You Can't Do That!

Now would be a good time to compare two recent mini-encyclopedias about fantasy celebrities ... except that one of them has been nobbled by the arcane workings of American law.

Andrew M. Butler's An Unofficial Companion to the Novels of Terry Pratchett (Greenwood World Publishing) appeared in late November and contains the expected range of articles on that nice Mr Pratchett's books, characters, themes and spinoffs. I have to declare an interest because I contributed. Indeed – it can no longer be concealed – I wrote the utterly impartial entry on "David Langford".

Steve Vander Ark's The Harry Potter Lexicon (RDR Books), scheduled for very nearly the same date, covers the novels of that nice Ms J K Rowling – a promising fantasy author of whom some of you may have heard. Since the Lexicon website at has been an acclaimed Harry Potter resource for years, no one expected any trouble. Rowling herself gave it her Fan Site award: "This is such a great site that I have been known to sneak into an internet café while out writing and check a fact ..."

What's great on line is unwelcome in print: Rowling and Warner Bros became very severe with the Lexicon's prospective publishers. RDR didn't do themselves any favours by refusing to show Warner's lawyers the actual text to be printed. Supposedly – and this was strongly implied by RDR's surly responses to said lawyers – it's the website, verbatim. A New York judge granted an order to block publication until at least February.

What went wrong? Rowling complains that the Lexicon would be a commercial rival to her coming Potterpedia, containing "all the material that never made it into the novels." Vander Ark can hardly compete there; he doesn't know that secret background. Though Pratchett – who is after all co-author of The Discworld Companion – has similar motives for suppressing the competition, I see no lawsuits against the Unofficial Companion. Mind you, Mr Discworld has the advantage of not having sold his soul to Warner Bros, suspected by many to be the driving force behind legal assaults on the Lexicon.

However, the Lexicon has an awful lot of direct quotation and close paraphrase of Rowling's novels. Is this beyond the bounds of "fair use"? I have to declare an interest because I too wrote a Harry Potter spinoff book, and was so terrified by the legal minefields that I avoided actual quotations altogether. Let's compare the Unofficial Companion and Lexicon entries on leading wizards. Rincewind of Unseen University gets about 850 words, of which just three are direct quotation. Albus Dumbledore of Hogwarts gets a 1,500-word essay with well over 300 words of Rowling quotations. That's quite a bit – and there's a separate, linked Lexicon page of Notable Dumbledore Quotes, containing substantially more than three thousand words extracted from the Potter saga. That's an awful lot – and all from the coverage of just one character. "Fair use" isn't well defined but starts getting iffy in the region of hundreds rather than thousands of quoted words.

So perhaps I'd better abandon my pet project An Unofficial Companion to the Words of Stephen R Donaldson. While reviewing Fatal Revenant I couldn't resist chronicling the specially Donaldsonian lumps of vocabulary strewn through the text:

Analystic. Argence. Assoiled. Barranca. Bayamo. Brume. Brunt (as a verb). Caliginous. Cataphract. Cerements. Chancres. Chrysoprase. Clench. Condign (also, uncondign). Crepuscular. Cymar. Cynosure. Deflagration. Delirancy. Delinition. Delitescent. Devoir. Eldritch. Epitonic. Etiolating. Exigent. Flamberge. Frangible. Fug. Fuligin. Fulvous. Geas. Inexculpate. Innominate. Insequent. Jacinth. Jerrid. Knaggy. Lacustrine. Lambent. Leal. Lenitive. Limned. Lucent. Mien. Numinous. Oneiric. Orogenic. Paresthesia. Phosphenes. Puissance. Puissant. Roborant. Salvific (as in "salvific unction"). Sequacious. Stridulation. Sopor. Surquedry. Theriac. Theurgy. Threnody. Vizard. Vlei. Were-menhir. Writhen.

"Eldritch", long the front-running favourite word, was eventually overtaken by "theurgy". Also very popular are "cymar" (because a character who wears one keeps reappearing), "flamberge" (because a character who wields one ...), "innominate", "lucent" and "puissance". To quote another critic, malphony exfoliates.

As for that nice Mr Donaldson's similes, they are annealed like granite, as ultimate as ebony, as sharp and pointed as augury, as ready as knives, as obdurate as travertine, as profound as orogeny, as fervid as a bonfire, as gravid as an aftershock, and indeed full of long shadows like striations of augury. "Loud forms twisted and squirmed around her, evanescent as tendrils, dangerous as tentacles; but an eerie delinition prevented her from hearing them clearly." I finished the book feeling slightly delirious – that is, afflicted with delirancy.

No: for fear of Donaldson's lawyers (Bombast & Fustian Inc), I think I'd better not compile my Innominate Yet Puissant Companion.

David Langford is eschewing sesquipedalianism.

Later: Steve Vander Ark sent email in response to this column, and with his permission I published it verbatim in Ansible 247 (which led to a lot of fuss in Harry Potter fandom, but never mind that now). My column for SFX 169 re-examines the case in the light of this and other developments. Some relentlessly detailed though not exactly impartial tracking of events can be found at Fandom Wank: "Lexicongate".