When Does Fan Fiction Cross an Ethical Line?

by Jami Gold on March 6, 2012

in For Readers, 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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