Muggle Versus Wizard
With Nancy Stouffer
Wednesday, March 28, 2001, Noon EST
Author of four wildly successful Harry Potter books which are now being made into a major motion picture, J.K. Rowling's life seems almost as charmed and magical as her fiction.
However, author Nancy Stouffer claims that some of Rowling's happiness -- and financial gain -- is at her expense. She says Rowling lifted several names, including "Muggle" and "Potter," from Stouffer's self-published books in the 1980s. For the record, Rowling says she has never heard of Stouffer's books.
Now Rowling and her protectors -- American publisher Scholastic Books and Time Warner, holder of the cinema and licensing rights to Harry Potter -- have filed suit against her in New York.
Stouffer was online Wednesday, March 28, 2001 at Noon EST to discuss the controversy, litigation and her own Larry Potter books.
The transcript follows...
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Nancy, thank you for joining us. Could you briefly outline the controversy surrounding your books and those of author J.K. Rowling?
Nancy Stouffer: What has happened is copyright and trademark infringement of my properties has created an unfair trade situation. It's made it difficult for me.
Were your books every published in the U.K.?
Nancy Stouffer: They were never published there, but shown and marketed commercially.
Do the similarities in your books and Rowling's "Harry Potter" series go beyond names?
Nancy Stouffer: Yes. It's the cumulative effect of all of it combined. There are other similarities. Castle with mirrored lake. Receiving room and wooden doors. Some of the mythical sites are very similar.
some have considered you opportunistic for vilifying J.K. Rowling, a woman who has been sometimes singlehandedly credited with sparking an interest in young children to read. In the final analysis, what do you see as the best possible outcome for this case?
Nancy Stouffer: It's really unfortunate that people consider me to be the villain when in actuality I'm the victim. I tried to handle this with a businesslike approach. Keeping very quiet so no children would be affected. But Scholastic filed suit on me.
In the end, nobody knows how this will turn out. It's a shame anyone is being vilified. But in the end, it is a business. I feel that I have been defamed by Scholastic. Not only have my trademarks been infringed, but I've also been put in personal danger. I've had death threats. None of that is warranted on my end.
Nancy, thank you for taking our questions. Can you give us a summary of your books and tell us how to find them?
Nancy Stouffer: You can find out about availability on my web site and check with local bookstores. More are ordering now.
My book is not exactly like Rowling's, although there are similar characters. Mine is a softer approach to children's lit. They are a true old-fashioned fairy tale.
"Rah and the Muggles" is about sibling rivalry and the consequences.
Mrs. Stouffer, given the frustration you must feel about any confusion with your characters and books and J.K. Rowling, why then would you refer to your self as N.K. Stouffer instead of by your full name as you had in the past? Doesn't this create the impression that you might be trying to encourage the similarities?
Nancy Stouffer: Well, that's a question I'm glad someone asked. I started using N.K. Stouffer back in 1995 when it seemed to be the trend for women to use initials since female names weren't as marketable. I simply went along with the trend, it just so happens my middle initial is "K." I'm sure I did it for the same reason they used "J.K. Rowling."
I couldn't even find your little activity books on books in print! How do you think a poor, welfare mother in England tracked them down?
Nancy Stouffer: I can't justify or explain how anyone did anything and I won't do that. The bottom line is it doesn't matter how my work ended up being infringed upon, it just was and as a result created an unfair trade situation.
Hi Nancy, Thanks for going public about this. I think the similarities are far too incredible to be anything but plagiarism. But tell me, why did I read a brief thing about this MONTHS ago? I asked all around (including in a Harry Potter live online chat) and no one had heard anything about this alleged plagiarism. Why did it not get much publicity then, and now they seem to be saying that you have kept totally quiet about until now.
Nancy Stouffer: Another good question. I don't know. It wasn't that I didn't try to get my story out there. My own integrity was being placed on the line by Scholastic's comments.
Giving credit to the press, I don't think they understood the complexity of the situation. Once they really looked at it and analyzed the data by normally dependable people, they themselves made the decision to cover it.
Do you think that this has come to light now because of the upcoming Harry Potter movies?
Nancy Stouffer: I think the story is driving the press. Not the other way around. I think it's like an awakening. They're realizing this isn't what Scholastic told them.
I do believe that initially that everyone thought I wanted to jump on the bandwagon, when really I had been working in this industry since 1982 and very visibly since 1984. I think it took a while for everyone to understand I wasn't what they portrayed me as.
Hello, Ms Stouffer. J.K. Rowling claimed she grew up poor and she married/divorced a Portuguese man. Her lifestyle today seemed to be too true. Did anyone checked her background?
Nancy Stouffer: Originally she portrayed herself as a single woman on welfare. To the best of our knowledge we have nothing to show that her husband's press release should be disbelieved. I don't know if she's obtained a divorce yet.
I don't know how poor she was, but in her own words it was a "journalistic fabrication." I'm only taking her word for it. If anyone has any information to add, I'd be happy to have it.
Her husband's name is Jorge Arantes. We'd love to talk to him!
My question is related to your claim in an article appearing in the Post yesterday of having $6.5 million in orders for your books in a 2 1/2 week period, and a projected annual income of $1 billion. How did your business go under with such incredible sales?
Nancy Stouffer: First of all, I didn't make those claims. Don't know where they came from. Perhaps discovery information from the publishing company. Those questions were never asked of me directly.
Old Town Alexandria:
I looked at your Web site and while I agree that some of the similarities are eerie, some are ridiculous! You both wrote books with wooden doors the people knock on to get in? A little much...don't push the envelope. It just makes you look desperate. Good luck.
Nancy Stouffer: The only reason they're listed, it's not that those issues in and of themselves are important. It's in the context of the entire picture that makes those similarities important.
When you're marketing in the same industry, to the same consumers, the similarities become important.
Questions of plagiarism are very difficult to prove, especially because of the similarity of topics within specific themes, e.g., wizards, castles, dragons, mirrored lakes, etc.. So many of those types of thematic situations are used and abound within the "fantasy" literature. How can you justify saying that you came up with them first? With the exception of the names Larry and Lily, I see nothing in your claim that couldn't be claimed by other writers in the genre.
Nancy Stouffer: In a case of trademark infringement in combination with copyright infringement, "plagiarism" isn't a term that is used in this context.
It doesn't have to be plagiarism. For instance, although "champion" is a word in the dictionary it doesn't become a trademark until you apply it to a spark plug. If someone else markets a spark plug and calls it "champion" it becomes infringement.
For example "Neville" is another name in the books I have trademarked.
When it all comes down to it, there probably isn't any concrete way to prove whether or not J.K. Rowling borrowed your terms, ideas, whatever. How can this then be resolved? Will you only accept a settlement?
Nancy Stouffer: Well the law provides for remedies. So that's pretty much taken out of my hands at this point. They filed the first legal strike. They sued me to say I had no rights to my own trademarks and copyrights.
That's not to say that something couldn't have been worked out. It could have. I don't know that it will be. I'm in this for the long haul.
I'm not only doing this for myself, I'm doing it for every other private individual out there who submits products to the public and has them partially or wholly absconded with.
If I don't defend my rights, I lose them, so I really had no choice.
Have you ever published anything other than through a vanity press?
Nancy Stouffer: A company I owned interest in published my books.
Do any copies of your books, the first issues, not the reissues coming out only now, actually exist anywhere? Any proof that these books actually existed pre-Harry Potter? Can you or anyone produce any actual copies with copyright dates and all?
Nancy Stouffer: Yes. They do exist, they've been produced through discovery. There's obviously sales information pertaining to the sale of the books and I think most people need to keep in mind that we've already been through an initial evaluation by the court.
If this case goes to trial, will there be facts that will come out in court to support your case that perhaps you are not allowed to discuss in public at this time?
Nancy Stouffer: Yes.
Washington, D.C. 20036:
Why haven't you read the Harry Potter books? Really, they are very good.
Nancy Stouffer: Well, I read the first one basically. When somebody asks me "have I read a book." In this particular case I scanned through them very quickly.
I don't read other children's literature for the very reason I'm in this case right now. I don't want to be influenced by other people's writing. We absorb subconscious information that becomes a part of our knowledge.
I try to take in as little as I possibly can and take in as little detail as possible. I have other people that can read them in-depth for me.
I can't say who I believe is "right" or "wrong", and a court I'm sure will decide for us, but how do you plan on Proving your case to a court? Besides the coincidence of the names, and maybe even some places, the situations are entirely different.
When it comes down to it, isn't is your word against hers?
Nancy Stouffer: Well, it would be if it wasn't for the fact that I predate her, in some cases by 20 years. It's hard to erase a 20 year career of writing and marketing -- other than books.
So, no, I don't see any problem with it at all.
Another thing, a business has the obligation especially with their in-house counsel. There's a phrase called "due diligence." They should do copyright research before going ahead with a product.
I believe Scholastic is not a novice company and that occurred. And they would have seen the legal filings. They participated in trade shows next to me. Time Warner offered me contracts for four books.
I do have 2 federal court rulings on these same copyrights and trademarks specifically stating I own them. So, anyone practicing due diligence would have known that prior to the release of the Harry Potter books.
If I would have done it, they would have sued me in a heartbeat, just like they did the Harry Potter fan sites. I would welcome anyone who wants to start a fan site for me. You see what happened to children who started a fan site and made no profit.
I read somewhere that some of the details in Rowling's books could be seen as borrowing from The Sandman comic books -- I believe owls carrying messages for wizards was one example. Asked about this, Sandman creator and author Neil Gaiman's response was basically so what? Storytellers pick up bits and pieces from here, there and everywhere all the time as they create original works. Why is this bothering you so much more than anyone else whose "bits and pieces" may have been borrowed (and note I say MAY)? Because you have so many examples? I've seen them on your site and think most of them are coincidental and lacking in substance, no more justifying this brouhaha than the owl messengers would be for Gaiman to throw up his arms and scream plagiarism.
Nancy Stouffer: The fact is that initially Gaiman did throw up his arms and yell plagiarism. It wasn't until he had a movie deal that his comments began to change. Initially he was terribly annoyed.
Long Island, N.Y.:
I'm SO sick of those Harry Potter books. I hope you put a big dent in their sales and reputation. Kids should be reading the classic fantasy tales The Lord of the Rings, anyway, not this nouveau-fantasy stuff...
What's the next step for your campaign?
Nancy Stouffer: The next step is that my books will be in the market beginning May 1 and I will continue to write children's literature in the style I consider entertaining, but non-threatening. I think children have enough to deal with, so my approaches are non-violent. I may raise the issue of war, but not get into the details. There's always a moral foundation for my books.
If you're looking for her husband/ex-husband, try the Portugal embassy in D.C. Or ask at the soc.culture.portuguese usenet/newsgroup. And what press release?
Nancy Stouffer: The press interview. There were several put out over the wires.
Several people just pointed this out, but I
think its worth repeating. The topics you
discuss in your books, that you claim are "copyright infringement" are not only common concepts, but common concepts in literature focused on sorcery and witches, etc. The sorcerer's stone is used by Merlin, lakes and moats and such always surround castles.You claim you used the name "neville". So what? Its a name. If you used the name "Mark" would you say no other books concerning witches could use that name henceforth?
Nancy Stouffer: If someone else came out with Mickey Mouse and it looked like a mouse and marketed in the same arena as Disney, Disney would file suit and claim infringement. That's all I'm saying.
There can't be two Pokemons and two Mickey Mouses. I'm saying there can't be two Muggles who raise orphan boys.
Where did you get the idea for Larry Potter?
Nancy Stouffer: Larry Potter in 1987 was developed. I almost called him "Harry" Potter. But I get ideas from my son or daughter and I use names of people I know in life.
The reason we called him Larry was the characters in that series of books names' all started with "L"s. We put my brother's name and another friends name together to create the name.
In the first book, he has glasses because he had to go to the doctor because he couldn't see. He wore glasses from the onset.
I just read the description of "Rah and the Muggles," and it could not sound more different from the Harry Potter books. Have you actually READ and of the Harry Potter books?
Nancy Stouffer: It is different in one sense, but in another there are other similarities. Such as Muggles raising two orphan boys, not one. Under trademark law, not copyright law, that can't take place. Mainly because of ancillary rights -- marketing of products associated with the books.
It seems like Harry Potter has been pretty good for you overall. You are now able to get your books published (by a real publisher) and out on the market, which is something you were not able to do before.
Nancy Stouffer: That's not true. When the Harry Potter books came out, I already had a publishing deal in place. And had worked on my books for two years prior in a trilogy format. We were ready to go when Harry Potter beat me to the marketplace.
It just so happens that that put an end to the publishing situation I had at the time. It took me a few more months to find a publisher not affiliated with Time Warner to get them out on the market.
They were ready go, I just had to wait to find a publisher to stick their neck out on the line.
In answer to an earlier question in this discussion, you said you tried to handle this in a quiet, businesslike manner so no children would be affected. Oh, puh-lease! You've had your web site up online for a long time now, long before the Scholastic suit. You were doing interviews with media whenever you could get them. Quiet? HA!
Nancy Stouffer: That's not true. I had my web site up only after the litigation was filed against me. And I was not the first person to release this to the press. I knew what the consequences would be.
Nancy Stouffer: In addition, what other choice did I have at that point. The press wasn't covering it and I needed to get my story out. Remember I was in talks with them when they filed suit against me. I have to defend my rights. I can't sit back and say, "Okay, I give up."
What's your background? And what will you do in the next few months?
Nancy Stouffer: My backround: I have an extensive creative background -- artistically and with the written word. I have some, mostly writing and illustrating. I also am a mother and cared for my invalid father at home for 20 years around the clock. That took up quite a bit of my time.
My son will be 19 in June, my daughter's 27. My mother lives with me. My husband and I were next door neighbors growing up. With all of that and the writing I keep very busy.
Did you ever meet Rowling? Or what will you say to her if you will?
Nancy Stouffer: I've never met her. I put an offer into her to meet one on one -- no press, no attorneys. I did that as a result of numerous e-mails I received from children. Kids often come up with good, simple solutions to things. Kids asked me to do it and I extended the offer. J.K. Rowling refused.
How do you expect to prove, as you must, that Rowling marketed to the same audience, even assuming she did borrow your ideas for specific things? You've got to show a likelihood of confusion for a trademark violation. You wrote coloring books. Rowling's books are full-length novels. Who would confuse the two?
Nancy Stouffer: First of all, I didn't write coloring books. I wrote children's story books. Series of them. Although there were accompanying activity books, the stories were actually written in story format. That misconception and misreporting I have to answer all the time. They were not just activity and coloring books. Those were accompanying the story books.
Hello. Good works. Will you sue or ohmmeters in the U.S. or British court system?
Nancy Stouffer: I don't really know what we're going to do yet. We've come to no conclusion about that yet. This is a very costly proposition and it's important for people to understand that most often this is done and successful. Simply because a private individual wouldn't be able to afford this. This litigation could run into the millions.
I was lucky to find a good law firm that was willing to take this case. If they hadn't thought the case was valid, after all their research, they wouldn't have taken it.
One the Gaiman question, can you give us some references to specific news articles that talked about his objections to Harry Potter plagiarism of his works? I imagine if someone of Gaiman's stature went public with such complaints, there would have been some articles about it, perhaps in the U.K. If folks who doubt you could see those, maybe the doubts would lessen.
Nancy Stouffer: Well, I think they have to go back to the beginning when this all broke. He was one of the first to raise objections and the British Press and AP covered it extensively. I don't have the articles in front of me, but you can go to my web site and e-mail me and I'll e-mail you back with the links.
Two London papers covered it right away. Two weeks later he tried to write a retraction, but was still annoyed. At least it appeared that way in the press.
Cleveland Park, D.C.:
I'm not a big fan of of J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books, now I understand why - it was all a big rip-off!
Question: why are they suing you? Shouldn't it be the other way around? Good luck!
Nancy Stouffer: Well, it should've been. But even in friendships and business I believe there's a degree of integrity, but maybe that's optimistic. But human nature always has that side that you can draw out and that's always been my way of trying.
Even ex-partners who sued me for copyright infringement -- we're best of friends now.
I was very upset that without notification I was sued. I did file counterclaims in response to their claims to defend myself.
But still my initial reaction is to talk and see what we can work out. No matter how hard I try though there will always be those out there who believe I'm the villain. Even the press had that misconception that I was the one that filed suit. So it's a very difficult situation. You avoid that if you at all possibly could.
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