Monday, February 15, 2010

Harry Potter and the Simulacrum

I've been meaning to blog about this for a couple months now. An article of mine, which may be of interest to readers of my book, The Late Age of Print, was published in the October 2009 issue of the journal, Critical Studies in Media Communication (CSMC). Here's the citation, abstract, and keywords:
Ted Striphas, "Harry Potter and the Simulacrum: Contested Copies in an Age of Intellectual Property," Critical Studies in Media Communication 26(4) (October 2009): 1-17.

This essay begins by investigating how and on what basis the boundary between originals and copies gets drawn within the framework of intellectual property law. It does so by exploring Harry Potter-related doubles that were featured in the 2000 trademark and copyright infringement case, Scholastic, Inc., J. K. Rowling, and Time Warner Entertainment Company, L.P. v. Nancy Stouffer. The paper then moves on to consider how, within the context of the case, the boundary line dividing “originals” from “copies” grows increasingly indeterminate, so much so that it becomes untenable to speak of either category at all. It thus investigates what happens when the figure of the simulacrum, which troubles bright-line distinctions between originals and copies, enters into the legal realm. Theoretically, the simulacrum would seem to pose a challenge to intellectual property law's jurisprudential foundations, given how it blurs what should count as an “original” or a “derivative” work. This paper shows that while this may be true in principle, powerful multimedia companies like Scholastic, Time Warner, and others can strategically deploy simulacra to shore up their intellectual property rights.

Keywords: Harry Potter; Intellectual Property; Copyright; Trademark; Simulacrum
There's a good deal of thematic overlap between the article and Chapter 5 of The Late Age of Print, which also focuses on Harry Potter and intellectual property rights. They differ, though, in that the journal essay is more theoretically focused than the book chapter; the latter, I suppose, is more historical and sociological.

The strange thing about "Harry Potter and the Simulacrum" is that even though it's quite theoretical, it's also quite -- I'm not sure what exactly -- playful? comical? whimsical? In any case, it's probably the most fun piece that I've ever written and published. I attribute that largely to the bizarre court case at the center of the essay, which I swear must have been plucked from the pages of a Lewis Carroll story.

In a perfect world I'd link to a PDF of the article, but the journal publisher, Taylor & Francis, prohibits it. In an almost perfect world I'd link you to a post-print (i.e., the final word processing version that I submitted to CSMC), but even that I'm contractually barred from doing for 18 months from the time of publication.

Taylor & Francis charges $30 for the essay on its website, which to my mind is just ridiculous. Heck, a yearly personal subscription to the journal costs $81! So, if you're university-affiliated and want to take a look at the piece, I'd encourage you to check with your own institution's library. If you're not, I'm allowed to share a limited number of offprints with colleagues, and you can email me for one.

To complicate matters even more, the printed version of "Harry Potter and the Simulacrum" has the wrong copyright declaration. I signed Taylor & Francis' double-secret "license to publish" form instead of the usual copyright transfer. Despite that, the piece still says © National Communication Association, which is the scholarly society under whose auspices CSMC is published. Sigh.

Suddenly this is starting to sound like a Lewis Carroll story....


Gil said...

They've publicly claimed your copyright?

Then they've violated the terms of the contract you signed ... and so you should feel free to provide PDFs anytime you want. If they get shirty about that, you can then point out that they're trying to claim ownership of your IP.

Either that, or you should hit them with a cease-and-desist letter, demanding that they recall the journal, reprint it with the proper copyright attribution, and then resend it. All at their expense. They'll never do it, of course. But if they'd send you a nastygram for releasing a PDF of a work you own, you should feel no compunction sending them a nastygram for wrongfully trying to claim ownership of said work.

Ted Striphas said...

Clearly I need to get more creative in my responses. Blogging is so passive aggressive -- and I mean that only half-jokingly!

Conrad DiDiodato said...


the discussion in your book "The Late Age of Print" on Harry Potter and intellectual property rights is fair-minded & critically aware of the real (unspoken) conditions for the creation of 'originals' and 'copies' (simulacra). I didn't get the usual dribble about the tyranny of hacks and translators worldwide (with their "fakes, frauds, and illicit editions") who brazenly violate J.K. Rowlands copyrights and trademarks without a thought for the millions of dollars in lost revenue : it's rather based on an intelligent examination of the "circulation and transfiguration" phenomenon of international bookselling. The Tanya Grotter case is very illuminating.

And I was also exceedingly pleased to see a discussion of the real imperialist, globalization and financially exploitive causes ("cultural and economic conditions", as you say) of a vital need for "intellectual property piracy" in places like South and East Asian, and the former Soviet Union Eastern Bloc countries. It's interesting (and perhaps Jameson might agree with you)that copies and originals necessarily exist side by side in a late capitalist economy: a bifurcated vision of a once monolithic (mainly American) vision of world economic domination.

In a word, I agree that the copy and original distinction is "grows increasingly indeterminate", forcing on us a critical re-examination of the notions of literary integrity and literary influence and dissemination.