Harry Potter


"Stouffer Fights Harry Potter Writer"

by Martha Raffaele (Associated Press, May 16, 2001)

CAMP HILL, Pa. - 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 says, as she sits on the edge of a sofa inside the living room of her modest brick ranch house in this Harrisburg suburb.

Yet 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 Stouffer believes that 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 says.

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, she says, was inspired by her teen-age son, Vance, who called his mother's face a ``muggie'' when he was little.

The book tells the story of twin brothers Rah and Zyn, whom the Muggle creatures adopt after their mother sets them afloat on a raft down a river so they can escape their war-ravaged homeland. As they grow up, the brothers become rivals because Zyn believes that the Muggles favor Rah over him.

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 says that 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, says she began writing poetry and short stories when she was in first grade. She was inspired by walks in the woods with her grandfather and stories passed down by her mother, a real estate agent, about Stouffer's grandmother. Her father was an automotive industry executive.

In high school, her circle of friends consisted of ``nerdy, creative types,'' aspiring artists and musicians. Besides 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 says.

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,'' says Stouffer, who never did.

She began writing professionally in 1976, after deciding that 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. Her copy was generally left untouched during the editing process, he recalls.

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

Stouffer says 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, says 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 says.

Still, Stouffer says that 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 says she lost all her records when her studio collapsed during a snowstorm in 1996.

Editors at Publisher's Weekly, the industry trade publication, say they have never tracked Stouffer's sales because she 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 says, is that Rowling's Muggles are crowding hers out of the marketplace.

The two Muggle worlds collided two years ago, when Stouffer 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.''

Stouffer says she began talks with Scholastic in the summer of 1999 hoping to reach an out-of-court settlement. She says that the company didn't seem receptive, so she sought out an intellectual-property lawyer.

Casey, Stouffer's attorney, says 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 says.

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. They are 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,'' says 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 it isn't likely that Rowling or anyone at Scholastic would ever have come across them.

``Jo Rowling wrote a book and submitted it before she had any contract,'' Duell says.

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 that 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.

But Stouffer's case relies heavily on witness testimony; there are few documents to support her allegations, Casey acknowledges.

``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 says.

Nevertheless, Stouffer believes the battle is still worth fighting not just for herself, but for other lesser-known authors.

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