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May 31, 2012

An Author’s Guide to Fan Fiction

Lighthouse at night

Recent events have brought fan fiction out of the hidden realm of über-fans and into mainstream media.  For the first time, many authors are learning of the existence of fan fiction and wondering how it might affect them.

Let’s take a look at what fan fiction is, what it means to authors, and what they can—or should—do about it in regards to their work.  Most importantly, we’ll talk about why authors should care.

What Is Fan Fiction?

Fan fiction (also known as fanfic) refers to stories written by fans about the characters, situations, or world of existing works created by others.  Some fans of movies, TV shows, and books want the story to live on in their head.  Maybe they relate strongly to a character.  Maybe they wanted the story to end a different way.  Or maybe they imagine the characters in a different situation.

In that regard, many authors feel honored by fanfic.  The fact that someone wrote fanfic for their work means that something about their story resonated strongly with readers.  Most authors consider that feeling of connection a good thing.

Websites such as fanfiction.net exist for fans to share their stories.  The fanfic authors post their version of the characters and world, and readers can comment on the story, giving feedback or encouragement.  Most fanfic stories include a disclaimer stating that the characters and world belong to the original author and that no copyright infringement is intended.

Even so, some authors get uncomfortable when they think about those fanfic stories being shared with others.  Will someone else’s take on the story affect how readers feel about their characters?  Will readers get confused between the real version and the fanfic version of events?  What if a fanfic author’s version of the characters offends the original author?

Is Fan Fiction Legal?

According to U.S. copyright law, the original author has exclusive rights to develop derivative works based on their stories, characters, or worlds.  And U.S. copyright law defines derivative works as “work based upon one or more preexisting works.”  That “based upon” phrase is pretty broad.

The LegalZoom website advises users that derivative work “is a new, original product that includes aspects of a preexisting, already copyrighted work.”  That “includes aspects of” phrase is similarly broad.

The Chilling Effects website states that the prevailing rule seems to be that the more detailed a character, setting, or plot is, the more those elements are copyrightable separate from the original work.  Aspects that are “distinctly delineated” are protected even if the general copyright for the story as a whole doesn’t apply.  This means generic plots (boy meets girl) or characters (sidekick) are not copyrightable on their own, but that the main characters or specific plot details might have copyright protection in addition to the overall copyright of the original work.

In general, the courts try to balance protecting copyright and allowing creative uses of copyrighted work.  The courts also take into consideration the marketing activities of the fanfic author.  If the fanfic is purely non-commercial, the courts are more lenient than if the fanfic author attempts to profit off their work.

In other words, legal challenges in regards to derivative works have limited precedents and aren’t black-and-white decisions.  And of course, copyright issues are entirely different in other countries.

How Do Recent Developments Change the Fan Fiction Landscape?

For most of fanfic history, everyone understood that fanfic authors shouldn’t make money off their work.  Not only is profiting off fanfic disrespectful to the original author, but it weakens the fanfic author’s defense in any copyright claims.

However, fanfic is currently in the news because the bestselling-series-slash-major-media-story Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James started as Twilight fanfic.  James took the characters of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books (and movies), swapped out Seattle for Twilight’s Forks setting, and gave the hero a BDSM background instead of Twilight’s vampire world-building.

The success of these books has many fanfic authors wondering if they should publish their fanfic works for profit as well.  The Twilight fanfic fandom is being torn apart by this issue, as many come down strongly on the side of “profiting from fanfic is unethical” and others believe that the fanfic author deserves something for their work.

Many people wondered how Stephenie Meyer would react to the situation.  Would she take James to court?  This week, she answered questions from MTV News about the Fifty Shades of Grey books. Her response?  “I’ve heard about it … Good on her — she’s doing well. That’s great!”

Legally, that comment doesn’t mean she (or her publisher, or the movies’ Summit Entertainment, or her estate after she dies) won’t take the issue to court somewhere down the line, but it looks less likely.  Her decision will likely further push the fanfic community toward an attitude of “profitability is okay.”

What Does This Mean for Authors?

In some respects, these changing attitudes are yet another indication of how the creative writing process is underappreciated.  We have book pirates claiming that all content wants to be free, readers complaining about ebook prices that are less than the cost of a movie ticket, and non-writers proclaiming that changing the name of a character or a few superficial traits makes them new and unique.

Authors should understand fanfic—its pros and cons—and decide how they want to approach the issue.  As an author gets more popular, the chances of having fanfic based on their work increases, but so does their clout, income, and motivation to enforce takedown requests.

On the opposite side of the copyright issue, some authors worry about a fanfic author claiming they stole their idea.  With everything online, an author couldn’t prove they weren’t exposed to the fanfic story.  (A similar scenario happened to Marion Zimmer Bradley and one of her books was scuttled as a result of the fallout.)

What about concerns for how characters are portrayed?  Personally, I’m one of those authors who talks to her characters, in a “they’re just as real to me as my friends” way.  That sense of intimacy also means that hearing about some wild out-of-character exploits in a fanfic might damage the relationship I have with them.

What Choices Do Authors Have?

Many authors have “disallowed” fanfic, which in essence means that they request fanfic websites remove fanfics based on their work, and hope that people respect that request.  Authors Diana Gabaldon, Larry Niven, Anne Rice, J.R. Ward, and Orson Scott Card have spoken out against fan fiction.  A part of me doesn’t blame them.  After all, if the fanfic community doesn’t respect the original author’s rights, why would the author respect the fanfic community?

Other authors encourage fanfic in a “keep the readers happy” way.  Still others allow fanfic but put restrictions on it, requiring fanfic authors to fill out a form and request permission (authors such as Chelsea Quinn Yarbo, Mercedes Lackey, and Marion Zimmer Bradley fall into this category).

I respect what fanfic does and explores, but I don’t like the pull-to-publish movement (pulling stories off free fanfic websites to publish for profit).  It takes a lot more than just changing the name or other superficial details to erase the essence of the original author’s characters.  Unless the essence of the character (history, family background, worldview, religious beliefs, moral code, self-image, self-delusions, strengths, flaws, goals, etc.) was changed, the characters in a fanfic still belong to the original author.

But with the iffy reliability of the court system to rule in favor of the original author, authors would be wise to try to prevent issues ahead of time.  Between the new profiteering attitude and the potential for counter copyright claims, I think authors should have an official fanfic policy in place.  Whether that policy is open or restrictive is up to the author, but a statement of our attitudes might hold off bigger issues.

Personally, I’m tempted to try to find a middle ground, where authors allow fanfic, perhaps under a policy that all stories labeled as fanfic of their books (and any money collected as a result of those stories) belong to the original author.  A policy like that would give fanfic authors freedom as long as they don’t try to make any money from it, and it would protect authors from someone claiming the author stole their ideas.

Along those lines, one author has suggested offering Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licenses on our work, which would allow fanfic for non-commercial uses only.  Whether or not any of those policies would stand up in court is an entirely different matter, however.  *smile*

Do you have any questions about fanfic? Do you think authors should have a fanfic policy?  What seems fair to you?  Do you have a policy?  What does/would your fanfic policy look like?  What concerns you most about fanfic?  What doesn’t concern you?

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What do you think?

50 Comments on "An Author’s Guide to Fan Fiction"

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Carradee

Regarding the Marion Zimmer Bradley thing, that example always seems…forced. From what I’ve read, there was definite proof that MZB was familiar with the fanfic, considering she ran her own fanzine and tried to pay the author a pittance to use something in his fanfic in her novel. And there are contradicting reports about why the book was scuttled; some say the publisher ditched it, while others say the author did.

I wouldn’t be nearly the author (or editor!) I am today if not for my time as a fanfic writer and reader, mainly in the Star Wars universe.

But I do think it’s an author’s right to decide if they want to allow fanfic based on their work or not.

Personally, the way I’d like to handle fanfic will require legal counsel to hammer out, and I’m not in a position to do that, right now. So for right now, my policy has to be “If you write it, you can’t profit from it—and I won’t read it.”

(What I’d like to do: Screen fanfics to authorize specific ones for the author to release for profit, with some limits—but I’d have to work out a legal agreement that would protect me from a “You stole my idea” lawsuit from someone who’s good at guessing or picking up on foreshadowing—an agreement that would apply internationally.)

Alison
Alison

This is a nice, succinct summary of what fanfic is and how it affects its source material and the creators of that source material. I’ll confess that I used to not understand the policies of authors like Anne Rice or Diana Gabaldon–after all, I thought, isn’t fanfic sort of flattering? But now that there is this profiteering movement, I get it. Those who seek to profit from fanfic don’t write it because they really love or admire the source material; they do it because they want to piggy-back off someone else’s hard work. (And even worse–they argue that they deserve to be rewarded for their “hard work.”)

The Creative Commons licensing suggestion is an interesting one. I’d think that creators who want to go that route would be wise to get the cooperation of sites like FanFiction.net to help enforce, as they do now for authors who request that no fanfic of their works be hosted.

Julie Glover

My initial reaction is to be a hard-liner. After all, I dislike that soeone wrote a “sequel” to Gone with the Wind; the current craze of mixing Jane Austen with zombies, etc.; and the numerous knock-offs of other authors’ ideas. I like the idea of being inspired by other authors’ stories, but then you should come up with your own idea. However, I have met several authors who got started with fan fiction (something I never did). It does appear to be a good way to develop writing skills. It’s when it becomes a for-profit deal that it gets tricky.

It seems that the specifics of a tale (character names, distinctive settings, etc.) should remain with the original author. Legally speaking, however, I don’t know exactly how restrictions can be effectively enforced. Great topic to consider.

Vanessa
Vanessa

What an amazing article! It has some very valid points. Your post on when fanfiction drew an ethical line was very straight forward. What makes this issue more interesting is that now other fandoms are publishing their fanfic stories as well.

As for Harry Potter fandom, no one has even tried to publish their fics because J.K. Rowling is a very powerful woman, the James Potter series was enough proof that she won’t tolerate her intellectual property being taken advantage of, or being published for profit, and now the books are free via domain, aka it is a fanfic in general terms. Meyer probably doesn’t have the guts to take legal action which is a shame cause I know her agent was a lawyer.

When James was negotiating her contract with Vintage, she didn’t want to have fanfiction of FSoG which I found to be hypocritical because her book is not a novel, it’s a fanfic. All of the PDF’s that are online free of the original are valid proof enough.

What I am very curious to know is how an indie author can prevent fanfiction from being written about her stories.?

Vanessa

An article on fanlore with Stephenie Meyer said she supports fanfiction, but she said, “Why waste your time writing those, you should be writing your own novels.”

Imelda Evans

Hi Jami
Thanks for referencing my post on Creative Commons! I hope it was useful.

I agree with you that Creative Commons isn’t necessarily a legally enforceable solution. I was suggesting it partly for the benefit of the fanfic communities themselves. As you say, many in the fanfic communities are as disturbed by the commercialisation of fanfic as authors are. Creative Commons licensing offers a way for a particular community to make clear that they are there to share and have fun, that the members don’t expect to make money from what they post in that community and that only members who share that ethos should join.

It is also potentially a way for authors to show fans that they appreciate that their works have inspired such interest, while still making the point that they care about their intellectual property.

In either case, though, it probably serves mainly as a statement of intent. Would it have any standing in a court? I guess we will have to wait for that to be tested!

Interesting post, Jami!

Susan Sipal

Great comprehensive post, Jami! I like how JK Rowling handled fanfiction – she gave awards to many Harry Potter fansites, including the first one to a site that had fan fiction. She seemed to have no problems with it as long as it did not encroach on her future work and was not for profit. Fan fiction definitely helped fan the flames for her upcoming books!

allreb

The thing I would encourage authors to keep in mind about fanfiction is this: fans who are so engaged with your work that they want to write fic about it are basically the best possible fans to have. They feel such a strong connection to your work that they want to stay in your world, know your characters, and care about them deeply. That kind of sharing also means they’re likely to, oh, loan the book to (or buy a copy for) a few friends, so they have someone to discuss it with; to talk about it, review it, and encourage more people to read it online; to buy your next book the day it comes out; to go to your signings and readings when they can…

People who are that connected with your work are generally MOTIVATED fans, is what I’m saying. They’re the people you want your work to reach, because they set about trying to get it into more people’s hands. They promote it and build communities around it. And while there are outliers like James, who are apparently willing to use that, the majority of fans are just that — fans, who don’t want to make money off the work, they just want to play with it and want others to do so, too. (Or so is my experience as one of ’em, anyway.)

Ericka D.
Ericka D.

I’m actually an amateur fanfiction writer and I’m in the middle of typing the chapters of my first fanfiction when suddenly somebody updated and I read about FanFiction.Net pulling out some of the fanfics that includes sex, violence, etc. It immediately makes me down and there’s no idea coming out of my mind. The news feels restrictive to me. Their tagline is “Unleash Your Imagination.” I said before “Surely the owners of FF have some imagination and try to think of something else about this. What if our minds goes to darker places?” Then I’m reading one of your articles then I stumble to profiting from the fanfic is unethical then to this then it suddenly all makes sense.

I also disagree about what James did. She should make her name by herself and not by dragging some hormone-raged Twilight fans. I seriously hope that the FF won’t erase those fanfics. They (FF.net or anyone) shouldn’t generalize the writers when it’s just James who crossed the line. Those writers spent hours to years to create those fanfics and suddenly they’ll be pull out. Some of those fanfics are great and even better than FSoG. Hell, FSoG only has 29 fics in FF. There’s gonna be middle ground to this situation.

Jennie Coughlin

I was actually blogging about this recently (http://jenniecoughlin.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/fifty-shades-of-grey-fanfic-profit/), as an author who started (and still writes) fanfiction. I just can’t get behind the idea of selling something that started as fanfic, regardless of how much the serial numbers have been filed off (to steal Gabaldon’s analogy). I think it’s disrespectful to to the original writer(s), as well as unethical. I’m one who falls in the “don’t mind, won’t read” category if there ever gets to be fanfiction of my original work, but some of your points make me wonder if that’s even going to be an option in the future if fanfic writers keep pushing the boundaries of the law. At some point, there’s going to be a backlash, possibly a court case, and things could get very ugly.

Gloria Oliver

Great post , Jami! I also started out on fanfic to hone my writing skills. Japanese anime from the 70’s to be specific.

While doing fanfic on shows and movies is mostly ignored and considered free marketing by most circles, it’s always been a touchy subject with regards to fanfic based on books. Somewhat blurs the origin of the work for some people, if that makes any sense. Worse, a lot of NY authors actually have in their publishing contracts that they are liable for getting rid of fan fiction done on their works. If they don’t then the original author becomes liable to the publisher! It boggles my mind how they can dump that on the original creator’s shoulders, but they do.

Back in the day, if you admitted to writing fanfic, it pretty much got you a black mark as well. Now that a lot more authors have actually honed skills using the medium, it’s not as taboo to admit to it, so things gave gotten better there at least.

But to make money of something you didn’t actually create from the ground up seems extreme and disrespectful. (Years and years ago I turned down a friend who wanted to do a zine because it was for profit not just covering costs. Didn’t feel right.)

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[…] An Author’s Guide To Fan Fiction from Jami Gold. Covers a lot of info here, peeps. The stuff isn’t the same when based on a book or short story than on a TV or movie. And the lines are getting even more blurred. Eek! […]

Amanda
Amanda

Interesting article. Thank you.

In regard to Stephenie Meyer and Fifty Shades of Grey, I don’t think she realizes how much Christian is like Edward. I wonder if she would change her mind (with her quote, “Good on her”) if she knew?

Sean
Sean

Hi Jami –

I came to your post through Twitter, by a Twi-fan friend of mine who pointed here as evidence that EL James was hypocritically DMCAing fanfic of FSoG. I agree that, if she’s doing that, it’s mind-bogglingly hypocritical. However, you haven’t – or at least, I haven’t seen – posted any sources for those claims. Can you tell me from where you’re getting your information?

Thanks!
Sean

anais mark
anais mark
Name change only stories aren’t fanfic by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve seen a similar situation with a tiny fic no one cares about. The story was removed. No one who knew about the situation said anything other than how glad they were that someone brought it to the author’s attention. It seems akin to authors requesting that their fic not be translated. We’re all operating outside, over, around and through the rules. If authors, and there are actually more than one of them profiting from what used to be a fic, make money while Stephenie Meyer carries on without much of a glance their way, I don’t care. Operating one the “time is money” principle, all authors are gaining quite a bit from this venture. I’ve not pulled to publish but I can’t put numbers to what I’ve personally gained from the fandom (and I don’t mean friends and stories that I love). I’m just not getting the unkindness directed at one story. If I don’t do my homework and get caught, getting mad at the kids that didn’t and implenting new rules to penalize them won’t fix my grade. I’m sure I’m not taking this seriously enough for most but maybe the vista needs opened up here. More authors than James are in the mix. Not acting that way makes us look like we’re on a witch hunt or just butt hurt that no one offered us buckets of money and adoration for something that started out… Read more »
Gayle W
Gayle W
I am really late to the game here having found your post referenced on another website. Also, I will admit that I have not read all of the comments above but have really enjoyed the ones I have. MoTU was the very first fan fic I ever read. What a way to get introduced to that world! Yes – I read it because it was a fan fic of “Twilight”. I know that many people got really mad when she P2P but I am one of the few people who really didn’t feel that way. If MoTU had been written using character names from a different book or genre entirely then would it have really garnered this much attention? I would guess not. I truly think that the whole story could have been written using the name Dick (no pun intended) and Jane (This should give away my age if I can remember those book characters!) for that matter and no one would have ever related it to “Twilight” unless they wanted to insert those character names on their own. Truly, other than the name changes there was really nothing else she had to change to move the entire story line from a “Twilight” fan fiction to just another book. I am currently about 80% through the FSoG trilogy and have no problems inventing my own character faces to the names that are used in these books and they have nothing to do with MoTU or “Twilight”. (And trust me… Read more »
vanessa
vanessa

You iknow how J.R. Ward doesn’t allow fanfiction, well it turns out there are fanfic communites for those books. you are right if the fandom doesn’t respect the authors wishes, why should the author respect the fandom community

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[…] the story for profit. If you’ve followed my other posts about the ethics of fan fiction or what authors should know about fan fiction, you can probably guess that a writer profiting off the fans, characters, or worldbuilding of […]

Sherry G.
Sherry G.
I’ve enjoyed reading your post and the comments very much. I got into reading fan fic during the three-year span between HP4 and HP5, because I was so longing for more Harry Potter. I still read it, HP and twilight fan fiction. In regard to HP, I mostly read stories in which Sirius Black lives and is able to raise Harry, because I so want that boy to have a family. In Twilight, I prefer the canon based vampire stories, but I love seeing Jacob Black shown as a bad guy. When I got into Twilight fan fiction, at first I was amazed at the all-human genre, because though I’d never read or liked vampire stories before, taking vamps out of Twilight, makes the stories basically just romance/mystery/drama stories with twilight character names and personality characteristics. For a long time, I wouldn’t read the all-human stories, till there were fewer and fewer vamp stories to find. But for me, there will always be a thought that taking vamps out of Twilight is like taking magic out of Harry Potter. I have written a long Twilight fan fic, but it was based in canon, vampires, only I made Bella blind, because I am, and I wanted to explore how she would have discovered the truth and how her blindness might have been affected by becoming a vampire, as well as a way to do a little educating, since I’ve read some deplorable depictions of blindness in fan fiction. I have written… Read more »
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[…] with Amazon’s introduction of “Kindle Worlds,” a new publishing model for writers inspired to write fan fiction (fanfic). Everyone and anyone has been commenting on this development, often with gnashing of […]

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[…] written before about fan fiction (fanfic) and how some involved in the fandoms are ethically challenged. Unlike most fanfic writers, who create fanfic for love of the stories or characters, these people […]

Sophie
Sophie

Being a fanfic writer myself, and knowing my origins, I would be hesitant to disallow fanfics if I ever published anything. (That is if it got that popular, and people liked my characters enough… Which I doubt.) After all, it was how I developed my craft.

It’s an interesting thought that I might have to consider. Sure, I’ll focus on the actually writing bit first, but who knows what could happen?

Thank for posting this!

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