Harry Potter and the magic of Open Source

In the autumn of 2003, a news item about German Harry Potter fans caught my eye. In June of that year, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, fifth in the series of books so beloved by children, youth and adults, had been published.

At least, that's when the English-language edition was published. The German edition, having yet to be translated, would have come out some time after it. But a true fan, rather than wait for the German edition, would rush out and buy the English edition, then spell their way through the latest adventure in the original language. On publication of the German edition, it too would be acquired by the fan.

That might be enough for your ordinary run-of-the-mill kind of a fan, but true true fans take their commitment even further. They do the translation themselves. And, naturally, they cooperate with other fans to get it done quickly.

Not long after the publication of Order of the Phoenix in English, more than a thousand German Harry Potter fans were organized on the website www.harry-auf-deutsch.de. The average age of these volunteer translators was sixteen, and many of them had done only two or three years of English at school.

The job was divided into five-page sections. Some volunteers took part by proofreading the texts translated by others, and also by commenting on alternative translations. To translate the vocabulary specific to the magical world created by J.K. Rowling, a Harry Potter English/German dictionary was set up on the site. A lively debate then ensued about the translations offered in the dictionary. For instance, how does one translate the word squib (a person whose parents are wizards, yet he or she is born with no magical powers)?

As you might expect, the project quickly ran into the German publisher's lawyers, because the law prohibits the circulation of unofficial translations of a book over the Internet without the permission of the originating author, usually via their publisher or agent. Fortunately, the Harry-auf-Deutsch website was able to make peace with the German publisher by making the site a closed club. Thus, the final result of the translation effort isn't available to all and sundry, but only for sharing among those who partook in the work.

Harry Potter fans in other countries didn't fare so well. For instance, fans in the Czech Republic also tired of the nine-month wait for the official translation. So, like their fellow fans in Germany, they too produced an unofficial version much sooner. But the site hosting the Czech translation was closed down by the publisher in possession of the Czech rights to Harry Potter. Naturally, this incurred the wrath of the same young book buyers whom the publisher wanted to woo.

Although such Potter translations stretch the limits of copyright law, they do also show the power of Open Source thinking. Where most professional translators spend almost a year translating one novel a group of hundreds or even thousands of volunteer translators could get the job done in a couple of months - or weeks, if less proficient work was acceptable. And the overall quality of the translation needn't really suffer compared to a professional translation. Quite the opposite. If the magic of the Linux phenomenon can be applied to the translation of a novel, it just might be rather exciting to read an Open Source version well before the closed and official published version had come out.

With Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling may have inadvertently inspired a way of translating books that suits the Internet age, but the young wizard has also taken over the number one spot in a more traditional literary sub-culture. For a long time, so called fan fiction literature has offered popular characters in novels and films a life outside their published stories. In a fan-fiction story a well-known character from a series of books or a TV series takes part in fresh adventures written by someone other than the character's creator. Such stories are written as a hobby by loyal fans of the character. Often enough, fan fiction is written in a short story format, but it is fairly common for such fans to write whole unofficial novels. But again, I must stress the words "as a hobby', because selling a story based on someone else's character without the permission of the original creator would be plagiarism and therefore an infringement of their copyright. Actually, it's not exactly legal to distribute the stories over the Internet either even if they are made available free for others to read, but that doesn't seem to bother these fans.

Naturally, the Internet has given the whole fan fiction culture a boost. A popular site for fans of fan fiction, called www.fanfiction.net, publishes new stories on a daily basis. Last time I checked, Alexandre Dumas' three musketeers were fencing their way through an additional 42 stories, Sherlock Holmes solves 347 previously unpublished mysteries, and there are even 91 fan-fiction stories about Homer Simpson. With 8,800 stories, for a long time Star Wars was the undisputed leader but now, nobody can touch Harry Potter - with over a hundred thousand fan-fiction stories, wands have left light sabres far behind. You can read what Harry does during his summer vacations between his term-time activities at Hogwarts in the official stories by J.K. Rowling, or what happens when Harry grows up and goes to university!1

  1. 1. ...where, among other things, Harry begins dating. The R-rated stories are a popular form of fan fiction.

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[...] there were already non-commercial examples of the tremendous potential seen in Wikipedia, or the fan translations of Harry Potter or Project Gutenberg, the examples of successfully commercializing on open content boils down [...]

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