Has the Potter secret been blown on the Web?

Chris O'Brien

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Harry Potter dies!

No, wait, he lives!

If you're lying awake at night counting the minutes until Saturday when the final Harry Potter book is released, then boot up the computer and get Googling. Copies of the closely guarded Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows may have leaked onto the Internet, sparking legal skirmishes and outrage among fans who are trying to avoid spoilers at all costs.

The apparent leak demonstrates how difficult it can be to keep secrets in a digital age. But the key word is "apparent." Because amid all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, there's one question that nobody will answer: Are the copies real?

So read on, you Muggles. This story is spoiler-free.

Two California companies received subpoenas this week from Scholastic, the book's U.S. publisher, ordering them to remove possible copies of the book that had been posted on their sites. The book's British and U.S. publishers have gone to extraordinary measures to prevent unauthorized leaks, spending millions on security.

On Tuesday, Scholastic remained cagey about whether these or any other versions ping-ponging around the Internet were, in fact, authentic.

"There are multiple versions of what allege to be official copies of the book on the Internet, and they are conflicting," wrote Kyle Good, a Scholastic spokesman, in an e-mail to the San Jose Mercury News. "We have obtained a subpoena to gather information quickly to try to keep spoilers, real or unreal, off of Internet sites that fans might be on."

If the leaks are real, then it's hardly the first such incident. While occasionally creators succeed in keeping secrets, like the end of the Sopranos, more often music, books, movies -- just about anything that can be digitized -- can be found well in advance of its official release.

"It's just so easy to distribute and copy information with the Internet and digital technology," said Jack Lerner, a research fellow at the University of California-Berkeley School of Law. "It's one of the downsides to all this technology. It makes it harder to keep information under wraps."

The book appeared on several Web sites and file sharing services on Monday. That brought swift legal action from Scholastic, which filed for a subpoena in U.S. District Court in San Francisco against Photobucket, which has its main offices in Denver and Palo Alto, Calif., and Gaia Online, a Milpitas, Calif., social networking site that caters mainly to teens and college students.

Bill Danon, a Gaia spokesman, said the company received its subpoena Monday. After conferring with its lawyer, the company suspended the user for 14 days and removed the material, citing a ban on posting copyrighted material.

Danon declined to reveal the identity of the user or that person's avatar, but noted that the site's users tend to be 13 to 22 years old.

Officials at Photobucket, recently acquired by Fox Interactive Media, declined to comment but apparently also removed the material.

On one of the biggest fan sites, MuggleNet, fans were aghast. An item posted about the leaks and subpoenas had drawn 715 comments by Tuesday afternoon. The comment section included a big warning that people might be posting spoilers in the forum.

"I hate it when people ruin things like this for everyone else who wants to enjoy it the right way," read one post by weasley24601. "I think that's just the most awful thing ever. Especially when there's spoilers where you least suspect it. People are jerks."

Scholastic Press went to great lengths to protect the security of the Harry Potter books, explained Lisa Holton, an executive vice president of the company, and president of its Book Fairs and Trade division, because of J.K. Rowling.

"What comes directly from Ms. Rowling is the whole notion that her readers -- you know, she's really, really connected and concerned about her readers -- and she really wants to stay true to the pact that they have, which is that everyone comes to it at the same moment. Details of how we do that are left up to us."

Holton said Scholastic instituted a whole series of security measures that began when the manuscript arrived, and extend through its printing and distribution. The company is also counting on fans who have been running a grassroots campaign urging everyone not to spoil the ending.

How secretive is the company? Holton wouldn't even say whether she's read the book.

"If I had read it, I couldn't tell you," she said.


Chris O'Brien

San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

Freelance writer John Orr contributed to this story.

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