Fifteen was also the year I attended my first convention, where I learned that fan fiction had thrived for years before me. Actually, some of it has existed for over a thousand years: Passion plays, the Commedia Dell’Arte, and the King Arthur and Robin Hood matter all contain reworkings of themes and characters.
When I wrote fan fiction, it was during the halcyon days of mimeographs and physical distribution and Gene Roddenberry’s beneficent approval. But the current years have brought us the Internet, intellectual property, and tightly maintained copyrights. Now, what started as a flight-of-fancy to be shared among friends could easily end in a lawsuit.
Modern-day fanfic writing has become its own kind of passion play — a heated argument over who controls the rights of fictional characters. Some professional authors are refusing to give approval for the fictionalization of their characters and universes, while fans continue to write.
There is no consensus, not among fans and professionals, and not even on a personal level. In fact, when interviewing professional authors and writers of fan fiction, I encountered some remarkable contradictions:
- A professional author who does not allow fan fiction of her work but anonymously reads and writes fan fiction (but does not post).
- A fanfic writer who doesn’t like other writers to use the original characters he created.
- A professional author who does not allow fan fiction of her work but permits fan art.
- A professional business writer who prefers to write fan fiction rather than create her own universe.
Are professional authors wrong to feel threatened by fan fiction? All of the authors interviewed here at one time or another have read it. Even author Robin Hobb (Assassin’s Apprentice, and others) who does not care for fan fiction, admits to reading the selections at godawful.net, a smorgasbord of Bulwer-Lytton-quality writing. But none of them read the extrapolations of their own universes because of a real-world worst-case-scenario.
Author Raymond Feist (Magician, and others) explains. “Marion [Zimmer Bradley] was working on a Darkover novel, and at the same time reading and editing fan fiction for her Darkover ‘zine. She found a story that was very similar in theme to what she was doing in her novel under work, and a character she really liked. So she contacted the author of that bit and asked if she could use the material and the character, and would give the author a tip-of-the-hat mention in the dedication. The author replied that Marion would have to split royalties, put the other author’s name on the book, and if she used any of the material or similar (like the stuff Marion was already writing) the author would sue.
“This was a woman who enjoyed fan writing and nurtured it, and the wannabe writer turned on her… [MZB] canned the project she was working on. Her publisher wasn’t really happy about losing the book, nor were her readers. Marion changed her policy on fan fiction at that point, and in the end, a [fanfic writer] who was, in my opinion, greedy and stupid ruined it for a lot of Marion’s fans.”
Author Jane Fancher (Groundties, and others) shares the concern and gives it yet another twist. “I deal with some very sensitive topics and complex character issues in my books, and it takes a long time and multiple books to resolve [them]. Some fan might well correctly read the setup and write a fanfic that bears superficial resemblance to the solution I’ve been building up to, and post it before my book hits the stands… But what if some unknown number of readers internalize that ‘wrong’ solution only to become forever resistant to the resolution I’d just spent several hundred thousand words and years of my life building up to?
This problem is felt more keenly by authors who write series or hold fast to one established universe. For example, Feist has spent decades writing books within his universe of Midkemia.
Fancher says, “. . . It’s a real fear among authors that someone, either this hypothetical fan or their fannish support group, will pop up to claim we copied this superficially correct extrapolation of our own product, and it only takes one such adamant claim to make life pretty uncomfortable. It’s not the vast majority of fanfic authors I worry about, it’s the tiny handful. With the copyright law as it stands, it’s very difficult to say just how much time, energy, and possibly money, might end up being involved. It’s just always seemed easier to ask that [fan fiction] never be posted.”
Of course, professional authors have other reasons to dislike fan fiction written about their works.
Hobb says, “Suppose you did a Google search for your own name, and found that someone had written an article condemning the civil rights movement, and used quotes from your work out of context, and attached your name as an authority for it. Or if someone put up a Wikipedia article about you that listed a substantial criminal history that wasn’t yours. You might be horrified, yes? Fan fiction does that to established fiction writers. It links not just a quality of text, but ideas to a writer’s name, in a way that the writer cannot control.
“And when those readers find something on the Internet using my familiar characters, and mentioning my name and the titles of my books, they assume that either A) I wrote it or B) I am somehow connected with it in a permission or advisory way. Fan fiction writers know that fan fiction is not by the original author. Most other people who come into contact with it don’t really get what it is on first reading.”
As much of fan fiction is written by amateurs, the professional authors feel their well-honed work becomes entangled with substandard, even incompetent, writing. (Although I have indeed read exceptional, well-crafted fan fiction, most of it reeks of adolescent fantasy.) Authors who have fan fictions written about their work feel their reputations are put at risk, reputations they worked long and hard to acquire.
Fans write fan fiction because they want more interaction with the characters they have grown to love. Yet professional authors believe that since they created the characters, no one should write fan fiction without their permission — which some choose not to bestow. For some authors, creation means ownership.
As Feist, who does not give permission for fans to write fan fiction of his work, says “Everyone is entitled to find their joy where they may, but not with my intellectual property.”
Still, not all authors feel the same way.
Lois McMaster Bujold (Shards of Honor, and others), who wrote fan fiction back in her teens, says on her website, “I’m a control freak with respect to my own work up to the time the galley proofs leave my hand. At that point, I believe — reluctantly — that I have to cut the umbilicus and let the work sink or swim as best it can.”
Bujold enjoys fan fiction because, “One can see in sharp relief just what a difference the writer (and their style) makes, like little story-petrie-dishes . . . . One can see inside readers’ heads, that otherwise inaccessible stage where all this art takes place. The sense of strolling through a hall of mirrors is profound. As a writer myself, I find much food for thought about my craft in this.”
Mercedes Lackey (Arrows of the Queen, and others), who is similarly positive on the subject, comments. “I think it’s an excellent outlet for people, whether they just want the thrill of being read or a tool to become an honest-to-god professional. I think it would be horrible if some monolithic ruling came down that said thou shalt never do this again.”
Lackey is an out-of-the-closet writer of fan fiction of City of Heroes, a MMORPG. “It’s all collaborative stuff that depends very strongly on the reaction of the other people’s characters, and as a consequence, manipulating entirely unexpected reactions that I have to react to. That’s one of the things that keeps it fresh and allows me to think about different plotting paths that I might not have gone down. This is opening up new synapse paths for me. It’s made things a lot more interesting in my ‘real writing.'”
Lackey embraces her inner fan, while Fancher recently found herself in a similar, eye-opening position: “This last summer, I discovered an anime that really hit me where I lived. The thing is, I could only get the first two DVDs from Netflix, and that left me at a terrible cliffhanger. For the first time in my life I was inspired to write in someone else’s universe, and for the first time I understood fanfic on a gut level. [The interview has] caught me at a real turning point. I’m still not ready to allow blanket posting of fanfic based on my work, but I’m looking very hard into viable options.”
However, Fancher also sees fan fiction as a potential threat, and not just because of copyright abuse. She believes readership of novels may be declining in part because of time spent reading on the Internet. “Look how much fan fiction is being written. There are only so many readers with only so much time to read. Our careers might well be on the line because of it.”
She may have a point. Readers can find tens of thousands of fan-written stories on fanfiction.net, an Internet clearinghouse — and dozens more on hundreds of websites in numbers that are increasing daily. These pieces of fiction, from snippets to novel-length works, provide an easy alternative to buying a book, particularly if the reader already owns one, or a book has not yet been published, or it does not even exist. And all of it is free.
But is it legal?
According to Harold Feld, attorney and Senior Vice President of the Media Access Project, “The copyright act prevents people making derivative works, and recycling it into a story of your own, but there’s a catch: The copyright act also permits fair use of someone else’s copyright work.”
Are authors who permit fan fiction at risk from lawsuit-happy fans? How can both authors and fans protect themselves? What about fans who try to sell their fan fiction, such as Lori Jareo, who wrote a novel-length Star Wars book without permission from LucasArts? More on this, and the fan’s point of view, in part two.
(Thanks to Roberta Rogow and Chris Meadows for background and research.)