NEW YORK – J.K. Rowling says the Harry Potter characters she created are as dear as her children, too precious to allow an inferior Potter encyclopedia to be published without letting the world know the ordeal is draining her of her will to write.
"I really don't want to cry because I'm British, you know," the mother of three told a judge Monday in U.S. District Court as she described how much her characters and seven books mean to her. "You know, these books, they saved me, not just in the very obvious material sense, although they did do that. ... I would have to say that there was a time when they saved my sanity."
Last year, Rowling sued Michigan-based RDR Books to stop publication of Steven Vander Ark's "Harry Potter Lexicon," claiming copyright infringement. Vander Ark runs the popular Harry Potter Lexicon Web site, and RDR wants to publish a print version of the site and charge $24.95.
RDR publisher Roger Rapoport, who testified in the case Monday, was to return to the witness stand Tuesday.
Rowling claims the lexicon is nothing more than a rearrangement of her material, and she told the judge it copied so much of her work that it amounted to plagiarism. She said she was "extremely shocked" because Vander Ark had said on his site he would not publish a book.
"I did feel a degree of betrayal," said Rowling, who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, with her husband and children. "I believe that it is sloppy, lazy and that it takes my work wholesale, verbatim. This book constitutes wholesale theft of 17 years of my hard work."
She also said she recently started work on her own encyclopedia but does not expect to complete it for two to three years. If Vander Ark's lexicon is published, "I'm not at all convinced that I would have the will or the heart to continue with my encyclopedia," she said.
The case caused her to stop working on a new novel, as well, she told the packed courtroom.
"It's really decimated my creative work over the last month," she said. "Again, it's very hard to describe to someone who's not engaged in creative writing, but you lose the threads, you worry if you will be able to pick them up again in exactly the same way."
In his opening statement, RDR lawyer Anthony Falzone defended the lexicon as a reference guide, calling it a legitimate effort "to organize and discuss the complicated and very elaborate world of Harry Potter." The small publisher is not contesting that the lexicon infringes upon Rowling's copyright but argues that it is a fair use allowable by law for reference books.
The nonjury trial will be decided by U.S. District Judge Robert Patterson Jr., who must determine whether the use of the material is legal because Vander Ark added his own interpretation, creativity and analysis. The testimony and arguments could last most of the week.
The trial comes eight months after the publication of Rowling's final book in the series. The books have been published in 64 languages, sold more than 400 million copies and produced a film franchise that has pulled in $4.5 billion at the worldwide box office.
In sometimes emotional testimony, Rowling recalled starting work on the first book in 1991 when she was 25 and so destitute that she sometimes had to choose between buying typewriter ribbon and food. She said the Harry Potter characters helped her escape from the hard work of raising a child on welfare.
"It was a place into which I liked to vanish, and it was a discipline that was very important in keeping me sane," she said.
She said Vander Ark sometimes made incorrect translations and that it was "laughable" that he barely explored the subject of death.
"Any guide to the Harry Potter books should have a lengthy entry on death," Rowling said. "It is probably the major theme of the whole seven-book series, and it appears in so many different ways."
Vander Ark, 50, has said he joined an online discussion group devoted to the Harry Potter books in 1999 before starting his Web site as a hobby a year later. The Web site attracts about 1.5 million page views per month and contributions from people worldwide.
Vander Ark said he initially declined proposals to convert the Web site into an encyclopedia, in part because he believed until last August that in book form, it would represent a copyright violation.
After Rowling released the final chapter in the "Harry Potter" series last July, Vander Ark was contacted by an RDR Books employee, who told him that publication of the lexicon would not violate copyright law, he said. Still, to protect himself, Vander Ark said he insisted that RDR Books include a clause in his contract that the publisher would defend him and pay any damages that might result from claims against him.
Rowling acknowledged she once bestowed an award on Vander Ark's Web site because she wanted to encourage a very enthusiastic fan.
But she said she "almost choked on my coffee" one morning when she realized Vander Ark had warned others not to copy portions of his Web site. She said she now has second thoughts about all the encouragement she has given to online discussions and Web sites devoted to her books.