The tale is part true. Copies of the year’s most highly-anticipated book, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” have been discovered prior to its official release. But the text has not made its way onto the Internet. Instead, disappointed Web surfers who download supposedly pirated copies of the book are getting fan-written stories that have simply been relabeled. At least for now, an early glimpse of the latest Potter book remains a fantasy.
AS IS CUSTOMARY now with the release of any highly-publicized movie or book, pirates are looking for bragging rights. Several have been posting links around the dark corners of the Internet, alleging they have pirated copies of the “Order of the Phoenix”.
The fifth book in the popular series by J.K. Rowling isn’t supposed to be available until June 21, and until Monday, such piracy claims were quickly dismissed.
Then a British newspaper reported that advance copies of the book were found dumped in field in eastern England. Details of the incident are still being sorted out, but the Sun newspaper reported that a man stumbled across the books on Monday as he walked near a printworks in the small town of Bungay, in Suffolk. Four people were later arrested in connection with the alleged theft.
Immediately, pirates capitalized on the mystery surrounding the incident. Fresh claims to have the book appeared almost immediately.
Answering a charge that all claims to have an advance copy of the book were fake, one pirate wrote Monday: “Sorry, but ain’t true any more ... as you can see the book has already been stolen. The version I just posted is the real copy.”
In another note, the writer insists “On my mother life this is the real deal.”
FAN FICTION RELABELED
In fact, the book posted in that newsgroup has been used by other would-be pirates before. It’s a 150,000-word, 32-chapter tome of fan fiction, a genre of writing in which fans of a particular work (often a TV show) write stories that share characters or situations with the original.
This particular work was written by one “HarryWriter,” — like most fan fiction authors, he or she uses a pseudonym to maintain anonymity. But the story as originally posted makes no attempt to deceive readers that it has anything to do with Rowling’s real effort.
The fan fiction Potter novel begins with the sentence, “It was the most wonderful feeling Harry ever experienced,” which is nothing like the already-released beginning of the real book, “The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close.”
And in a frequently asked questions section, the writer makes it clear: “Q: Is this the real 5th/6th/7th Book. A: No.”
In an e-mail exchange, HarryWriter expressed frustration with pirates’ use of the fan fiction.
“You have no idea how many times that has happened to me,” HarryWriter said. “Dozens of times every day, I get the same e-mail: ‘Is your book real?’ Dozens of others have stolen my book, claiming it to be the real thing. It is very sad, how many of them there really are.”
PLENTY OF IMITATORS
This would hardly be the first time someone tried to falsely lure Potter fans into thinking they were getting a sneak peek at the real thing. At least one other imitation, which begins with the phrase ” ‘Come on, hurry up,’ scolded Mrs. Dursley,” can be found on Web sites and in file-swapping services like KaZaa.
Other fakes have even met with some commercial success. A Chinese imitator’s book, titled “Harry Potter and Leopard-Walk-Up-To-Dragon,” reportedly flew off bookstore shelves when it appeared last summer in Beijing
But the use of fan fiction to lure would-be pirates adds a new twist. Thousands of Harry Potter fans have written tens of thousands of stories. Nor are novel-length stories unusual. One repository of such stories, FanFiction.Net, holds more than 200 Potter fan-fiction stories of at least 100,000 words or more. Such files act as a perfect lure to would-be pirates.
“I found the entire book ... in MS Word format,” said one Net surfer who searched for pirate copies of the “Order of the Phoenix” on BinNews.com, which indexes Usenet postings.
While the legal status of piracy is clear, thanks to the Digital Copyright Millenium Act, fan fiction exists in a considerably more murky area. MIT professor Henry Jenkins, a fan fiction expert, said there is no case law concerning such amateur writing, leaving authors pretty much in the dark over their legal status.
“Fans often operate in ignorance of the law, or under the assumption that it’s all protected, or all illegal,” he said.
Could Potter pirates ruin the fun for fan fiction writers? It’s possible, Jenkins said.
Neil Blair, Rowling’s lawyer in London, has told British publications that he’s chasing after “illegal imitations” posted on the Internet, insisting they be removed.
On the other hand, Rowling herself apparently doesn’t mind the sincere efforts of fans. “I find it very flattering that people love the characters that much,” she says in an interview posted on the Web site of Scholastic, her U.S. publishers.
Calls to Scholastic went unreturned.
“In this case, it’s total guilt by association,” Jenkins said. “I hope that’s not what happens. Our culture should have a zone of tolerance for grass-roots creativity.”