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More specifically, consider the following examples: 1) Say my protagonist is a boy who has a lightning-bolt scar on his forehead, wears round glasses, and has dark hair and green eyes. His name is NOT Harry Potter, he is NOT a wizard, and he DOESN'T attend Hogwarts.

Would this be considered copyright? After all, it's perfectly plausible that there could exist a person with these physical attributes.

2) Can my protagonist have a nickname like "Harry Potter" or "the muggle Harry Potter"? (again assuming he's not a wizard etc.)

Edit: Thank you for your responses. I have one more question. When referring to pop culture in your work, say the Harry Potter series, are you allowed to refer to characters by their nicknames (e.g. the Boy Who Lived)? For example, I know something like "Hey, you look just like Harry Potter!" is allowed, but is "Hey, you look just like the Boy Who Lived!" allowed?

  • Hi, welcome to writing.se! Take the tour and visit the help center for more information. This is good first question. Thanks for contributing and happy writing! – linksassin Oct 31 at 1:57
  • Pretty sure we're had this question, or variations of it, a hundred times before. See here, for example, or my answer here. – F1Krazy Oct 31 at 13:47
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Copyright law varies by country, so there is no simple answer.

But if the first thing readers think of after reading the character description is someone else's character... then you are in dangerous territory, and could absolutely be sued for infringement or get a Cease and Desist court order levied against you, among other things.

  • They could hit you with a C&D even being wrong about their copyright being infringed. The big guys have the backing to just bully around. – Mindwin Oct 31 at 11:58
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I am not a lawyer. Copyright violation is often up to human interpretation (not yours) by a judge or jury.

They get to decide whether you are stealing a character or not. Chances are, they will decide a lightning bolt scar, round glasses, etc is so unique it can't be anything BUT plagiarism, so they will find you guilty of copyright violation, perhaps trademark infringement, and theft of intellectual property.

Harry Potter's persona belongs to JK Rowling and her contractual partners. The underlying issue is, broadly, that you cannot steal somebody else's imagination in order to make yourself money. There are huge exceptions when it comes to generalities that you can show are present in multiple works over time. Nobody can stop you from writing a murder mystery, or clever super-observant detectives, or space operas like Star Trek and Star Wars, or about a magic school for kids, or magic portals to a magical land. You can write treasure-hunt adventures, similar to Indiana Jones but with different protagonists. Those things have been done many times, in print and film, and thus no particular person or entity owns them. You can follow plot points: Hundreds of romantic comedies follow the same broad plot, millions of novels adhere closely to the Hero's Journey.

But when it comes to specifics that exist in only ONE work, then you are in trouble. It doesn't make a difference what might happen "In Real Life", what matters is, how many authors can you find with a male character of that age with a lightning bolt scar and round glasses, etc. When you add enough characteristics of any kind to narrow the field to one, then you are in trouble. I imagine just the lightning bolt scar on the forehead is sufficient in this case.

I will also note that if found guilty, the penalty can be greater than just all the money you made. The offended party can claim your work has damaged their prospects by polluting and diluting their brand, and receive not only the money you made, but significant compensation for the damages as well.

But again, I am not a lawyer, you should consult one before you publish anything like this. Or follow my advice: Use your own imagination, don't try to take shortcuts using anybody else's; it is stealing.

  • So if there existed a person John Doe who had a lightning-bolt scar and round glasses, and who was nicknamed the "Real Harry Potter" because of it, and he wrote an autobiography, he would be sued. Is that right? (because it seems kind of unfair to John Doe :) ) – Adyescu Nov 1 at 0:39
  • @Adyescu Produce such a person and we'll talk about it. In general, where is the writing of Rowling copied? Is John Doe's autobiography a rip-off of a Harry Potter book? Would a reasonable man (as in Ray Butterworth's answer) consider John Doe's autobiography plagiarized from a Harry Potter book? Did John Doe give himself a lightning-bolt scar? He obviously chose round glasses, did he do those things and produce an autobiography to cash in on borrowed fame? – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Nov 1 at 3:33
  • I'm not talking about ripping off a Harry Potter book, but rather about the hypothetical situation where a real person has a defining characteristic of a famous literary character. Maybe John Doe gave himself the scar, or maybe he obtained it from some accident. In both cases, it would be harder for John Doe to produce his autobiography than anybody else, because people would accuse him of making money off Harry Potter. (Also, this doesn't have to be about Harry Potter either; just take any character from literature with a unique physical characteristic) – Adyescu Nov 1 at 4:43
  • @Adyescu There is likely no copyright violation, but understand there is not always a definite test; the intent of the accused is determined by a jury of humans, and if they decide the intent was to profit off of JK Rowling's work, then they will likely award damages. Born looking like HP is not intent; scarring yourself and dressing to accentuate that resemblance is intent, but it might be just for fun, like kids inventing their own HP costumes for Halloween. Commercially Profiting off that, for most of us, proves an intent to profit on the work and popularity of JKR. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Nov 1 at 10:29
  • Makes sense. Thanks – Adyescu Nov 1 at 13:15
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Can my protagonist have a nickname like "Harry Potter" or "the muggle Harry Potter"? (again assuming he's not a wizard etc.)

Under "common law", which is the basis for most laws in English speaking countries, the concept of the reasonable man determines many things. For plagiarism you have to ask whether a reasonable man would believe that it was copied?

Consider a story with a character called "Harry Potter Junior", who receives instruction on magic. The plot involves wizards, trolls, goblins, elves, etc., and Harry's fight against evil.

Would a "reasonable man" think that was a case of plagiarism?

What if the story were actually published in 1986, 11 years before J. K. Rowling's novel?

What if I didn't make up this hypothetical situation and it actually happened?

See: Troll (film) - Wikipedia

  • But a reasonable man would not consider Rowling a plagiarist, all that is the same is the name, and it is a common name in England. Her plot is different, the characteristics of her protagonist are different, her setting and the delivery of "instruction" are completely different. What you have is a generalized plot with one, and only one, commonality. A reasonable man would consider that coincidence of coming up with a common and unremarkable name for what turns out to be a remarkable character, not plagiarism. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Oct 31 at 13:44
  • @Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica, exactly. As far as I know, this has never been taken to court, perhaps because the plaintiff doesn't think he can win. – Ray Butterworth Oct 31 at 13:52

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