Writer Wednesday – Fan Fiction 2


As you may recall, I’ve spoken on the matter of fan fiction a little over a year ago. At that time, I discussed how it has gained a bit of acceptance and what some of the motivations might be behind it. I didn’t particularly moralize about the matter then, but just offered up some of the ideas that are connected with it. This time, I am going into a bit more depth.

Game of Thrones Fan Fiction

What got me on this kick was reading the viewpoint of George R. R. Martin and a memory of similar feelings expressed by Anne McCaffrey years ago. For those of you unaware, Martin refuses to consent to any form of fan fiction. He believes it opens a doorway to losing control of your own work. His understanding of copyright vs fair use and other such laws leads him to feel that any use of his copyrighted material is taking away his own control. His primary concern is that copyright has to be defended to be valid.

Legally, if you don’t defend your copyright when you become aware of infringement, it is assumed that you have abandoned it and it is now part of the public domain. In practice, it doesn’t actually work this way of course. If you are still publishing your works, no publisher will touch a fan fiction using them as a base. No judge will side with a fan fiction writer publishing a copyrighted work for profit even if the original author hasn’t yet weighed in on the matter of fan fiction. He has other, more personal reasons as well, though those are less central to the debate.

Darkover Fan Fiction

Many authors, such as Martin quote Marion Zimmer Bradley as their example of why fan fiction is something you should never allow. It is hard to sum up in a short span, but I will try. MZB, as she is often referred to, was highly active in the fan community for many years. She actively encouraged fan fiction and made a point of not only reading it, but publishing small anthologies of the fiction that she considered best on behalf of her fans.

In the past, she had read stories that had elements she really liked and had spoken with their writers offering them mention in the dedication and one sixth of a standard advance on a novel just because she was going to be using a similar idea in a slightly different way and wanted to give credit where it was due. I should note here that you can’t copyright an idea, only an execution of that idea. While outlining a story for publication, MZB read a story by Jean Lamb that happened to be using the same characters in the same time period of her series. She didn’t agree with every choice in the fiction, but did think a few of the ideas were interesting and offered to pay Lamb for the fact that she was wanting to put her own twist on a few ideas she had seen in the fan fiction.

Somehow, there was a miscommunication that led Lamb to believe MZB wanted to publish the fanfiction itself under her own name. Lamb insisted on a byline and it led to a number of problems. Not the least of these was MZB’s lawyer chastising her for ever having read fan fiction at all and for doing anything related to it without signed waivers. Worse, MZB had to scrap the novel she was working on. It isn’t clear if it was her choice or if it was the publisher refusing to take legal risk. My own supposition is that since there is no record on the part of the publisher, MZB probably talked to her lawyer and the publisher and whatever came of that conversation caused her to simply set the project aside as unpublishable. Thereafter, she had to avoid fan fiction like the plague and distance herself from the fan base.

Many rumors have sprung up about it and the situation is often misquoted. Some people against fan fiction insist that she lost years of work on a nearly finished novel. Those on the side of fan works sometimes claim the whole thing never really happened. The truth seems to be the standard among text. Sometimes what you write isn’t what someone reads. Even novelists of great skill can suffer from that truth.

Other Writers on Fan Fiction

Diana Galabdon has been a loud opponent to fan fictions, as was Anne McCaffrey for a long time. Both made a point of clearly stating their wishes on their websites and actively sending cease and desist letters to those who were doing works in their fictional worlds. While Galabdon’s page stance remains unchanged, McCaffrey (most likely her son’s opinion rather than a change in her own) has altered the stance to allow unpaid works of fiction to go unhindered.

Steven Brust, who was mentioned in the last post regarding fan fiction, has long allowed anyone to write in his world so long as they see no profit. Brust himself has written a fan fiction in the Firefly universe. Then there is the odd case of Fifty Shades of Grey.

While it was originally a fan fiction from Twilight, adding steamy sexuality where it had been absent in the original work, it has since been washed of specific references to the work of Stephenie Meyer. Meyer has shown a lack of concern for the matter and though some aspects were aligned painfully close to the original source material, the story and characters were made sufficiently unique to be considered an entirely original work.

Personally, I think authors who make clear policies known on their websites are being wise. Have a simple message that you retain copyright for all of your original works and that publication of derivative works within those worlds or with those characters for profit is not allowed. If you are clear that you don’t release copyright on any character or work, then the law is on your side.

Take Away from the Fan Fiction Debate

Beyond that, if you happen to read fan fiction of your own works, do not draw attention to it. If someone wants you to read their work, request a release form that says you won’t be sued if by coincidence some of your own work happens to have some concept or idea in common with their own. More simply, just gently note that due to the conflict of interest, you don’t read fan fictions of your own work and thank them for their offer.

I think when you take it to the extreme that those such as George R. R. Martin do, you risk damaging your own fan base. If I take 6 years to write a single book, I expect that the fans will be doing something to keep their enthusiasm up. Sure, they should respect your wishes. At the same time, as an author, I think it is probably best to go light handed and protect your copyright in a manner that still allows fans to express their fandom freely.

For my own part, I am going to be studying aspects of the related laws as well as the pages of other authors and working out my own unique page on my expectations regarding fan fiction. If you happen to also be an author, you might consider doing the same.

What are your thoughts?