When J K Rowling appeared in a district court in New York last week, something strange happened. In normal circumstances, Rowling is regarded as a thoroughly decent woman whose novels have provided pleasure to millions and who has, moreover, given a great deal of her wealth to good causes.
Suddenly, the tone changed: why, commentators asked sniffily, was the wealthy author trying to prevent a small publisher in Michigan from issuing a 400-page lexicon of the Harry Potter novels? Her attempt to defend her copyright was described as "distasteful" and the case was characterised as a David-and-Goliath contest in which Rowling was unaccountably on the wrong side. The general view seemed to be that her behaviour was mercenary and she should stop persecuting the harmless librarian who compiled the lexicon.
Mark Le Fanu, general secretary of the Society of Authors, however, injected a dose of reality by pointing out that Rowling was "taking a stand against a derivative book which appears to have been built entirely on her creativity". Of course he's right: the lexicon isn't an encyclopedia in the normal sense, consisting of facts that are in the public domain, but something parasitic on years of hard work by Rowling. Her present bank balance is irrelevant to the case, except in so far as she is one of the few British authors who can afford to sue when their work is used without permission or payment; in that sense, she is defending the rights of thousands of writers, most of whom don't earn enough to live on.
Here are the facts about professional writers in Britain: the typical British author earns 33 per cent less than the national average wage. In the 25 to 34 age group, typical earnings are only £5,000 a year, which is a third less than authors of a comparable age in Germany. The Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society, which compiled the figures, says that British writers are struggling to survive and badly hit by unauthorised use of their work on internet; at a time when half of UK households have a broadband connection, fewer than 15 per cent of authors have received any payment for online use of their work.
Worse, huge numbers of internet users don't see any reason why they should pay to read someone's poems, articles or even whole chunks of their books online. That's what inspired Wendy Cope to write a poem entitled "The Law of Copyright", reminding her fans that authors have legal rights.
What's weird about this is the way in which some readers change their attitude completely when they're confronted with the notion that writing is work and should be paid for. Bloggers are the worst offenders, hiding behind pseudonyms to complain that the law of copyright is an attack on free speech. It isn't, and there's no evil plot to deny readers their enjoyment of Rowling, or any of the new novelists who wouldn't be able to get started without the imperfect protection of the current law. What's at stake in that New York courtroom is the health of British culture, and Rowling deserves our thanks for taking this stand.