Harry Potter


"Pennsylvania writer takes on Harry Potter author in court "

by Martha Raffaele (AP, May 6, 2001)

CAMP HILL -- When Nancy Stouffer isn't writing fanciful children's stories, she buries her nose in history books, science and technology magazines, medical journals -- even case law. Otherwise, she avoids fiction.

"It keeps me away from reading other people's work. Some of it might seep into what I'm doing, and I'm very careful about that," Stouffer said, perched on the edge of a living room sofa inside her modest brick ranch house in this Harrisburg suburb.

The self-published author now finds herself waging a battle in a New York federal court against J.K. Rowling, writer of the popular Harry Potter children's series, because she believes elements of her books have seeped into Rowling's stories of a boy with magical powers.

Rowling's publisher, Scholastic Inc., has denied the allegations. Officials insist no one at the company ever knew Stouffer or her books before she raised objections to Harry Potter.

"We couldn't find it anywhere. As far as we know, it was a local book," Scholastic spokeswoman Judy Corman said.

Stouffer's primary complaint in the trademark and copyright infringement case concerns references to "Muggles" in the Harry Potter books. Rowling uses the word to refer to ordinary humans without magical powers.

But Stouffer claims her Muggles, who populate "The Legend of Rah and the Muggles," written in 1984, came first.

In Stouffer's world, Muggles are bald, mutated nuclear holocaust survivors whose dark and polluted land becomes a happy place after they end up caring for twin orphaned boys. The word was inspired by her teen-age son Vance, who called his mother's face a "muggie" when he was little, she said.

The words "Muggle" and "Muggles" are also trademarks that Stouffer says she has been using since 1987 on merchandise such as decorative magnets, toys, and buttons. She filed to register the trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office last year, but a registration has not yet been granted.

Other Stouffer books include a character named Larry Potter, who wears glasses and has brown hair like Rowling's Harry Potter, although he lacks both magical powers and the lightning-bolt scar etched on Harry's forehead.
Stouffer, 50, a native of Hershey, said she began writing poetry and short stories when she was in first grade.

In high school, her circle of friends consisted of "nerdy, creative types," aspiring artists and musicians. In addition to writing, Stouffer enjoyed singing.

"We were the kids that sometimes they made fun of for one reason or another, but we didn't care," she said.

After graduating in 1969, she launched a singing career with a local group called the Sandhill Singers, performing folk and Top 40 songs "primarily in large hotels and resorts" across the United States and in Canada. The group made one record.

"I thought I'd go to college later," said Stouffer, who never did.

She began writing professionally in 1976, after deciding she was tired of performing. Fred Lauver, now an editor at a state historical magazine, gave Stouffer her first writing job as an entertainment reviewer for a now-defunct local magazine called TV Host.

"I thought she was very creative, very insightful," Lauver said. "She was a person who was not afraid to state an opinion about writing, and wasn't timid about it."

Stouffer said she branched out into books in the 1980s. "Rah and the Muggles" was published as an activity book by Ande Publishing Co., a company she formed with two business partners in 1986. A loss of bank financing forced the company to declare bankruptcy in 1987, just as Stouffer's books were on the verge of hitting the market, said Patricia Stehman, an ex-partner who illustrated some of the books.

"If the bank hadn't pulled the money, this would have really taken off," Stehman said.

Still, Stouffer said she continued to promote her books -- some of which she also illustrated -- and merchandise in subsequent years. They were sold in Giant Food Stores, a Mid-Atlantic grocery store chain, and the Rite Aid Corp. drugstore chain, based in Camp Hill.

The books are now out of print, and there are no official sales records; Stouffer said she lost all her records when her studio collapsed during a snowstorm in 1996.

Editors at Publisher's Weekly, a leading publishing industry magazine in New York, say they have never tracked Stouffer's sales because she has never contracted with a major publisher. Stouffer's attorney, Kevin Casey, plans to present testimony from Stouffer and other witnesses that he says will provide estimated sales figures. Casey declined to specify a number, saying only that it amounts to "thousands, but not hundreds of thousands" of dollars.

Thurman House, a small Maryland publishing company, is reissuing "Rah and the Muggles" this month, repackaged as a 250-page novel and billing her as N.K. Stouffer (her middle name is Kathleen).

The problem now, Stouffer said, is that Rowling's Muggles are crowding hers out of the marketplace. The two Muggle worlds collided two years ago, Stouffer said, when she got calls from friends and relatives who thought they noticed similarities between "Rah and the Muggles" and Rowling's first novel, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

"In children's literature, you can always find castles, you can find any number of similar things," she said. "But the odds of so many similarities would be so great that it's hard for me to believe anything but that somehow, the information was transferred."

Stouffer said she began talks with Scholastic in the summer of 1999 in the hopes of reaching an out-of-court settlement. She said that the company didn't seem receptive, so she sought out an intellectual-property lawyer in
Valley Forge.
Casey, Stouffer's attorney, said his efforts to resolve the dispute also met a dead end.

"They believe she came out of the woodwork to trade on J.K. Rowling's fame. They don't even believe she existed before Harry Potter," he said.

Scholastic filed a lawsuit in November 1999, along with Rowling and Time Warner Entertainment Co., which owns the film rights to two Harry Potter books. Stouffer filed her own suit in March 2000. Scholastic is asking a judge to rule that Rowling's books do not violate Stouffer's trademark and copyright.

"We sued because it was clear that she was going around badmouthing Jo Rowling," said Charles Duell, Scholastic's chief counsel.

The company disputes Stouffer's contentions that, among other things, various Scholastic representatives visited her at toy industry trade shows when she was selling her books through Ande Publishing Co. Considering the books' limited distribution, they insist that neither Rowling nor anyone at Scholastic would ever have come across them.

"Jo Rowling wrote a book and submitted it before she had any contract," Duell said.

Scholastic has now published four Harry Potter books, and Warner Bros. is preparing to release a movie based on "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," in November.

The company has also prevailed recently in a similar intellectual-property dispute concerning another popular children's series, the "Goosebumps" horror books by R.L. Stine.

In that case, artist Gregory Speirs alleged Scholastic used his drawings of a skeleton character called "Skully" as the basis for its skeleton mascot "Curly" used in advertising and promoting the "Goosebumps" books.

A New York federal court ruled in Scholastic's favor in November 1998, finding that the two characters were created separately, and an appellate court rejected Speirs' appeal.

Lauver, Stouffer's first editor, views the dispute not as a matter of keeping Rowling's books off the shelves, but about making room for Stouffer's works as well.

"I see this as a much bigger issue of a bigger million-dollar corporation whether they can suffocate a smaller author," he said.

Stehman, Stouffer's ex-partner, agrees.

"It's the principle of the thing. We worked very hard to get the product out there, and we had the characters first," she said.

Stouffer's case is challenging because it relies heavily on witness testimony; there are few documents to support her allegations, Casey said.

"This case depends on the words of lots of people, and we're asking them to tell us what they can remember from 10, 15 years ago," he said.

Nevertheless, Stouffer believes the battle is still worth fighting.

"I knew if I didn't do this, that every little guy who followed behind me was not going to have a chance," she said. "Once they filed the lawsuit against me, they set their sights on the wrong person, because I'll never let go."