When Does Fan Fiction Cross an Ethical Line?

by Jami Gold on March 6, 2012

in Random Musings

Swedish sports fan with painted face

Fan fiction, also known as fanfic, refers to stories written by fans about the characters, situations, or world of existing works created by others.  This definition sounds broad because the world of fanfic is broad.

On some level, everything from Wicked, inspired by The Wizard of Oz, to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies could fall under the umbrella of fanfic.  In other words, fanfic can be a legitimate and respected form of writing.

But do some uses of fanfic cross an ethical line?  And if so, where does that line fall?  When does a work honoring another’s creation turn into exploitation?

Ethical Issues Are Different From Legal Issues

I’d be the last person to say fanfic is evil, as I started down the writing path by creating a fanfic novel based on Harry Potter.  However, there are ethical considerations fanfic authors should respect above all else.

Beyond what’s legal or illegal as far as copyright, trademark, fair use, or derivative vs. transformative works, fanfic authors owe a debt of thanks to the original creator (after all, without the original work, the fanfic author wouldn’t have been inspired to use that as a jumping-off point).  And in return, I believe a fanfic author should never exploit the characters, setting, world—or the original author’s brand or fan loyalty—for their own gain.

Where Is the Ethical Line?

Others might disagree with my statement.  However, I’d be willing to bet that most people would agree  that it’s unethical for a fanfic author to co-opt the loyalty of fans of the original work for themselves in order to make money off their fanfic writings.

Unfortunately, this isn’t just a hypothetical situation.  Fifty Shades of Grey (FSoG) has reached a high-enough level of popularity in the media to garner a segment on the Today show.  What many of these media mentions fail to point out is that FSoG started out as a Twilight fanfic story called Master of the Universe.

Did Fifty Shades of Grey Cross the Line?

The characters in the fanfic version were called Edward and Bella, and readers enjoyed imagining those Twilight characters in this sexually-explicit, BDSM-themed—free—story.  The fanfic story became popular in its own right, to the point that fans of the fanfic story threw their own convention with the fanfic author, raising tens of thousands of dollars for charity.

So far, so good.

But let’s remember the story’s popularity was built on its association with the Twilight characters.  Without its association with Twilight, the story wouldn’t have received 20,000 reviews (on fanfiction.net) and gained those fans to begin with.

Next, the fanfic author took that same fanfic story that had been free, changed only the characters’ names, and found a small, unknown publisher (which seems to specialize in publishing “fanfic with the serial numbers filed off” stories) to split her story into thirds and charge US$7-30 per book.  She then had her fans, from back when the story was free, buy up copies (these are the same fans who paid for her to travel from England to New York for the convention, so yes, they’re that dedicated) and post hundreds of reviews all over the internet.

Boom.  Instant bestseller.  Segment on the Today show.  More publicity.  More sales.  Etc.

And all she had to do was use someone else’s characters and fanatical fandom ties to get there.

Can FanFic Ever Be Used to Make Money?

Again, this isn’t a post about whether or not the fanfic author broke any laws.  This post is about whether this behavior is right.

In this case, the fanfic author had used the names Edward and Bella, but hadn’t used the Forks, Washington setting or the vampire world-building.  The story instead takes place in and around Seattle, Washington, and rather than using Edward’s vampire nature to justify his behavior, this story uses his BDSM sexuality to explain his controlling manipulations.

Do those differences make it okay?  I don’t think so.

For starters, what’s considered “good” writing in fanfic is different from what constitutes good writing in professionally published books.  The FSoG books are garnering bad reviews from real reviewers because *gasp* they’re not written that well.  Complaints have ranged from incorrectly portrayed BDSM elements to robotic and cliché writing.

So what made these BDSM books more successful than the hundreds of other BDSM books out there?  One reason.  The Twilight fandom and this fanfic author’s exploitation of their loyalty.

On the other hand, if someone wrote a fanfic story where they’d changed so many of the details as to make the characters, settings, and world unrecognizable, and if they didn’t try to tap into the fandom of their inspiration, I think fanfiction can be used to make money.  At that point, if the story is unrecognizable, the fanfic author has added enough of their own imagination to create something new.  And by not using someone else’s fans for their own gain, they’re letting their story be judged on its own merits.

The ethical line for fanfic authors can be very gray and wavy.  As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies could be labeled a form of fanfic, and with a title like that, it’s certainly meant to grab the attention of  Jane Austen fans.  However, both that work and Wicked could also be termed parodies of the originals.  Parodies enjoy a different relationship with “acceptability” than straight fanfic, and they’re seen as less exploitative because they add something new to the story beyond just changed details.

So where do we draw the line?  I, for one, believe it’s better to stay far on the “safe” side of any appearance of impropriety.  Personally, I’d never write fanfic that dishonored my inspiration, and I’d certainly never try to make money off it.  (I didn’t post my fanfic novel anywhere, free or otherwise.  I viewed the experience as a writing exercise for my own enjoyment.)  However I’m interested in hearing where others fall on this issue and their reasons why.

Is it ever acceptable for a fanfic author to make money on their fanfic writings?  When does a fanfic author cross the line between honoring their original inspiration and taking advantage of it?  Does your answer depend on whether they made significant changes from the original source?  Is suddenly charging for a previously free story more acceptable if they improved their writing between versions?

(Note: I am not linking to FSoG here because I don’t want to encourage any more sales.  However, Amazon and other retailers carry the books  in print and ebook form for anyone willing to pay the expensive prices.)

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494 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Bella ardila December 15, 2014 at 7:41 am

I like your writing. Yeahh Fifty Shades is Twilight but with BDSM


Jami Gold December 15, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Hi Bella,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂


Jenna Kirby February 5, 2015 at 2:15 pm

I know this post is from a few years ago now, but in the wake of Anna Todd’s After being published and the whole issue of publishing real person fan fiction, what do you think that adds to the whole debate?

By and large, most real person fan fiction would be original fiction if the names, appearances and identifiable characteristics of the celebrities involved were erased. I know many issues with After (apart from many people viewing it as terribly written) stem from the initials and likeness of Hardin and various other characters still being completely recognisable in appearance and one or two other things as the 1D boys, and also from it being promoted as a 1D fan fiction.
If After had become popular – or if it hadn’t been popular – and Anna had signed that deal and all the characters had been changed so that they weren’t recognisably 1D and it wasn’t promoted as a 1D fanfic, would that ethically have made a difference?

Also, do you think people would view matters differently if either 50SoG or After were deemed to be written to an exceptionally high standard? After all, people tend to be more prepared to overlook transgressions like that if they’re done to a high standard.
And what about if either author had started writing the story as a fanfic, stopped halfway through, gone and lifted it out of the fanfic setting and then completed it as original fiction and then published it?


Jami Gold February 5, 2015 at 4:58 pm

Hi Jenna,

Those are good questions, and to be honest, I don’t know enough about real-person fic to know the “rules.” 🙂 But outside of the fic world, if someone started making up stories about us that called our morals or values into question, we’d be looking into libel and slander laws. LOL!

Plus, there’s the whole issue of copyright including the “right to publicity” in the U.S. There’s a reason companies have to pay celebrities to use their image in an advertisement. So I don’t know how real-person fic gets around those issues–short of the fact that no one has taken them to court yet (as far as I know).

On the other hand, if the characters had been changed to be unrecognizable (or at least no longer evoking the real people) and it hadn’t been marketed as RP fic, I don’t think I’d have a problem with that. Many authors use pictures or celebrities to inspire their writing and their characters. Sometimes authors might even mention in their writing something like “he had a Captain Jack Sparrow vibe,” and as long as that’s the end of the allusions, I think that’s fine. If the connection keeps being brought up, it would seem more like the author was trying to evoke and draw parallels. As a one-time thing, it’s shorthand for describing a character.

As for the quality question, that’s a really good point. We could probably name a half dozen celebrities who “get away with” horrible behavior–drunk driving, abuse, rape, etc.–because people respect their work. So a higher/more respectable quality could certainly have affected people’s impressions.

In regards to the question of stopping and reworking a partial fic, I actually did a post following up with a case study of that situation. 🙂 Many people involved in the fanfic world weighed in on that post and came up with thoughts about “how to do it right.” Thanks for stopping by!


Dee February 5, 2015 at 4:56 pm

Although I may never know for sure, I think EL wrote the whole MoTU (now not “repackaged” as FSoG) with Twilight next to the computer, then heard about FanFic. EL became Icy and went in the net to exploit Twihards, get feedback, build platform. Icy also went into the bunkers looking for the easy marks (aka babes, laters babes). Icy found them, it worked perfectly. Yep, she conned ’em and, nope, they don’t care. Perhaps she has already settled with SM and/or Twi-film-franchisers for a percent of profits? Seems a clear case. Thanks for this brilliant discussion.


Jami Gold February 5, 2015 at 5:02 pm

Hi Dee,

I doubt we’ll ever know for sure. 🙂 Since MoTU days, there have been no end of people admitting their goals of writing Twi-fic just to get in with that fanbase, so that technique is real. Thanks for stopping by!


Dee February 6, 2015 at 10:29 am

Hi Jami,

First, thanks for your quick reply. Indeed I am not surprised that other writers are trying to work the fandom fan-grab angle after Fifty. I confess, I myself thought of it — as a budding novelist who was then ignorant of the fandom norms mentioned on this and other discussion boards! Looked like a pretty good short-cut to platform building for Icy, right? I did learn a few things in my brief stint browsing & posting a few times in the FF communities, including peeps don’t like P2P. But I also stumbled onto websites that encourage and celebrate P2P . . . the inconsistency in FF policies, and the lag or failure to police them, exacerbates the problem for FF writers and readers.

Second, not only am I a new indie writer, I am also a lawyer by trade and training. I was previously editor-in-chief of the law review where I proofread and checked hundreds of articles for plagiarism and accuracies, edited more than seven academic issues of the journal and considered countless submissions by legal scholars. Intellectual Property is one of the most complex and diverse legal fields — it includes not just Copyright Law but also Trademark (which may apply here as to SM characters) and Patent law.

As a result, I read almost EVERY comment in this post (might have missed one or two when I clicked on a link and had to find my way back.) I took me days to get through the almost 500 comments as well as most of the noted/linked materials. Regarding an analysis of the relevant IP law, the US fair use defense (UK fair dealing) and fan fiction norms, I especially noted the very thorough article, Fan Communities and Self-Regulation of Digital Creative Space, by a law Phd Candidate (your article here is cited at fn 74-75). So good was it that I will probably next be working my way through the footnoted material in it like the many impressive law review article and detailed case law cited by the author.

It was all more than enough to show . . .

… It’s an exhausting subject! Given that and the complexity of any lawsuit, perhaps SM and many other copyright holders are hesitant to go after fanfic works being commercialized when most FF P2P won’t make make money any way. No money made then no damages to the copyright for those who don’t know.

However, repeat, however . . . Since you wrote this article 2 years ago, Icy and her team have moved from small ffan-pubber to two major pub deals (7 figs for USA plus 6 figs for UK), multi-7 fig movie deal, 50 translations, dozens (yes DOZENS) of weeks at #1 (yes NUMBER ONE) on NYT bestseller combined list …

…for a whopping total of 100 million! A NINE FIGURE INCOME and counting. Quite a lot of mooluh for a copycat, eh? Yes, Ana is Bella/Christian is Edward etc.; Twihards know it, they made vids about it, um Icy posted it –for G sake! End of that discussion. That part is so easy to prove.

But but but why can’t she make money? So she made lots of money so you’re mad now, Wah, say the “fans.”

Why can’t I go make a Star Wars movie of my own, change the names, let them have lots of sex, kinky sex even? That is so different from Star Wars, everyone knows that, what’s the fuss?

But it is NOT a parody. It is a serious Star Wars runaway success — people LOVE Star Wars like Twihards love Edward, so of course it is a hit. And if it makes 100 million and the REAL Star Wars copyright owners and other legit movie makers complain or file lawsuits, you say, that is just sour grapes?

Come on, do you really need a law degree to answer that one! As EL herself is fond of saying during interviews, “You know the answer.”

Yes, MoTU/FoSG fans, Icy turning into ELJ and making lots of $$$$$$$$$$$ IS the sore spot, IS the reason she may be sued, IS the reason for the boo-boo sour grapes or jealousy or whatever you want to call it. That book wouldn’t have stood a chance without the cheat, it never would’ve seen the light of day like most books. Attack the policers for calling it like it is but . . .

It is cheating, big time, and winning at the cheat, big time.

And no, it doesn’t matter how much money SM or her film company partners already have. Just ask ELJ who, as we speak, is on record for sending out her own Fifty C+D letters (i.e. cease & desist from using MY intellectual property). SHE cares about HER copyright. The irony.

Perhaps by now the SM law team has taken notice? Surely someone somewhere in the TWI copyright holder’s world must care?

I want to end with a paraphrase from an author’s website (Neil Gaiman, you can read it on his site) where a reader asks if she can write a spinoff, she would give him part of the money if it sold but he advises (tongue and cheek but seriously too) against it because lawyers and film companies would get involved and that would ruin her week.

Not heard of much yet that has ruined one of Icy’s weeks, have you? In fact, MY week might be ruined for simply calling her out on this…..


Jami Gold February 6, 2015 at 2:15 pm

Hi Dee,

Thank you for the lawyer-ly take on the subject! You brought up a lot of good points about the money and the irony of the C&D, etc. And kudos to you in reading through all the comments. LOL!

In one of my comments here years ago, I wondered about the possibility of SM’s heirs fighting for a cut decades from now. I don’t know if that would happen or not, but I suspect this issue might drag on for a long time. *sigh* Thanks for sharing your insights!


Dee February 7, 2015 at 3:43 am

Hi Jami,

It is what I do, read law! Haha. I want to read the law review articles about it. It is slippery slope, as we would say. My hubs and I are doing sort of Mock Trial on the issue now. . . hehe. “Ladies & gentleman of the jury, look at this video etc., where are the vampires?” Pretty funny. As for the heirs, I don’t know how the statute of limitations works on this all either. Holy Crap. My breath is ragged . . . I peer up at the fangs. Mine. 🙂


Jami Gold February 7, 2015 at 10:13 am

Hi Dee,

LOL! I can picture that mock trial. Um, enjoy? 😉 Thanks for stopping by!


J July 2, 2016 at 6:31 pm

The problem would be you didn’t invent starwars. You did not invent the lightsaber. You have no legal claim to it- yet your taking credit anyway for your own profit.

People who do that are the reason some really good authors do not let people write fanfiction. Because it costs them money because googiling {TITLE} ends up with knock offs coming up for sale.

It damages the brand.

Its just as bad as buying a designer purse, changing the logo and sticking your on, and selling it as your own design. You take a cut out of the original designers profits. Your litteraly stealing from them.


Sophie May 4, 2015 at 11:12 pm

I am a fanfic writer, and I read it as well. I’ve always held the opinion that fanfic can’t be published. I don’t own the characters (though I own my OCs) or the world it is in. In my mind, if I want to get anything published, I have to go through that character-building/world-building process myself.

I find fanfiction to be great for developing characters and developing my writing craft, but I’m still missing so many elements. That’s why I want to get onto original fiction.

I don’t like what this author did, simple as that. I wouldn’t take my favourite characters and “repackage” them into “original” fiction. It wouldn’t be fair.


Jami Gold May 5, 2015 at 10:37 am

Hi Sophie,

Agreed. We have to develop elements in OC that we don’t in fanfic, and that alone tells us that they’re not the same. Thanks for the comment!


Sophie May 6, 2015 at 11:20 pm

From my experience, the sign of a good fanfic is having the canon characters IC consistently, along with good quality writing in other areas. (Believe me, getting some canons IC is tricky…) In OF, you have to come up with the world etc, yourself. The standards are different. So yeah, there’s a different expectation there.


Jami Gold May 7, 2015 at 9:13 am

Hi Sophie,

Interesting! Yes, that ability to keep things in character is a great way to put one of the differences. Although plenty of fanfics don’t even try, that difference is often what separates a good fanfic from a good story that should have been pushed further and written as OF. 🙂 Thanks for sharing that insight!


Mark R Hunter May 25, 2015 at 9:17 pm

*Note to self: Never get into discussions about Twilight fanfic*

Although I’ve slowed down now due to being busy with original fic, I’ve written piles of fanfic under the name Ozma914. I had two rules: As much as possible, be true to the characters, and to the universe.

I’ve been wanting for many years to write a novel based on the Oz books by Baum (an idea I had before Wicked!) Baum’s original 14 are out of copyright, so it’s legal–but yes, it’s still fanfiction. I think in a case like that the big question is whether you’re writing it for profit, or for the love of the universe. Well, maybe that’s the question with all fanfic.


Jami Gold May 25, 2015 at 10:06 pm

Hi Mark,

LOL! Isn’t that the truth. *looks at the insane number of comments on this post* Yep, avoid those discussions at all costs. 😉

And you’re right, that question of love or profit is often the issue underlying many of the problems within fanfic. A person can certainly be a mix of both priorities, but when push comes to shove, they’re often going to stick to the values of one or the other path. Thanks for stopping by!


Kiki July 3, 2015 at 8:42 am

I know this is an older posting, but I felt the need to speak up as fanfiction is my main authorship medium.
EL James was WAY out of line when she published her stories. Just changing a few details such as names does NOT change the fact that this is fanfiction.
Authors shouldn’t be allowed to charge for fanfiction as it’s a labor of love. Fanfiction is a love letter to the fandoms you enjoy so much you’re willing to spend copious hours researching, expanding, and exploring. It’s supposed to be shared and enjoyed by the people familiar with the source material, NOT used for personal, monetary gain.
I say this as someone that’s been writing fanfiction for over a decade. I started at nine or ten and I’m 23 now. I’ve spent over half my life entrenched in fandoms and writing fanfics. I love writing it because I enjoy these characters and worlds so much. Hell, I’ve spent the past three years working on building the world for the Pokemon Ranger spinoffs for an epic series of fics I want to write.
I do it because I love these characters and the games. The fandom is small, so the audience for these fics will be tiny, but I don’t care; I just want to write it simply because of my love.
EL James doesn’t understand what it means to be an author or a fanfiction writer. All she wanted to do was make a quick buck and sold herself out.
Of course, I could ramble on about how she’s put the fanfic community into an even worse light, but that’s best saved for another day…


Jami Gold July 3, 2015 at 2:34 pm

Hi Kiki,

Thank you for sharing your perspective! I agree with your thoughts and concerns, and unfortunately I think we’re stuck with the situation as it is. 🙁


CG Blade June 5, 2016 at 11:30 am

Great story and equally stomach churning. As a fiction author I cringe when my work goes out into cyberspace. I want my fans to enjoy it but there is also another dark side to the ‘fan-base’. Scrapers, pirates, and plagiarism is constantly rolling around in the back of my grey mass. It was a lot harder to accomplish Fanfic when the internet did not exist and books were actually printed. Again, great story and very nice to meet you! CG


Jami Gold June 6, 2016 at 7:47 am

Hi CG,

Sad but true. 🙁 I’ve written posts about the issues of plagiarism/scraping too.

We each have to decide if we’re going to let that keep us from writing or sharing our work at all. As you said, the internet makes many things easier–both the good and bad. Thanks for the comment, and great to meet you too! 🙂


J July 2, 2016 at 6:38 pm

Its like buying a purse, changing the logo, and selling it as your own design. And then continuing to produce copies of that one knock off.

Its not fair.

There is a big difrence between using fanfiction to hone your skills, and perhaps develop a fan base, and selling your fanfiction after changing a few things.

Ones reasonable- your not cutting into anyones profits.

You can write fanfiction and original fiction. I do, I might even mention a book thats coming out in authors note. Its a bit like blogging. You aren’t making a profit off your blog post, you are making a profit out of a book you publish and mention on your blog.

Writing a fanfiction and then publishing it as your own original work is wrong.


What do you think?

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