Harry Potter


"Muggle Versus Wizard"

by Linton Weeks ("Washington Post," March 27, 2001)

Is the latest Harry Potter flap a case of plagiarism? Trespassing on intellectual property? Pure coincidence? Writer's pride? You be the judge.
Nancy Stouffer claims that J.K. Rowling, British author of the explosively popular Harry Potter books, lifted several names -- like Muggles and Potter -- and situations from Stouffer's self-published books in the 1980s, and fobbed them off as her own.
For her part, Rowling says she has never heard of Nancy Stouffer's books. But Stouffer presses on.
One of Stouffer's titles, for instance, is "The Legend of Rah and the Muggles." Rowling also writes of Muggles. Two of Stouffer's characters are Larry and Lilly Potter. Rowling also has characters named Potter -- Harry and Lily, with one "l."
To shut Stouffer up, Rowling and her corporate protectors -- Scholastic Books, publisher of four Harry Potter novels in America, and Time Warner, holder of the super-lucrative cinema and licensing rights to Harry Potter -- have filed suit against her in New York.
It's a preemptive strike: The corporations don't want Stouffer bad-mouthing the beloved wizard of Hogwarts, especially now when the hyped-to-high-heavens movie version of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is scheduled to open in November. And they don't want to be sued by Stouffer for trademark infringement somewhere down the line.
But Stouffer, 50, is not the type to go quietly. She is staging a media McFlurry on TV talk shows, stating her case and publicizing the reissue of some of her books. In May, Thurman House, a Baltimore publishing company, will bring out "The Legend of Rah," featuring, it says, "the Original Muggles." Four Larry Potter books are also planned.
There are vast differences between the two sets of books. Rowling's novels about a young wizard are fully formed tales bubbling over with imaginative creatures, evolving characters and intricate plot twists. The first Potter book was 309 pages. Subsequent installments stretched even longer.
Stouffer's productions, on the other hand, are 24-page activity books -- homespun amalgams of stories, pencil games and pictures to color.
There are parallels. In Stouffer's stories, for example, Muggles are mutated humanlike creatures left behind on Earth after a nuclear holocaust. In Rowling's books, Muggles are ordinary humans. Stouffer's books are set in a mythical place; so are Rowling's. Rowling writes of a sorcerer's stone; Stouffer of worry stones. The jacket illustration of "Legend of Rah" resembles Mary Grandpre's familiar renderings of Harry Potter.
Some of the similarities are remarkable; many are inconsequential. In Stouffer's stories, for example, a character knocks three times on a wooden door; in Rowling's, a character knocks three times on an oak door. Both authors write of a castle on a mirrored lake.
The whole mess "is hard for me to believe," says Stouffer at her home in Camp Hill, Pa. "For a while I kept everything very quiet. There was danger in going public. I could kill myself in the industry."
The folks at Scholastic can't believe the whole mess either. They are amazed that anyone is taking Stouffer seriously. To imply that Rowling "may have stolen some things from Stouffer is offensive," sighs Scholastic's exasperated-sounding general counsel, Charles Deull.
Such accusations by Stouffer, Deull says, "are based on a series of statements that are just not true."
During the mid-1980s, Stouffer created several series of activity books, to be sold monthly to teachers and to the rest of the reading public in drugstores and grocery stores. All in all, some 130 books were planned, Stouffer says. Some were printed, some weren't. The price was around $4.
Scholastic executives have doubts about the extent to which "Legend of Rah" was ever available. "Check Books in Print," Deull says. "We've tried every rare-book store and Web site." They couldn't find a used copy for sale. Deull has seen a photocopy of the book.
In the late 1980s, Stouffer says the books were selling so well and licensing agreements were flooding in at such a rate that she projected annual earnings of an astonishing $1 billion. She says that during one 2 1/2-week period her company received orders for $6.5 million, which could have made publishing history. However, even with these orders in hand her company fell apart, she says. She has no records of these gigantic sales because the studio at her home collapsed during a snowstorm in 1996, explains Kevin Casey, a Philadelphia lawyer who is representing her.
In the 1980s, Stouffer says, she attended book and trade shows throughout the country, sometimes setting up shop right next to Scholastic "with my six-foot-tall cutouts of Muggles."
"That wouldn't make a bit of difference," Deull says of the trade shows, "because Jo Rowling had no contact with us. Scholastic and Time Warner did not create Harry Potter."
The first book, he says, came to Scholastic as "a fully formed masterpiece that we outbid other people for. This was not something created by either of us. That's irrelevant."
Scholastic editor Arthur A. Levine brought Rowling's books to America. Stouffer maintains that at one point she met Levine and Levine's wife, who expressed interest in Stouffer's Muggles.
As it turns out, Levine does not have a wife and has never been married, Deull says.
"No one at this company ever remembers her," Deull says of Stouffer.
At another pre-Pottermania point, Stouffer says, Time Warner expressed interest in marketing her books and related Muggles merchandise, à la Care Bears and the Fraggles. She says she was in the middle of dissolving her company and could not work out a deal.
Time Warner, says Casey, was offering his client big money for the Muggles properties -- a seven-figure contract, he says.
"There were some negotiations between Warner and her," Deull says, "around the early 1990s. Way before anything. Harry Potter is a 1997 book." But nothing ever came of the conversations.
By the time Stouffer decided she was ready to reenter the market with her properties, she says, Warner had signed a licensing agreement with Rowling. And the rest is hysteria.
Now, "it's impossible for me to market Muggles," Stouffer says, "my life's work." Stouffer believes that if the cards had been cut another way, much of Rowling's fame and glory might be hers.
In 1997 she and Casey approached Time Warner. "We were negotiating with them," Casey says, "saying we were concerned about three aspects: trademark rights in the term Muggles used to sell merchandise, copyright infringement in the illustration of Larry versus Harry Potter and general unfair competition in the similarities between the books. Those were the three objections we had. These were made known to Scholastic and their response was to sue us."
Many J.K. Rowling admirers think Nancy Stouffer is capitalizing on confusion.
She has begun signing her books N.K. Stouffer -- her middle name, like Rowling's, is Kathleen. Some Potterheads, Stouffer says, have even threatened her life.
Stouffer says Rowling's fame is creating the chaos. Stouffer completed "Rah and the Muggles" in 1984. The word "muggles," she says, comes from her son's baby-talk word for cheeks -- muggles. Rowling says her Muggles came from a British word for fool.
Actually, the word is older than both writers. The Oxford English Dictionary traces muggles back to the 13th century, when muggles meant "tails." By the 20th century, the word had come to mean marijuana. In the 1920s a pot smoker was called a mugglehead. In the 1930s Louis Armstrong had a song called "Muggles." And in 1960 a children's book called "The Gammage Cup," featuring a character named Muggles, was a Newbery Award honor book.
For Stouffer to claim any sort of control over the word "muggles," Deull says, is ridiculous.
Stouffer has waged a trademark war before. In 1992 she objected to the name of a character in Steven Bochco's short-lived animated cartoon series -- "Capitol Critters." The name was Muggle. The show was eventually canceled.
In the creative world, challenges of originality come with the territory.
Recently a jury awarded a large settlement to a high school science teacher in Detroit who claimed that Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1996 movie "Jingle All the Way" bore a number of striking resemblances to the teacher's unproduced script, sold in 1993, called "Could This Be Christmas." A film expert detected 36 similarities between the scripts.
"How many similarities is too many?" Casey asks rhetorically. Stouffer's Web site,www.realmuggles.com, lists more than 40.
In 1981 a judge hit George Harrison with big bucks in damages because Harrison's hit "My Sweet Lord" so closely echoed Ronnie Mack's song "He's So Fine," made popular in the 1960s by the Chiffons.
In the literary kingdom, Joseph Heller's 1961 classic, "Catch-22," sounded eerily familiar to those who had read Lewis Falstein's 1951 novel, "Face of a Hero." Both stories are set during World War II and include hospitalized soldiers in full-body casts.
Oliver Wendell Holmes once said of plagiarism, "Every man alive on the earth who writes or speaks commits it every day and not merely once or twice but every time he opens his mouth." He was speaking to Mark Twain, who had unconsciously borrowed from Holmes. Twain, of course, was not marketing Muggle action figures.
Scholastic and Time Warner plan to pursue the case. Deull says, "The only way it's going to end is when the judge gives the ruling."
So what does Nancy Stouffer want? She says she was negotiating with the companies because "I wanted it stopped or I wanted to be compensated."
Now she is battling "the idea that it's okay to take from somebody like me.
If I infringed on Time Warner or Scholastic," she says, "they'd be all over me like flies on you-know-what."
Casey says Stouffer's got two choices. She can drop the whole thing and lose a decade or so of trying to market her ideas. Or she can go up against the Goliaths. "I've spent every dime of my savings," Stouffer says.
Meanwhile, she tells her story to whomever will listen, she smokes her Salem 100 Lights, she looks after her dog and her family. She watches videos and reads.
Two of her favorite stories at the moment are "A Civil Action" and "Erin Brockovich," about little people who go up against giant corporations.
Though she has skimmed the Harry Potter books, she says she hasn't really read them. Others have pointed out many of the alleged similarities. She shies away from children's literature, she says. Then adds: "God forbid, I don't want anyone to say that they influenced my books."