Magic bullet: Trademark issues halt Harry Potter event for a spell

Last year’s Harry Potter Halloween event in Scottsville attracted 10,000 muggles, and Om Tattoo became Olivanders.
courtesy Scottsville Ministry of Magic Last year’s Harry Potter Halloween event in Scottsville attracted 10,000 muggles, and Om Tattoo became Olivanders. courtesy Scottsville Ministry of Magic

By Natalie Jacobsen

This year’s Halloween was supposed to mark the fourth, and predictably largest, Harry Potter festival Scottsville had ever hosted. But the magic was quelled with a phone call from Warner Bros. Entertainment citing trademark infringement.

The town’s spellbinding transformation, including businesses and their owners, has transfixed children, students and adults alike.

“Halloween was always a big deal for Scottsville,” says Kristin Freshwater of Baine’s Books & Coffee. “Living in a rural area growing up, we would have to drive to each house to trick-or-treat…to make it easier, Scottsville had its own Halloween: Every shop would hand out candy.” When Freshwater transformed Baine’s into Honeydukes (the fictional candy shop in the Harry Potter series) one year, the spark for a whole festival was ignited. “We ran wild with it—nonprofits, vendors, shops all jumped on board.”

To cope with the burden of planning an annual Harry Potter Halloween, Freshwater formed the Ministry of Magic, a group of a dozen shop owners and creative people in town. Two other festival heavyweights are Chris Hornsby and Nakahili Womack, of Om Tattoo & Massage, which was transformed into Ollivander’s Wand Shop.

Four years ago, Scottsville saw a handful of shops embrace the Harry Potter Halloween theme, with 800 “muggles”—non-magical people—visiting. Last year, 25 shops and locations, not including a marketplace with a dozen independent vendors, joined the fun, and nearly 10,000 visitors poured in, brandishing wands and donning Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry house colors of Ravenclaw, Slytherin and more.

James River Brewery became The Leaky Cauldron, and a life-size dragon sat atop Tavern on the James, aka Hog’s Head Inn. Victory Hall swapped names with the Great Hall, welcoming young witches and wizards to the sorting hat ceremony. The library became Flourish and Blotts Bookseller, and even St. John’s Episcopal Church didn’t want to miss out on the magic: “They researched to recreate the cemetery and look of St. Jerome’s Church at Godric’s Hollow…adding tombstones of Lily and James Potter, even the Peverell family,” says Freshwater. “I was in awe.”

But a few weeks prior to Halloween weekend this year, Freshwater received the call. The Warner Bros. rep was “really friendly about it,” and explained countless festivals across the nation were unwittingly using its intellectual property, says Freshwater.

Warner Bros. representatives told her businesses cannot actively use trademarked Harry Potter-related names but nonprofits, including libraries and churches, can. Without enough time to switch gears for this year’s event, it was canceled. Going forward, Freshwater says the event will be a Wizarding Fest.

“We are disappointed, but now we have an opportunity to create original, inspired names,” she says. “We all love the Harry Potter books, films and J.K. Rowling—we want to respect her intellectual property.”

Other Harry Potter events nationwide have had to evolve or adapt to Warner Bros. guidelines, or face legal consequences. The largest in the nation, the Harry Potter Festival in Jefferson, Wisconsin, has lawyers in constant communication with Warner Bros. to seek permission for certain name uses.

Some Harry Potter festivals in nearby cities, including Staunton and Roanoke, are still “flying under the radar,” Freshwater says.

Freshwater believes the magic will be back in full force next year, albeit with some changes. “You will see new names, some new decorations…but it’ll still be magical,” she says. “Scottsville is a tight-knit community…if anyone needs help or has an idea, we’ll talk about it and make it happen.”