It's more complicated -- and confusing -- than you might think

By Matthew Flamm
Updated March 26, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
Harry Potter: Thomas Fuchs

Next month, the Maryland based publisher Thurman House will release a title that may sound familiar: ”The Legend of Rah and the Muggles,” by N.K. Stouffer. ”Larry Potter and His Best Friend Lilly,” also by Stouffer, will follow this fall. If these books sound like blatant ”Harry Potter” knockoffs, it might surprise you to learn that the Stouffer books actually predate the more famous ”Potter” series by a decade or more. ”I get accused every day of copying J.K. Rowling,” Stouffer says. First published in 1984, the ”Rah” and ”Larry Potter” books nearly led to a seven figure publishing and licensing deal. That deal fell through, however, when Stouffer’s original publishing company filed for bankruptcy, tying up her rights to the material. A few years later, when Stouffer learned that producer Steven Bochco was planning to use the name ”Muggle” in a proposed animated TV series, she opposed him, and he abandoned his trademark application.

Shortly after ”Harry Potter” took the U.S. by storm, Stouffer approached Scholastic to apprise Rowling’s publisher of her rights to all things Muggle. In what now may seem like a peculiar legal strategy, Scholastic (along with Rowling and ”Harry Potter” merchandising rights owner AOL Time Warner) responded by suing her, seeking a judgment that Rowling was not infringing on Stouffer’s rights. Stouffer subsequently filed counterclaims.

Stouffer, who emphasizes that she’s not accusing Rowling of plagiarism, doesn’t claim to have coined the term ”Muggles”; she was just the first to use the word as a trademark. ”We think [her claims] are absurd, and we are baffled by the media attention,” says Judy Corman, a Scholastic spokesperson. Stouffer, for her part, clearly hopes to benefit from the court of public opinion. ”The best possible scenario,” she says, ”is to put the books out there and let children, parents, and educators [decide] for themselves.” The lawsuit is now in the discovery phase in Manhattan federal court.