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Judge Hands Harry Potter Firm Copyright Win

A federal judge has rejected a copyright suit alleging that J.K. Rowling's fourth Harry Potter novel copied parts of a 1987 book about a character named Willy the Wizard, finding no similarities at all between the books.

Judge Shira Scheindlin of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on Thursday granted a motion by Harry Potter publisher Scholastic Inc. to dismiss the suit by the estate of Adrian Jacobs, author of "The Adventures of Willy the Wizard: No. 1 Livid Land."

The judge ruled that because both Jacobs' book and "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" were written for children, the overall impression created by the works, rather than the plot or characters, is the most important factor for establishing copyright infringement.

"The contrast between the total concept and feel of the works is so stark that any serious comparison of the two strains credulity," the judge wrote.

She described the 16-page Willy the Wizard book as "a series of fragmented and often tangential scenes" that "lacks any cohesive narrative elements that can unify or make sense of its disparate anecdotes."

In contrast, she wrote, the storyline of the 734-page Harry Potter novel is "highly developed and complex, and captures the attention of both children and adults for long periods of time," and the text "is rich in imagery, emotive and suspenseful."

Since she also found no similarity whatsoever between the characters, themes and plots of the books, she agreed with Scholastic that no reasonable juror could find that the Harry Potter book infringed.

"Scholastic is extremely pleased that Judge Scheindlin decided to dismiss the case at the earliest stage possible," said Dale Cendali, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP representing the publisher. "The swift dismissal obviously supports our position that the claims were completely without merit."

An attorney for the plaintiff could not immediately be reached for comment. 

Jacobs died in 1997, and his estate has sued Harry Potter's publishers on both sides of the Atlantic, lodging the copyright complaint against Scholastic in the U.S. in July and a separate case against Bloomsbury Publishing PLC in the U.K., which is ongoing. The estate is seeking $800 million in damages.

The complaint alleges that Jacobs' agent, Christopher Little, also discovered Rowling, and gave her access to "Willy the Wizard" as the Harry Potter novels were being written. Both books tell the tale of a wizard who participates in a magical competition, although Willy is an adult and Harry is a teenager.

The suit claims that numerous elements of "Willy the Wizard" were incorporated into "Goblet of Fire," the fourth Harry Potter book, but makes no claims regarding the other six books in the series.

Judge Scheindlin ruled that none of the elements identified in the suit were protectable or could be found to have been infringed by the Harry Potter book.

While the suit claimed that both books use themes such as friendship and teamwork, the judge ruled that it is unclear that any discernible, let alone protectable, themes are present in the "one-dimensional and desultory" Willy the Wizard book.

"A brief, perfunctory and isolated reference to a subject cannot give rise to a cognizable theme, let alone one that is specific enough to be infringed," she wrote.

Likewise, she said, the suit's allegations that both books are about wizard competitions "constitute a general prototype too indistinct to merit copyright protection."

The other elements of the magical setting that Rowling allegedly infringed are mentioned only in passing by Jacobs, the judge said, and were not transformed into protected expression through any creative effort.

Finally, she wrote, the book provides so few details about Willy the Wizard himself that he does not have any discernible personality or distinguishable appearance, so the character likely could not be infringed upon at all.

Andrews Kurth LLP is representing the plaintiff in this case.

Kirkland & Ellis LLP is representing Scholastic.