UK: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Lawyers

Last Updated: 16 June 2003
Article by Nick Cunningham

The "Harry Potter" adventure series is a worldwide best-seller, with sales over 200 million worldwide. The fifth volume, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix", is due to be published in the UK on 21 June, and has already achieved pre-publication sales of over 250,000.

The publishers, Bloomsbury, made special arrangements for secure printing, but two unbound copies mysteriously turned up in a nearby field and were handed to the Sun newspaper. Then on 7 May an anonymous caller contacted the Sun and offered to hand over several chapters. The police followed this through and arrested and charged four people. Bloomsbury immediately applied for an injunction against News Group Newspapers, publishers of the Sun, against disclosure, and an order for delivery up of the copies it had received; News Group offered appropriate undertakings which were accepted instead.

Unusually, Bloomsbury also asked the court for a "John Doe" injunction – an order restraining people who are known to exist but whose identities are as yet unknown. In the UK such orders have been refused in the past, as being beyond the Court’s statutory powers. However in a radical judgment the Vice Chancellor, Sir Andrew Morritt, has gone beyond those cases, using fundamental changes in the court rules introduced by Lord Woolf’s reforms in 2000 to develop this new remedy for rights holders.

On 23 May the Vice Chancellor ordered an injunction against "the person or persons who have offered the publishers of the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror newspapers a copy of the book "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" by JK Rowling or any part thereof and the person or persons who has or have physical possession of a copy of the said book or any part thereof without the consent of the claimants".

The order requires delivery up of all copies and restrains disclosure of any information about the book’s contents. Breach of the order, or assisting anyone else to do so, will amount to contempt of court.

The Vice Chancellor held that the crucial point is that the description of the persons to whom the order is directed "must be sufficiently certain as to identify both those who are included and those who are not". Provided that is clear then it does not matter whether there is more than one person affected (or indeed no one) nor that the order cannot be served on the individuals in person.

This is a dramatic new development, which considerably extends the remedies available to rights holders. It will help greatly in cases where counterfeiters or other people who keep their identities secret are involved. The change is possible because the new civil procedure rules no longer include an absolute requirement that a defendant must be named. The new rules also afford the court a wide discretion in managing cases to ensure that cases are dealt with justly, which the Vice Chancellor has used to good effect.

The content of this article does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied on in that way. Specific advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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