Maybe you haven’t heard of Tanya Grotter (or her magic double-bass). But J. K. Rowling has, and she isn’t exactly happy about Tanya . . .
Tanya Grotter is the eponymous main character of a series of Russian fantasy novels written by Dmitri Yemets (Дми́трий Емец). Published by the Moscow based publisher Eskmo, the series began in 2002 with Tanya Grotter i Magicheskii Kontrabas (Tanya Grotter and the Magic Double-Bass). The series follows a young girl with magic powers. Orphaned when her parents are killed by an evil sorceress, she receives a distinguishing scar on her nose during the attack. Subsequently, she is poorly treated by her foster family (the Durnevs, her distant relatives) until she leaves home and finds her true place in the world attending the Tibidokh School of Magic. Sound a little too familiar?
J.K. Rowling and Time Warner, the producers of the Harry Potter movies, think it does. But that hasn’t stopped Russian audiences from falling in love with the series. During a nine-month period between 2002 and 2003, Russian booksellers sold 600,000 copies of Tanya Grotter books, compared to about 1.5 million copies of Russian translations of the Harry Potter series (which are, I might add, are twice as expensive than Yemets’s series).1
So in 2003 when the Dutch publisher Byblos was hoping to capitalize on the huge popularity of Emets’ work in Russia by bringing a translation of the work to the Western European book market, the Harry Potter team had a different idea. Byblos’s small edition of 7000 copies was blocked from publication in Dutch court after a short legal battle which turned on a strict interpretation and enforcement of international copyright and an author’s authority over adaptations of their works.
Rowling is well known for keeping a tight leash on fan fiction and other adaptations of her work, often serving cease and desist letters or bringing piratical publishers to court (of which there are tons!).2 This kind of centralization is easier than one might think since international copyright controls very much favor the “original author”. According to Tim Wu at Slate: “Under the Trade Related International Property treaty [for member of the World Trade Organization], original authors ‘enjoy the exclusive right of authorizing adaptations, arrangements and other alterations of their works'”.3 In other words any work that is derivative of some earlier work (with a current copyright and vigilant author) must be officially authorized by that original author in order to be officially published.
Yet Yemets and his publishers maintain that Tanya Grotter is not an outright piracy. Rather they claim it is a parody of Rowling’s work, a characteristically Russian “cultural response” incorporating much material from Russian folklore and fairy tales.4 The series also seems to borrow from Greek mythology (for some reason) in a way that the Potter series does not.
The whole controversy revolves around where to draw the line between theft of original content and derivation. Satire and parody are necessarily derivative. So how can we tell the difference between bad parody (bad in the sense that the satire isn’t obvious or actually critical) and good piracy (good in the sense that it obviously resembles the work that “inspired” it)? Is there any formal difference between fan fiction, parody, and piracy? Or does it depend, not on the content of the derived works, but simply on the tastes of the authors and gatekeepers of the original work and how they view and judge subsequently related works?
These are philosophical questions, and probably too philosophical given the subject at hand. But perhaps by reading Tanya Grotter you can decide for yourself whether or not the series is a parody or a piracy. In case you don’t (like me) read Russian, there are free (and very unauthorized) translations available in PDF on the web. Uploaded and translated by the enigmatic Jane H. Buckingham, you can find Tanya Grotter (and other Emets titles) in the links below from Scribd.com.
For your scholarly erudition and philosophical contemplation:
Thanks to Elena Alexeyeva of Princeton for her generous gift of Potteriana in Russian!