Harry Potter IP claim pinned down on the beaches
Tour company shows Warner Brothers the Churchill spirit
First it threatened teenagers with legal action for having Harry Potter fan websites, then it threatened legal action against e-mail services for using the name "shire" (the Hobbits' home in Lord of the Rings), now Warner Brothers is threatening legal action against tour company British Tours for daring to point out that some of Britain's most famous buildings were used in the films of the Harry Potter books.
"You are... offering 'Harry Potter Location Tours' [that] infringe our client's rights," read the first letter from the US film company's UK solicitors, Addleshaw Goddard. As such, British Tours was "deceiving customers". There was a "clear case of passing off of our clients' goodwill leading to a likelihood of substantial damage". Therefore, its only option was to stop immediately and sign the attached Form of Acknowledgement and Undertakings, within 11 days. Otherwise "we will... consider issuing proceedings against you immediately."
And so began yet another episode in the ongoing saga of the film "intellectual property" business.
British Tours was established in 1958 - seven years before Harry Potter author JK Rowling was born - and has been giving guided tours across the UK ever since. As well as covering just about every famous cathedral, castle and ruin in the UK, it has long since offered "special interests themes" where locations connected with famous people, both fictional and non-fictional, are visited and their connection explained. Winston Churchill, Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, the Beatles and Mary Queen of Scots have all been represented. And since 2003, fictional child wizard Harry Potter.
"Many of the Hogwart's school scenes were filmed at Oxford University especially Christ Church - including the staircase where Mrs McGonagall greets the schoolchildren, the Great Hall on which Hogwart's dining room was modelled, the library where Harry creeps at night under his invisible cloak, and Hogwart's hospital," reads British Tour's website.
It goes on to point out that Gloucester's Norman cathedral, Lacock Abbey, London Zoo, King's Cross station, London's Leadenhall Market and Australia House on the Strand were also all included in various scenes in the three Harry Potter films made so far.
But in response to Addleshaw Goddard's letter, British Tours argued "we would strongly refute any allegation that by our referring to Harry Potter in the context of a tour of certain landmarks we could possibly be causing any damage to your client. Indeed we would hold that the reverse were the case."
That letter was sent on 28 May. Last year. The matter still drags on. British Tours director Jason Doll-Steinberg told us: "Addleshaw [has created] a massive dossier about nothing, full colour print-outs from our website, objections to a rotating weblink feature being in the colour red, print-outs of our brochures which they'd surreptitiously requested, letters referring to letters they'd sent, letters about phonecalls they'd made, faxes referring to letters. We must have received 20 or so calls from them."
The explanation as to how the tour was causing actual damage to Warner Brothers is this: "A number of operators have previously run tours associated with Harry Potter. When these have been postponed or cancelled, there have been complaints," argued one of the letters. "Such complaints inevitably impact upon our clients and the Harry Potter brand."
Warner Brothers continues to argue this point, with a lawyer from the company's IP department telling us: "This is a blatant misuse of our trademark. British Tours is using our rights in a commercial manner." Warner Brothers is only seeking to "protect fans", we were told.
To back up this point, the spokeswoman referred to a previous "Harry Potter" tour that went wrong and resulted in newspaper headlines such as "Hogwarts' Hogwash". Warner Brothers, she told us, received letters complaining about the incident.