Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Fan Fic

I read an interesting discussion of fan fiction on Alas, and have been pondering my response ever since, especially given the Mariam Zimmer Bradley thing and then this agent post on copyright infringement and this discussion of the difference between fanfic and profic.

Really good article about it (read: slant I primarily agree with).

Obviously the MZB example is an extreme one. But I can't imagine losing years of my own hard work, let alone the time and anguish accompanying being sued and virtually attacked.

An excerpt from a letter to the editor of Writer's Digest, March 1993, by Marion Zimmer Bradley:
". . .While in the past I have allowed fans to 'play in my yard,' I was forced to stop that practice last summer when one of the fans wrote a story, using my world and my characters, that overlapped the setting I was using for my next _Darkover_ novel. Since she had sent me a copy of her fanzine, and I had read it, my publisher will not publish my novel set during that time period, and I am now out several years' work, as well as the cost of inconvenience of having a lawyer deal with this matter.
"Because this occurred just as I was starting to read for this year's _Darkover_ anthology, that project was held up for more than a month while the lawyer drafted a release to accompany any submissions and a new contract, incorporating the release. I do not know at present if I shall be doing any more _Darkover_ anthologies.
"Let this be a warning to other authors who might be tempted to be similarly generous with their universes, I know now why Arthur Conan Doyle refused to allow anyone to write about Sherlock Holmes. I wanted to be more accomodating, but I don't like where it has gotten me. It's enough to make anyone into a misanthrope."

On one hand, sure it's flattering that others are so excited by the world you've created that they want to keep living in it. Imitation is the highest form of flattery and all that.

But have you read any of it? It's never worked for me, because it just doesn't feel real. Even the stuff that's not atrociously written (and, let's face it, a lot of fanfic on the net is really really horrible) doesn't ever have the same feel as original stories created by the author. And, seriously, I don't care how hot the story is, Harry and Snape were just never going to get it on. What? You've never read slash?)

After kicking this idea around for a while and not making much progress with it, this is where I think I come down on the issue:

Ideas are not copyrightable. It's dangerous for fans (or anyone else) to be able to claim that an author "stole" an idea for one of her novels, because writers get ideas from all over the place: what we read, what we listen to, our families, our lives. Two people could take the exact same incident and write very different stories about it. (Heck, one author could take an incident and write very different stories about it.) It's the writing that's protected, not the antecedent.

However, when an author creates characters and a world, they are hers. Without express permission of the original author, I'm not terribly comfortable with the idea of others making money off an author's creations. This one's sticky for me.

It's not an issue that's likely to impact me personally, but I guess I won't know how I'll really feel about it until I find myself in that situation.

How do you feel about it? Feel free to try to convince me that I'm wrong-headed.


  1. This discussion reminds me of all of the training my company requires about trade secrets and business ethics. The training isn't terribly useful in my day-to-day job, but it's company wide. Basically, we are taught to protect anything of value to the company--ideas, engineering data, financial numbers, anything that could give a competitor an advantage.

    Likewise, if I were somehow involved in a proposal, and learned what the competitor was doing (by overhearing, being told "off the record" , receiving a "mysterious package", etc), then I would be required to immediately contact our Ethics and/or Legal departments, remove myself from the proposal process, and lord knows what kind of cleanup they would have to do. Given the great number of corporate scandals, even with my employer, its obvious that not everyone abides by the rules.

    My job is good for making me paranoid about sharing information with anyone. I'm pretty reluctant to tell anyone what I'm writing about. Recently I found, while browsing on Amazon, that there's another book with a kind of similar setup as mine (I think it's actually a very different story overall, though). I've only ever read the blurb on Amazon, and I will only ever read the blurb or back cover, so that I can honestly say that my work is my own. If it happens to be similar to someone else's in a few basic ideas, then so be it.

    I think the idea of fan-fic is kind of icky, like stalking a book. I can kind of understand wanting to write, and also being entrhalled by a fantasy world that someone created. But there is definite line between someone living their own private fantasy about a character or a place from a book, and attempting to claim it as their own work in public.

  2. The MZB case is horrible. But the way to prevent further cases like that isn't to futilely ask fans to stop creating fanfic; it's to change copyright law, by adding an "original creator" affirmative defense for creators sued by fanfic writers.

  3. Kristi, I'm only mildly worried about idea theft. After all, I hope that no one could tell my stories the same way I can. And, if someone else can write them better, then, sigh, I guess I'm just not ready to be published and need to come up with another idea.

    Amp, I agree with you about copyright law. And I also agree that fans are never going to stop writing fan fic. I wouldn't expect that, nor do I think it's a good idea to try to track them down and prosecute them.

    My concern is more with how fan fic is shared, distributed, and "owned," especially via the internet. And I have a serious problem with fan fic writers earning money for their work without a contractual arrangement with the creator of the universe and its characters.

    Meanwhile, I've got this story about an aging Wonder Woman living in 1990's era Washington languishing on my hard drive . . .