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Plagiarism and passing-off

17 January 2011

Bestselling author J K Rowling is in the clear as regards a case brought against her by the estate of the late Adrian Jacobs in relation to his book Willy the Wizard, which she was accused of using as the basis of the Harry Potter books. The judge said: "The contrast between the total concept and feel of the work is so stark that any serious comparison of the two strains credulity."

Jacobs' estate claimed that Rowling's agent Christopher Little was given a copy of Willy the Wizard, which he later passed on to Rowling, but the timing is all wrong. Judge Kitchen also said: "It is inherently improbable that Mr Little would have thought it worth giving a copy to Ms Rowling some eight years later."

In the UK it seems likely that the case will be dismissed when it comes back to court in March. Although the whole business appears to have caused Rowling great irritation and annoyance, the case against the bestselling author was not strong.

In another case involving the copyright and control of the work of a well-known author, J D Salinger's Catcher in the Rye will remain under tight copyright control in the US. Fredrik Colting 's 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, an unauthorized sequel to The Catcher in the Rye, has been banned from publication in the US. It will however be widely published elsewhere.

The reclusive author reacted with fury to this unauthorised sequel, although he managed to keep control during his lifetime, but after he died in January 2010, he left his heirs to take over stewardship of his literary estate.

Since its 1951 publication by Little, Brown, The Catcher in the Rye has sold more than 35 million copies, while the reclusive Salinger towered over his masterwork, spurning all television, stage and film adaptations, including overtures from Steven Spielberg, and refusing to license audio editions.

These cases of bestselling authors defending themselves from accusations of plagiarism and defending their work from unauthorised 'passing-off' show the pressures that great fame and great riches bring to authors. J K Rowling had to defend her good name and J D Salinger, presumably, thought he had to defend his work from other writers ripping it off, using it in a way he disapproved of and had not authorised, and then making a lot of money out of it.