Saturday, 21 July 2007

Tanya Grotter

Rather than make the obligatory comment about the release of the last Harry Potter novel, I thought I'd mention a more interesting bibliographic story: the case of Tanya Grotter.

The Tanya Grotter series is a very popular Russian clone of Harry Potter by the best-selling author Dmitri Yemets. There is no doubting the origin, and Yemets is open about it: introduced in Tanya Grotter and the Magical Double Bass, Tanya is an orphan with magical powers, brought up by an abusive foster-family, who gets to go to a wizarding school, etc etc. You won't currently get to read it in translation because in 2003 lawyers for JK Rowling and Time Warner successfully brought a cease-and-desist action to prevent the release of a Dutch translation, and this is likely to be the fate of translation into other languages (see Pravda's J.K. Rowling law firm sued Russian publishing house Eksmo on plagiarism allegation and the BBC's Rowling blocks Grotter release). Rowling's lawyers argued that the Grotter books violated copyright, and Yemets and his Moscow-based publishers, Eksmo, were unsuccessful in defending it as a parody. The latter is permitted under copyright, which is why Michael Gerber's Barry Trotter series is allowed.

On the face of it, this sounds like a cut-and-dried copyright case. But Maureen O'Brien, a blogger in the USA, wrote a deal at the time about the Tanya Grotter series, suggesting that it has been misrepresented. According to Defending Tanya Grotter, the case failed to address the point that the Grotter series is not a parody (in the sense of an extended joke) but a contrafakt: a form of literature that retells a story in a different genre. Compare "contrafactum", the same concept applied to music. Maureen gives the particular examples of Sharon Shinn's Jenna Starborn and Pat Murphy's There and back again, respectively SF retellings of Jane Eyre and The Hobbit. The latter is a particularly significant precedent, as The Hobbit is still in copyright.

As described in Maureen's review , Tanya Grotter has structural similarities to Harry Potter, but is so deeply adapted to a Russian setting that, Maureen argues, it amounts to a different work (or, as Yemets put it, a "cultural reply" to the Potter series). For instance, Tanya doesn't sleep in a broom cupboard but a loggia, a glazed balcony (freezing in winter, sweltering in summer) characteristic of Russian apartments. The magical elements are rooted in Russian folklore, such as Baba Yaga and Rusalki, and general Russian culture such as the works of Pushkin and Rimsky-Korsakov's Night on Bald Mountain. You can read about some of the characters at another of Maureen O'Brien's postings, A little more measured response.....

None of these subtleties came out at the Dutch court sessions, and few commentators outside Russia bothered to investigate (news items just reported the similarities and assumed the copyright breach to be clear-cut). One exception was Tim Wu at - Harry Potter and the International Order of Copyright - who argued that the freedom to create derivative works is actually beneficial to the literary market. There have been no attempts to market a translation since then.

- Ray

Addendum: I've commented on this further in a later post, More Russification / Wind Done Gone. - Ray

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