Boyd Tonkin: Harry Potter and the magic brand

The week in books
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

For better or worse, the loudest global conversation around a British author's work this week has nothing to do with the novels that appear – or don't – on the Man Booker long-list. On Sunday, the preliminary or "Beta" launch for the Pottermore website invited Harry's fans to solve daily clues in a "Magical Quill" challenge that runs until tomorrow. Successful followers of the speccy spellbinder will then enjoy privileged advance access to the site, which goes live for the hoi polloi in October. Note how cannily the laws of this latest colony in the Potter empire mimic the books' division between a magical elite and civilian "muggles".

Over a decade, JK Rowling has played an absolute blinder in a game with stakes considerably higher than Quidditch. As a ferocious guardian of her intellectual property in print, on screen and online, Harry's originator – with some help from the lawyers – makes her Hagrid look a wuss. She, or her advisers, have not merely chased down pirates and knock-off merchants across the globe, and seen off optimistic lawsuits from aggrieved children's authors - and their families - who claimed to detect their own literary genes in the Potter series. (One hopeful estate, that of Adrian Jacobs, went for broke in 2009 with a failed bid for £500m. in damages.)

They have rigorously managed the roll-out of Potter franchises across films, toys, games and sites. Pottermore, which along with its interactive widgets promises juicy chunks of newly-cooked prose from Rowling as she fills in back-stories, will confirm her oeuvre as a textbook case in the surveillance of rights that merits study all the way from Hogwarts to Harvard.

What can lesser mortals on the literary scene learn from this model defence? First, never believe the digital libertarians when they claim that copyright is dead, and creators must grin and starve while their work zips around the web for free. Tell that to Warner Bros. lawyers.

The big battalions still collect their rents and revenues; smaller players should study hard to see just how they do it. This week, the government's acceptance of the Hargreaves Report into intellectual property law does not alter the status quo that much - although it does bless agreed "exceptions to copyright", and we may not see many more fruitless attempts to block access to file-sharing sites.

Beyond the courtroom quarrels, the ever-expanding reach of Potter also proves the might of the brand, in mass-market literature as much as anywhere. Branded characters have flourished at least since Arthur Conan Doyle consented in 1901 to bring back Sherlock Holmes, seven years after his mishap with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. With Potter and pals at the leading edge, and the rumpled protagonists of crime franchises not far behind. they now take up more space than ever – perfect vehicles for a trademarked push out of print, and into screen or online incarnations.

Look at the mission statement of Chorion - a pioneer outfit in this field, chaired by Labour peer Waheed Alli - and you glimpse what branding entails for our favourite imaginary friends. Chorion has in its portfolio the estates of Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton, Raymond Chandler and Georges Simenon, not to mention rights to Paddington Bear, Peter Rabbit and The Snowman. The firm aims to identify the "Brand DNA" for each of its properties, and to "engender consumer loyalty and trust as they make the transition from the printed page" to other platforms.

No one could really argue with the intention: to keep characters in character, forestall abuses and put the kibosh on Poirot's Hot Nights in Bangkok or Noddy Meets the Killer Zombies. All the same, the age-old liaison of culture and commerce has taken an odd turn. The intangible qualities of looks, thoughts and acts that first attracted reader to character have become tradeable commodities, and legally-protected assets. It's good news, I suppose, for those authors who can perfect the knack of turning a personality into a property. As for mere fans, we can pay our dues and imagine Philip Marlowe, Jules Maigret and Hercule Poirot sitting together under the same corporate roof - in a smoke-choked room, even now – as they mull over the curious case of the multi-media heritage-brand marketing strategy.

Stories from airside – and on air

After Alain de Botton, Tony Parsons has signed up as the second writer-in residence at Heathrow Airport. This role, somewhere between sleuth, guru and confessor, has spread from its early homes in prisons, colleges and hospitals to attract a greater variety of institutions. Most are short-term placements. But for the distinguished Uzbek author Hamid Ismailov, of the BBC World Service, it means taking on a second role within his normal workplace. He is both head of the Central Asian section at Bush House, and halfway through a stint as in-house writer there. Read his entertaining journal on worldservice/writerinresidence.

Not the Man Booker Prize?

I refuse to criticise the Man Booker long-list. I've done that job; it's tough. You can't begin to satisfy the clamour of competing voices in your head, let alone in the world outside (established stars vs newcomers; large vs small firms; British novelists vs the rest, and so on). Yet as I began to tally my cherished casualties this year (Michael Ondaatje, Graham Swift, Ali Smith, Justin Cartwright, Andrew Miller, Francesca Kay... ), as well as other critics', a subversive idea took shape. Perhaps we need a new prize. As well as, not instead of. Only for UK authors or else permanent British residents. The same jury of genuine authorities (writers, teachers, critics) every year. No submissions from publishers; just selections by the judges. No thought of striking a balance between ages, genders, genres, publishers. Above all, an uncompromising, single-minded commitment to excellence in the art of fiction. Howls of complaint against "elitism" would pierce the air. Publishers would hate it. And novelists would kill to win.