Earlier today my Mom was digging through her basement & she found a notebook filled with magazines, news clippings, and print outs of various online blurbs all about PotterWar & The Daily Prophet. It was a fun trip down memory lane.
But my favorite discovery in this notebook of memories was a speech I wrote in 2002, all about PotterWar. I prepared the speech for an event at a church I was attending at the time, where the young teenage girls between the ages of 16 & 18 were encouraged to prepare a “Laurel Project” - basically some kind of mid-to-long term service project, where they used their talents to do some sort of good. I had decided my charity work with the Daily Prophet & PotterWar certainly counted, thus my Laurel Project presentation was all about my battle with Warner Brothers.
Now, over a decade later, it was fun reading this little mini history of PotterWar. I had forgotten some of the details it talked about. All in all, it’s a pretty decent synopsis of events. I figured it’d be good to post it here.
So here we go!
A History of PotterWar, As Told by 17-Year-Old Heather
by Heather Lawver
I’ll be the first to admit, my laurel projects this year were far from conventional. I’ll tell you about the first one, one that my family and I have been laughingly referring to as the strangest laurel project ever.
As an on-going service project, I run an educational website for children, based around the ‘Harry Potter’ book series by J.K. Rowling. The site is based on the book because they’ve gotten children excited about reading. I’ve fancied myself a writer for a while, and I’ve always enjoyed creative writing. I saw the Potter books as an opportunity to take that love of reading and turn it into a love of writing, by hiring children to write for a faux newspaper, written as if the wizarding world were true.
Running such a site means I’m in constant contact with Harry Potter fans of all ages. This is a truly wonderful thing. If you don’t know a Harry Potter fan, find one. They’re some of the most charming people you’ll ever meet. However, sadly, last year, Harry Potter fans were under attack by a bullying multi-national corporation.
In 2000, Warner Brothers, the copyright owners of everything and anything Harry Potter, began sending threatening emails and letters to children who ran Harry Potter fan websites, like my own. I heard about this in December of 200, right after having surgery. A friend of mine, Lindsay Warde, a 12-year-old from Ohio, came to me in tears one day, explaining that she got a nasty letter from Warners, saying that Lindsay was infringing copyrights, violating trademarks, breaking the law, and making J.K. Rowling very upset, simply for owning the domain name BestHogwarts.com. I was infuriated. A giant company was upsetting a poor, innocent girl who had done nothing wrong. And what’s more, they stole her domain name. I was determined to take action, even though, at the time, I was bedridden. Oh, the joys of the Internet.
I got in contact with a few friends, from California to Singapore, who ran Harry Potter sites of their own. I started to realize that Lindsay’s wasn’t an isolated case of misunderstanding. This was happening all over the globe, and yet no one was seriously trying to put a stop to it.
Through my friend in Singapore I heard about a 33-year-old man in London, Alastair Alexander, who had set up a protest site against Warner Brothers when he heard about the infamous Claire Field case; a 15-year-old girl from Ipswich, England, who had the guts to stand up against Warners in the face of legal threats. She even had a hire a lawyer to protect her domain name, HarryPotterGuide.co.uk. Enraged by the threats, Alastair Alexander set up PotterWar, simply to spread the word about how nasty Warners was being.
I immediately got in contact with Alastair via email. I proposed action, rather than just words. I formulated a plan for a boycott; what I referred to as ‘Teaching Warner Brothers a Lesson in Supply vs. Demand.’ Warner Brothers invested over $150 million dollars in simply buying the rights to the Harry Potter franchise. Imagine how devastating it would be if none of it paid off?
Alastair loved the plan, and thought my overly-business-like introductory letter was horribly funny. So, naturally, he and I teamed up. On February 19, 2001, the boycott officially launched. PotterWar was on its feet.
But, of course, no one quite knew about us on that day. On February 22, however, the entire world started clogging our phone lines. On that day - incidentally, my Father’s birthday - USA Today published an article about our efforts on the front page of the Life section, calling for an immediate settlement on behalf of the children. The PR chess match had begun.
Alastair and I kept in constant contact, bouncing reporters between us, switching tactics mid-stream simply to confuse Warner Brothers. The press fancied making me look like an innocent 12-year-old, which honesty, didn’t hurt the campaign. They’d focus on Alastair for the rants and general bullying, while making me look like the innocent victim. When it came time for negotiations, however, the tides turned; I turned into the evil one, sending off threatening emails of our own to Warner Brothers Vice President Diane Nelson, the Head of the Family Entertainment division. Unluckily for her, she was assigned to handle “the PotterWar problem.”
Press coverage and behind-the-scenes negotiations went on for a few months. I was kept incredibly busy by keeping up with email, interviews, and such. The story was covered by more than one hundred news organizations around the world, from Project Eyeball in Singapore, to ABC News. La Nuit France to The Ottawa Citizen. Detikcom in Germany, to Jewish World News. Epoca in Mexico, to the BBC. World Socialist News, to Lowbrow London. MSNBC, to the CBC, and even the Associated Press. Along with many, many others. It even went so far that it made it into certain Priests’ Easter Sermons & a few Rabbis’ Passover messages.
Diane Nelson at Warner Brothers continued to deny that they had any knowledge of the fact that they were threatening children. The denials lasted for months, until finally in late April, I received a very nasty email from Diane. She started blaming me for extensive monetary losses in the Harry Potter franchise. That was no surprise to me; Alastair and I had received plenty of emails from small businesses, especially here in Virginia, saying that they had lost upwards of $5,000 because they invested in Potter merchandise, and none of it was selling. Some even reported that they were getting nasty phone calls from parents, saying, “How could you support Warner Brothers with what they’re doing to that poor little girl in Sterling?!”
Diane went on to say that I was spreading lies, that I was liable for their losses. I didn’t reply to this one at first, I opted to send it off to the PotterWar lawyer, just to double-check if my inclinations were accurate. Sure enough, I was right; Diane Nelson was laying the groundwork for a liable suit against me. Basically meaning AOL/Time Warner could haul me off to court, and make me pay for their losses from the boycott.
Needless to say, I was a bit miffed. I wanted nothing more than to show her off. To stick my metaphorical tongue out at her. Thankfully, I had an ace up my sleeve. I sent Diane an email, slightly scolding her saying, “Don’t you dare try that with me.” And then I contacted the reporter who published the first article in USA Today, and proposed she write a follow-up article. Which she gracious agreed to do, because she, to, has learned to loathe the machine that is Warner Brothers. And my what a flaming article it was! It hit the presses on April 24, 2001. And Warner Brothers was very upset.
But, I had something else to worry about. My site quit working. I’ll spare you the technical details, but basically after speaking with my webhoster (the people who house my site), they gave me a bogus reason for shutting down my site. I smelled a rat, and that rat was named Diane Nelson. It had her name written all over it. The theory goes that she contacted my webhoster, mentioned the words “AOL/Time Warner” and “copyright infringement.” Within a blink of an eye, my website was gone. After several threats of calling the Justice Department, I finally got the $300 back that I had paid for their services. Thankfully Alastair had a server of his own and let me transfer the site over there, so I could at least be operating again. That was dreadfully important, because all of the information for the press was on my website.
At this point, my health was failing. Negotiating was getting incredibly hard. At that point I had pins in my foot, an IV line in my chest, and a brain infection. I was not doing well, and the stress of the campaign wasn’t really helping.
News came shortly thereafter that after six months of debating, Warner Brothers finally settled Claire Field’s case. That sweet little 15-year-old in Ipswich. They decided to let her keep her domain and never bother her again. Thank heavens.
Although, there were still other children that needed cases sorted out. Over the next few months, however, the PotterWar machine simply lost steam because the press died down, and my health was getting worse. And, Warner Brothers very sneakily took away our last “poster children” by settling their cases behind closed doors. Our last remaining children whose parents had agreed to let us use their names had been taken away from us, leaving multiple cases of children hidden in obscurity unheard of and unsettled.
Alastair and I decided to end on the moral high ground. We had given Warner Brothers an awfully good beating. Diane Nelson got demoted. (I was pleased about that, that woman was awfully nasty to us.) And most of the cases got settled. There were a few here and there that I still wish we could have settled, but hey ho. All in all, it was a good fight, and a landmark case. I’ve been told it was the only fan organization to win a domain dispute against a major corporation. And we made it out without a single formal lawsuit. Just a lot of public name-calling, well-placed innocent victims, and a lot of hard work.
And the case wasn’t without its little personal rewards for Alastair and I. I now have the pleasure of knowing that Warner Brothers’ PR department knows me, and loathes me, by name. A reporter from the Washington Times was preparing a story about me a few months ago, and she wanted a statement from Warners. She called their PR department and said, “I’m writing a story about a young girl who started a boycott against you.”
She was stopped mid-sentence by a bland voice saying, “Can you tell us who the young girl is?”
The reporter replied, “I’m sorry, she’s a minor, I don’t believe I should do that.”
The voice said, “Can we take a wild guess?” The reporter couldn’t say no to that. “Is it Heather Lawver?”
She gave in and said yes.
“No comment,” and the line went dead.
Alastair Alexander and I recently met up in London, and we’re working on a new website to educate fan site owners in copyright and trademark law, and the ways they can protect themselves. And if ever our services are needed in the future, we’ll be standing ready to jump in and do what we can. The Batman and Batgirl of domain disputes. And so far, our services have been needed more often than we thought. Since July I’ve been debating with yet another company with the help of PotterWar’s attorney, and hopefully, they’ll crack before the week’s out.
There you have it; the strangest laurel project ever.