I went back and forth about whether I want to share this little story or not, mostly because it’s something I still feel a bit of bitterness about and I want to inform more than rant, but ultimately I decided it’s a nice learning experience for those of us who create things. A cautionary tale, if you will.
As I’ve mentioned, I started my own company in October 2018. Initially, I set out to create jewelry inspired by fandoms (gaming, books, movies, etc.) because I’ve had tons of ideas stashed in my mind for a very long time and this was an excellent opportunity to get them out. I’m sure many of you can relate: our ideas never end.
Excited to get started, I jumped in (admittedly without doing much research beforehand), starting an Etsy shop and creating my first five pieces. Each piece was inspired by my favorite franchise of all time: Harry Potter, of course.
There were some pieces that were pretty literal in their interpretations, like a pendant with a quote by Ron Weasley on it, Hedwig in her cage, or this keychain:
Then there were some that were more abstract or loosely based, such as a piece featuring pink ombre floral beads inspired by Hermione’s Yule Ball gown in Goblet of Fire, or the necklace below – this is important, and you’ll see why in a second.
The Invisibility Cloak was immediately my favorite piece, and also my first two sales (because my friends are awesome and supportive).
As a relatively new seller on Etsy and as someone who has only ever used or had any connection with Etsy when I’m looking for handcrafted fandom-style items, I didn’t think much about what I was calling these items or how I was tagging them, except that I tagged them to ensure they would be found on the site by those who would enjoy them. If you do a search on Etsy for “Harry Potter” you get hundreds of thousands of items as a result, and I wanted to make sure I was one of them. Because Potterheads unite! Or something.
Once I had my Etsy shop up and running, I set out to talk about my stuff and let people know it exists, as many sellers do. Because The Invisibility Cloak was my favorite, it was the main piece I excitedly threw around all over the place. I was so thrilled for this new adventure and I needed EVERYONE to know it.
One night, in giddiness-fueled impulse, I decided I wanted J.K. Rowling to see the necklace, so I tweeted at her (because Twitter is her favorite haunt and all). It said something along the lines of, “I made this necklace, loosely based on Harry’s invisibility cloak! What do you think?” It included a picture and a link to its Etsy listing.
But, uh, I guess that’s where I made a mistake.
I had heard things – not so great things – about JKR and her team, and how they’re pretty crazy about copyrights (and $$$). Disney as well. But I never really took it too seriously. People like to exaggerate, right? JKR is a creator; she understands inspiration. Literally shit-tons of things have been inspired by her work, just as she was inspired by others when she created it. But, haha… this is where my opinion changed.
A week after this tweet was sent, I got an email from Etsy saying the Invisibility Cloak necklace was taken down due to copyright claims by Warner Bros and was not to be put back up.
You guys. My very abstract interpretation of a magical object in a book series, a necklace which sat amongst other more literal Harry Potter listings, was totally ripping off the franchise.
Now, I understand the basics of copyright and ownership, intellectual property and the like. I would never intentionally rip off someone else’s work, and I fully support and respect creators in that regard. But this felt so ridiculous. It felt petty, in a way? And I didn’t understand, especially when it seemed as if they’d only targeted it because of the tweet. They didn’t even take the time to look at the rest of my shop and see all the other Harry Potter themed items. It felt like I’d said, “Hey, JKR, what do you think of my work?!” and she’d responded with, “That’s mine. Goodbye.” Except with less words and through a legal team.
Etsy gave me the option to email Warner Bros. I’ll be honest, initially I was really hurt, so I didn’t email them right away. I wanted to do my best to figure out how to fix the situation and not make it worse by getting all emotional because I’d only had my shop for a week and felt like it was already doomed. When I did email them, I politely asked what I needed to change and expressed my apologies for being mistaken in thinking what I was doing was fine. It was very much a tail-between-the-legs email that Starla From The Past, who had serious pride issues, would have scoffed at.
They didn’t reply, so I did my own research in the meantime and found that, essentially, it’s expected that creators who have made products inspired by specific fandoms should not use tags or titles specific to that fandom unless they have license to do so. You can use tags and titles that hint at what it’s supposed to represent, like a generic cereal meant to be similar to Cap’n Crunch. A notebook featuring Hermione Granger, for example, cannot depict a Hogwarts crest or her name, but a notebook featuring a bushy haired girl in a witch hat and a school uniform can be titled Brightest Witch Notebook. Something like that. Maybe they’d still get you for using “Brightest Witch.” I really don’t know.
After another week of silence on their end, I decided this wasn’t even worth it. My shop was meant to be fun, and a place where I can try to make myself feel useful after the year I’d been through, so – pardon me, but – fuck them. I sent another email to Warner Bros, and this time I wasn’t as nice. I mentioned that, number one, instead of shutting down an item completely, they could have sent a warning or some sort of message to indicate it wasn’t appropriate. Number two, they should shift their focus to shops under the “Harry Potter” search on Etsy that are making thousands of sales off of images, fonts, and characters literally ripped from the books or movies before targeting a very new and small shop. Number three, I don’t think JKR owns exclusive rights to the term “invisibility cloak” anyway. And I probably added more sarcasm to finish off with a flourish. As respectfully as possible.
Having said what I felt I needed to, I removed all associations with Harry Potter from my shop and started fresh. To this date, I still haven’t heard from Warner Bros and the necklace still sits deactivated in my shop. The Invisibility Cloak necklace has moved to my new site and is now called Multicolored Hematite Arrow Bib Statement Necklace, which, yes, is utterly boring, but I find now that it’s worth it to represent myself and not what I thought something else was.
All in all, I’m thankful that I learned this lesson early on from a creator/business perspective, but as a fan it still gets to me sometimes. The one thing that really changed throughout this process is that when I see Harry Potter merchandise now, I keep walking. I think that’s what disappoints me the most. The magic is gone.
What do you think? Should Warner Bros have a system of notifying creators prior to shutting them down? Was I being dramatic? LOL, probably. Feel free to share your honest opinions if you’d like.
Thank you for reading <3