Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling's Intellectual "Property"

05/25/2011 12:30 pm ET

It was a thrilling day when J.K. Rowling surpassed the Queen of England in wealth. But a sadder day was to follow: Ms Rowling is suing the publisher of a geeky librarian who's compiled a Harry Potter encyclopedia. There's little doubt that on his website Steven Vander Ark left some quotation marks off Rowling's actual words, but the disparity in the power and wealth between the writer and her adoring fan has got to make you cringe.

Rowling has a certain type of genius, and she's earned every penny -- and then some. But she owes the Muses for sending her great plots and greater characters, so we might wonder whether the daughters of Mnemosyne will continue to smile on her. Even conceding the technical justice of her cause, we have to wonder, Why does she need to grind down this ordinary person? Will his lexicon cut into her collateral sales? Really?

Maybe part of our joy in Rowling's success was that she had earned her money by writing, not reigning. And we all felt good for her. But there is a limit to how much a God-given talent belongs to the recipient alone. The perfect word "gift" in such circumstances says that the artist is given those talents, not self-made.

It's a dangerous sort of hubris. Here is part of a letter from architect George Grant Elmslie to a different type of genius, Frank Lloyd Wright:

Why not, in the years of your great maturity, exhale a modicum of kindliness to others, endeavoring to do their bit? No one can afford it so well as yourself. But alas, you are not endowed with so human an element, only with a curious quality of vanity, and a rather vulgar and childish egotism. You seem to have it in your mind that you yourself do your work, whereas the impulses are much deeper and more universal than the mere ego which you adore.

Careful Ms Rowling, Harry Potter is deeper and more universal than you may have realized. Your books belong not just to you alone.