It was a plot twist even J.K. Rowling did not see coming. Days before Saturday's release of the eagerly awaited "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the final installment in the British author's hugely popular series, news of the book's content spread across the Internet on Tuesday in the form of digital photographs of pages from the 700-plus-page novel.
First there was confusion. (Was it real?) Then there were legal threats. (Publisher Scholastic Inc. went after the alleged online spoilers.) And finally there was outrage as fans staged a revolt of their own against the leak, vowing to remain in the dark about what happens until Saturday.
"Not cool," said Max Slavkin, 19, a USC junior, summing up fan response to the online revelations.
Throughout the day, photos of pages from the book had spread from more sophisticated personal file-sharing sites -- which do not store copies of the illegal material but rather offer much smaller "torrent" files that are pieced together by computer -- to the Web's mainstream.
By afternoon, one anonymous posting, on www.zendurl.com/h/hallows, which included photos of chapter titles and the entirety of an epilogue, was linked from across the Web.
Although the photographs of individual pages were blurred or poorly lit, they were readable. The site also had bullet-pointed text that claimed to offer detailed information about Rowling's final installment, including the fate of Harry Potter and other key characters.
If the online material is genuine, it would represent a major breach of the security that publishers in America and Britain have been working feverishly to preserve.
More than 12 million copies of the final book have been printed, and they were being heavily guarded in anticipation of book release parties at midnight Friday.
It is also highly unusual for a work of fiction to generate such concern about leaks. Usually, pre-publication revelations in the literary world involve facts and anecdotes in nonfiction books, but Tuesday's uproar focused on an entirely fictional plot.
Officials at Scholastic, the U.S. publisher of Rowling's fantasy series, cast doubt earlier Tuesday on versions of the book that had been circulating online.
"There are multiple versions of what appear to be official copies of the book on the Internet, but they are conflicting," said Lisa Holton, president of trade publishing and book fairs at Scholastic. "Our goal is to take down all this different material, and by taking it down we'll never know whether any of it was real until you read it yourself on Saturday morning."
Asked to comment specifically on the ZendURL version, however, Scholastic did not respond. The Web page was still available Tuesday evening.
Scholastic said it had been dealing with reports of online postings of the carefully guarded book for several months.
Once they began spreading on the Internet, the publisher had persuaded the operators of two popular websites -- YouTube and MySpace -- not to allow postings of the material.
In a separate case, the publisher said it had initiated court action against another website, gaiaonline.com, owned by Gaia Interactive Inc. in San Jose, to persuade it to take down the Harry Potter material it had posted.
As the day wore on, however, the news about the posted manuscript became impossible to suppress.
Popular websites, including Salon.com and Gawker.com, had stories about the leak. Some offered links to sites where visitors could read the material. At Salon, readers engaged in a spirited debate over whether the website should have run the material and whether it constituted a copyright infringement.
Amid the hubbub, booksellers were not worried that the leaked pages would affect sales.
"Oh no, no, no, no. It won't impact sales. People want this book no matter what," said Jennifer Ramos of Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena.
Still, many fans took steps to protect themselves from spoilers. Potter websites such as the Leaky Cauldron (www.the-leaky-cauldron.org) went so far as to shut down fan discussion forums until Saturday, for fear of spoiler postings.
Others might go to even greater lengths.
"I think I might just avoid the Internet for a while, at least until Saturday," said Loreli Alba, 17, a high school senior in San Jose.
Times staff writers David Sarno, Martha Groves and Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.