ceases to exist outside Rowling’s magical world.  Again, consider the most obvious form of cultural property — the Sword of Gryffindor.   One could draw an analogy to Rowling’s own work as being cultural property — surely Harry Potter is very much with all of us as it was with Rowling for so long.  So when a pair of seemingly different (but inextricably similar) lawsuits involving JK Rowling’s intellectual property in Harry Potter surfaced in 2010, one could not help but wonder about the irony.

In the first lawsuit, holders of the copyright to Adrian Jacob’s book Willy the Wizard  sued Rowling for Plagiarism claiming that many elements were taken from his earlier (1987) book, including elements of the plot in Goblet of Fire, the presence of the Wizarding Train, a wizarding prison, and human hostages inside a bathroom.   In the second lawsuit, Rowling herself along with Warner Brothers brought a lawsuit against a New York Librarian who operated the Harry Potter Lexicon Website after the website began promoting a print version of its website. offered the following analysis of the second lawsuit:

For a fan to write this kind of entry, Rowling says, is to “take the author’s hard work, re-organize their characters and plots, and sell them for their own commercial gain.” But that’s ridiculous. This and other entries aren’t, as Rowling seems to suggest, anything like an abridgment of the originals. No one would read the Lexiconas a substitute for the Potter books; it is useless unless you’ve read the original, and that makes all the difference.

These two examples offer a crash course in the dissonance that exists between Rowling’s magical world and her non-magical world.  Arguably, the magical world would have a means of chattel based choice to decipher the propriety of the actions.   Unfortunately, the law offers no perfect wisdom like that of chattel-based choice.   I might argue that Rowling takes on both characteristics in the disputes around the Sword of Gryffindor in her two law suits.  In the plagiarism suit, Rowling appears to be the wide-eyed, perhaps naive recipient of cultural property, claiming innocently, that they simply chose her as a worthy recipient.  What defines the rightful wielder of the sword is courage in the novels — courage, which no doubt Rowling took on in publishing her stories from the outset.   But in the latter case of copyright, Rowling seems to take the disposition of the more calculating goblin Griphook, claiming her entitlement to own, and therefore prevent others from claiming an interest in her cultural property.

What we do know is that artists use and reuse the works of others. This is clearly described in works far and wide — as scholarly as Jamie Boyle’s The Public Domain, Larry Lessig’s Remix, and blog writers the world over.

Comments are welcome.

Harry Potter and the Normal: The Law and Harry Potter II Reply

Normal.   One word that captures the latent dividing struggle in the Harry Potter Novels.  Harry Potter simply longs to be; wizards walking through a muggle world can’t seem to be; death eaters long to redefine what it should mean; elves and centaurs seem resolute that they will never be, though responding to that election in different ways.  If we think about the Harry Potter world (and this should not surprise us) the question of normal and how we define it (or should define it) is a central theme of character development.  But this is not the normal of adolescent teenage angst and rebellion — though certainly that is revealed.

The normal world that Rowling’s envisions is the normal in which every living being has a place, if only he accepts it.  The normal is one of choices, structure and well-defined boundaries.  Its the normal of centaurs not reducing themselves to the humiliation of humans riding upon their backs, and elves being content and happy to serve their house masters.  And most prominently, its the normal of the Statute of Secrecy and the battle to redefine normal in the Harry Potter world.  Indeed, both the death eaters and the Order of the Phoenix envision worlds that are different than the one in which the Statute of Secrecy functions.   Death eaters perceive a future world in which secrecy is no longer necessary because wizards rule through their strength and sit upon thrones built of muggles.   The order (or at least elements within the Order) see a different world too — though its a world of cooperation, integration, and peaceful co-existence.  Either way, the war in the end of the novel is not about preserving normalcy — its about redefining it.

One can’t help but notice the role that law plays in this battle to define the new normal in the novels.  Indeed, as suggested by John Gava and Jeannie Marie Paterson in their essay: ‘What Role Need Law Play in a Society with Magic’, law does not serve the needs of repairing wrongs as it does in our muggle world — there simply is no need to do with the law what one could set right immediately by magic.  But broadly, I believe law performs a greater function than Grana and Patterson suggest — it performs the exact functions we expect law to perform even in muggle society.  Namely law defines the social group or groups who are afforded legal entitlements by prescribing certain penalties for either (a) acting outside the social group intended to be protected by the entitlement; or (b) directly violating the entitlement.  In other words, law preserves the normal — or at least what the authority would define as normal.  Let me offer three tangible examples:

Example one -Serious Black.  Serious Black is convicted of murdering muggles and one wizard and then sentenced to Azkaban.  The social order at the time that Serious Black was accused of committing these crimes was one of wizard/ muggle coexistence through secrecy.  Thus, Black was accused of a crime that interfered and directly challenged the entitlements of muggles to not be killed by wizards using magic: his crime directly challenged the underlying presumption of the law — that muggles have certain rights to not be killed by wizards. (Of course we know that Serious Black really did not kill anyone, but as with muggle law, the crimes which one are accused of do not necessarily constitute the actual crimes that one is subject to).

Example two – Harry Potter and the Dementer’s Trial in Book V.   Harry Potter’s trial is clearly a farce.   The orchestrated ambush by umbrage who also sits as judge (isn’t it interesting how judges in trials in the series often turn out to be so biased that it shocks the conscious, see i.e., executioner as appeals judge for Buckbeak’s trial); and the rearranged time of the trial so as to prejudice the defendant amongst other things. But most glaring is the role that the authority of the trial serves in preserving the social group it aims to protect.  The authorities rearrange the trial time.  The authorities set the judge panel. And in this context,  Harry is ambushed largely to keep him quiet n the face of a ministry that refuses to admit that Voldemort has returned.  The law serves the preservation of the normal by sanctioning those that might upset the balance of normalcy.  In other words, Harry’s trial makes it clear that the law is intended to protect those that comply with the ends expected by the ministry of magic. Thus,because Harry refuses to keep quiet regarding Voldemort’s return (a crime he will punished for multiple times in Book V), the law becomes his adversary.

Example three — The Trial of Mary Cattermole.  The new normal is that muggle-born wizards and witches are not a protected class — much less entitled to do magic.  After Voldemort’s return and the fall of the ministry, a new law comes into effect: the Muggle-Born registration commission.  As a result, muggle born wizards and witches are deprived of property they previously acquired lawfully — namely their wands.   Like in the trials of Potter and Black, the new order established that Mary was not a part of the social group that was entitled to protection (or certain property) — therefore, she, like other muggle-borns were subject to trial, marginalization, deprivation of property, even the potential punishment of death.

It seems that law’s place in the magical worlds is exactly the same as it is in ours — defining what is deemed to be the normal and sanctioning those that fall outside.  It seems to me that this is exactly the meaning underlying Robert Cover’s classic beginning to his article Violence and the Word: “legal interpretation takes place in a field of pain and death.”  May we be mindful of the pain and death we inflict and the normal we expect to arise as we do so.

Image above (From Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I — Snatchers bringing in Muggleborns to the Ministry.  

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