Reader Request Week 2005: Creative Commons and FanFic

Welcome everyone to the Whatever’s annual Reader Request Week, in which readers suggest a topic, and then I blather on about it. To start things off, let’s combine two requests that go well together. Chris asks:

Intellectual property – Where do you feel an equitable compromise lies in the fair-use/right-of-artists-to-profit-from-their-work debate? Any thoughts on the Creative Commons license, specifically as pertains to your future work? (Cory Doctorow released a couple of his novels online and in dead-tree form simultaneously, while Orson Scott Card did okay for himself with the Shadow series by releasing the first few chapters of each a few months ahead of the street date. Any plans to do something similar?)

And to this I’ll add a related question from Night Dog:

I’d like to know what you think of fanfiction. Do you think it’s a legitimate exercise of imagination, or a trampling on copyright?

To my mind (and, as it happens, as more or less stated in the Constitution of the United States) copyright exists for two purposes: first, to make sure the creator benefits from having a thought or two; second, to make sure that (eventually) the public sphere is enriched by the work of that creator. Problems arise, of course, at the extremes — when people download all the music in Western civilization off of KaZaa, for example, and get indignant at the idea they’re doing something wrong, or when Disney pays off the US Congress yet again to make sure Mickey Mouse never gets his Emancipation Proclamation, and as a result copyright terms are extended far beyond their original intent and (more importantly) to the detriment of the commons.

In my perfect copyright world, I’d have a simple scheme for copyrights: For copyrights held by individuals, copyrights would last for 50 years or the life of the individual plus 25 years (to benefit widowed spouses and heirs), whichever is longer. For work owned by corporations, 75 years and out. But I would also add a provision that after the initial copyright, the copyright holder could renew the copyright annually for the sum of 2 to the x power, where “x” is equal to the current year past the original copyright expiration, with the monies raised going (initially, at least) to US deficit reduction.

So, for example, if the copyright on “Steamboat Willie” were to expire today, Disney could pay $2 for a one year extension of the copyright. In 2015, it would have to pay $1,024. In 2025, $1,048,576. And in 2035, $1,073,741,824. By which time, of course, Disney would have finally let “Steamboat Willie” steam on to public domain. Now, given the sheer number of copyrights that Disney alone would have to protect on an annual basis, you can see how a) the corporation would have to pick and choose which things to maintain under copyright longer than their original term, thereby freeing other material sooner, and b) how quickly a scheme like this would pay down the deficit — without raising taxes! — thus benefiting the public sphere even without the public domain use of the intellectual property. Naturally, I expect you to contact your Congressperson right this very second and demand that he/she offer up the Scalzi Copyright Enhancement Act of 2005 as soon as humanly possible. You know, for the kids.

Now, having thus addressed the philosophical issue of what the lengths of copyrights should be and how to find the balance between the rights of the copyright holder and the public, let’s address the issue of ownership under copyright. Naturally, being a copyright owner myself, I wish to have and retain the full protections of that copyright: If someone’s taking my stuff without my permission and making a buck from it, I want to be able to nail his ass; likewise, if someone is distributing my work for free in a manner in which I do not approve, I want to be able to legally stop her from doing so as well, especially if it is having a negative impact on my financial bottom line. It is my work, damn it. I should have the right to control it, and legally I do.

At the same time, I don’t think there’s any value in being an intellectual property dickhead, either. What non-creative bean-counters don’t get that many creative people do is that many of the things that will lose you money in the short term, intellectual property-wise, will gain you money in the long term, because it creates a fan — someone who is actively looking for your next creative work, and many of whom, because they feel that personal connection with you, will happily pay for that next work.

Certainly I’ve benefited from it, primarily from the venue you’re reading here right now. I’ve been giving away work here for six years, including a full-length novel, and partially as a result of that, my first published novel is now in its fourth printing. Check out the comments in the Agent to the Stars guestbook and some of the most common things you’ll see there are variations of “thanks for letting me check this out for free — I’ll be looking for your published stuff now.” (Let’s also not forget that both Agent and Old Man’s War found their way to actual publication because they were available to be read online — no if ands or buts about it.) I’m a big believer in keeping active control of the work I produce, but part of that control is the freedom to share that work with whomever I choose.

It’s paid off for me, and it’s paid off for others, too. All of Cory Doctorow’s published novels are available online for free and he’d certainly maintain it’s been a boon the sales of his books. Orson Scott Card did indeed post not just chapters but full novels online at one point (I know because I downloaded Children of the Mind off his AOL forum) until apparently persuaded otherwise by his publisher (who is, interestingly, the same publisher who let Cory post his works online — but OSC’s experience was several years back in the timestream, and times have emphatically changed). Baen Books famously has its Free Library with dozens of books, and it claims that having these out there does indeed drive sales. Being open with your work works.

(BUT — is there a bend in the curve after which it doesn’t? Aside from corporate hysteria, this is an interesting question. For example, me having a full novel online is only a net positive because, aside from y’all, I’m a complete unknown; even in its fourth printing, there are still fewer than 10,000 copies of OMW out there. Cory is somewhat significantly better known than I, as Boing Boing has rather higher readership, he’s a luminary in the intellectual property arena and he’s been publishing longer than I — and yet he is also a mid-listy sort of writer at this point (saleswise). Again, the publicity is a net positive.

But what about someone like Orson Scott Card, who sells hundreds of thousands of books annually, and whose work is never not on the science fiction shelves at your local bookstore? Does the same dynamic that Cory and I use to our advantage work in the same way for someone at his sales level? Or does it simply cannibalize his sales? Bearing in mind I have no idea of Tor’s point of view on this, I could see a publisher who easily tolerates online experiments from new writers and mid-listers getting twitchy if one of their main draws started flirting with giving stuff away for free online.

The same goes for music: indie musicians who haven’t a chance getting on the radio have nothing to lose and everything to gain by letting people download songs for free. A major label artist who has to recoup a million dollars in studio fees — or the label that advanced those fees and owns the masters — may feel differently. Everyone’s looking for the bend in the curve, and naturally the more money you have in the till, the more significant it is to you.)

As for Creative Commons, it’s unlikely that I’ll do any significant work and release it under CC. It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to the aims of CC; intellectually speaking I like the concept of giving people a series of blanket permissions to rework your work, and if that’s what you want to do, go for it. Nor is it that I don’t want people to fiddle with what I write or create; generally speaking, I’d be flattered. What it comes down to for me is that I want to know what people are doing with my stuff ahead of time. If someone wants to do a “remix” of Agent to the Stars, say, it would not be onerous for them to send me an e-mail first and ask permission. I am not so unapproachable that such communication is impossible. But to reverse an earlier formulation: I often choose to be free with the work I create, but that choice is mine to make. I prefer to make such choices actively rather than passively.

All of this dovetails interestingly into the concept of “fanfic” — which for those of you who are not SF geeks, means creative writing done borrowing already-created characters and situations from popular media. Star Trek is, to mix progenitor metaphors, the granddaddy motherlode of fanfic, but suffice to say wheresoever two or more fans gather to share an obsessive love of TV, movies, music, literature or video games, so there also shall be fanfic. Fanfic is of course a massive violation of copyright, since all of a sudden Spock and Kirk are doing things Viacom never intended them to do (or Darth Vader and Yoda, or Buffy and Willow, or Harry Potter and Hermione, or Mario and Luigi or whatever), and naturally this gets the corporate IP lawyers all het up.

Honestly, though, if I were the creator of a science fiction or fantasy media property (as opposed to a mere book author) and I didn’t find evidence of fanfic online, I would be very worried. People don’t write fanfic if they aren’t already so enthralled by your universe that they can’t handle the fact you’re not producing it any faster, and are thus compelled to make some of their own — the methadone, if you will, to your pure, sweet media property heroin. A fanfic writer will buy all your media-related product, will go to your conventions, will get the DVDs and will generally slog through sub-standard and lazy stretches of your work far longer than the average mortal because they are so damn invested. And if they’re writing slash (fanfic with sex!), chances are excellent that you’re sucking in all of their take home pay that doesn’t go to rent, food and cat products. It is the Buffy slash writers who paid for Joss Whedon’s boat (or whatever other particularly silly display of wealth that he’s purchased for himself).

So as a creator, if I ever see the appearance of fanfic based on something I wrote, I’m going to be tickled seven different shades of pink, and then I’m going to make a down payment on a Mercedes. Because man, now I can afford it. So, please, off with the lot of you. Go write some OMW fanfic! Rather more seriously, as a creator I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to squash fanfic, because it’s essentially harmless and not a real economic danger. If I became aware that someone was selling their fanfic, I might have my lawyers slip them a note reminding them that he/she didn’t have the right to do that, and to stop. Unless it was really good, in which case I’d probably buy it and market it. Hey, video game makers hire programmers who started out making “mods” of their favorite games. So why not.

As a writer, I also have no opposition to fanfic. I understand that many writers who write fanfic have no real ambition to be writers aside from the specific fanfic they write — it’s a slightly more intellectual version of playing with dolls, and therefore its own end, and it doesn’t really matter what the quality is. For the fanfic writers who do actually want to be writers, I think there are advantages and disadvantages.

The advantages are that you’re writing in an established universe with established characters whose qualities and failings are well known to you; all you have to do is plug them into a situation and play the changes. It’s easier than coming up with something whole cloth — and therefore arguably an easy way to play with the mechanics of writing since the story comes partially built. It’s writing with training wheels.

The disadvantage is the same: You’re working in someone else’s universe, and there’s only so far you can go with that. Eventually you’re going to have to leave the safe sandbox of the Federation or the New Republic or Buffy. Since I don’t write fan fiction, I don’t know how difficult that is. There’s also the issue that since no one will buy fanfic except under extremely rare circumstances (for obvious copyright reasons), writers playing in the fanfic world deprive themselves of a necessary step in any writers’ evolution: Working with editors.

If people are writing fanfic simply for fun, I see very little harm in it, although this is not the response you’ll get from an IP lawyer. If people are writing fanfic to become better writers, they should be writing other stuff, since it’s the other stuff that will get them published. And ironically enough, once they’re published on their own, there’s a non-trivial chance they’ll be approached to do a media tie-in novel! It’s the circle of fanfic, and it moves us all.

(It’s not too late to get in your own reader request: Go here and leave the request in a comment.)

39 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2005: Creative Commons and FanFic”

  1. An announcement for U of C students: I started a Facebook group for us. I’m curious to know who you are–maybe some of us have seen each other on campus without realizing it. So join:

    For everyone else: Facebook is a website ( that is basically an interactive real-time yearbook. Anyone with a college e-mail address can access the portion of the site reserved for that college and create a profile, search for people with particular interests, or join Groups that students have started. John, I don’t usually check your comment threads, maybe other UC students don’t either. If you want, you could make a teeny announcement on the front page drawing attention to the facebook group. You know, in the service of your own fame. If you don’t feel like doing that, that’s okay.

  2. Tiny comment: slash isn’t just fanfic with sex but fanfic with homosexual sex, usually but not always involving characters whose ‘official’ sexuality is heterosexual.

    For that matter, I imagine there must be very little fanfic that doesn’t have sex in it.

  3. ‘Slash’ as a title has expanded; I’ve seen it applied as a verb to a variety of fanfics. “She’s slashing Buffy and Xander.” “It’s a slash-fest, Spock/Kirk, Janeway/Seven-of-Nine, the works.” Originally it meant lesbian or gay (regardless of the character’s canonical sexuality) but it gets applied broadly when it’s a canonically-gay character (like Willow) who’s dropped into a heterosexual relationship. Slashing Willow and Xander, the shock, the horror!

    Here ends your second mini-psa. Meanwhile, that comment about fanficcers being the methadone to a writer’s “pure sweet heroin” just cracks me up. Consider this a trackback from LJ.

  4. Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote 20 or 30 books in her Darkover series. The series also includes some “Anthologies”, which are fan fiction edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley and published, presumably by the same publisher.

    At some point she stopped accepting fan submissions, apparently there was a legal issue with the author reading fan fiction while writing additional books. The fan sites where I read this were vague, it wasn’t clear whether there was an actual plagiarism lawsuit or just the potential for one.

  5. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised. I would imagine if people did that sort of thing these days, fan would submit with the understanding that stories became entirely the property of the author; i.e., some variation of the “work for hire” thing.

  6. John — many thanks for the thoughtful response. Your observation on the missed opportunity to work with editors is particularly apt.
    I occasionally read fanfic, and unfortunately the majority is of such poor quality that the immediate response is to want to throw it across the room.
    And thanks again for your site — always a delight to see what the day’s topic is.

  7. I can’t agree that fanfic writers deprive themselves of working with editors. Professional editors in publishing houses, yes, but peer editing (beta reading) is prevalent in every fanfic community I’ve been a part of and *mandatory* in some. From the vast divide in quality between beta-read work and non-betaed work, I’d say that the quality of peer editing is generally quite good. Just a longtime fanfic reader’s thoughts.

  8. No offense to peer editors, Emily, but unless those peer editors are also professional book editors, it’s not the same thing. There is something to be said for peer editing — it’s the basis for workshopping, which many people find useful — but workshopping is one thing, and working with an editor or other pro who knows how to ready a manuscript for publication is another thing entirely.

  9. No, you’re right, it isn’t the same thing. But then again, the intent behind the editing is different, so I suppose it shouldn’t be the same. You speak in your linked entry of wanting to become a commercial writer, not a “better” writer. Fanfic authors who seek out betas and constructive criticism can only be seeking to become “better”, as one cannot market fannish work. It’s a different sort of editing for a different arena of publication–it would be of little value to you, as a commercial writer, but perhaps your editor would be of little value to a fanfic author?

  10. “It’s a different sort of editing for a different arena of publication–it would be of little value to you, as a commercial writer, but perhaps your editor would be of little value to a fanfic author?”

    Indeed — and as I noted in the entry, when writing fanfic is its own end, that’s fine (presuming some basic literay competence on the peers reviewing the fanfic). If the fanfic writer is interested in becoming a pro writer, however, he or she would benefit from work with a pro editor.

  11. Seeing DPWally’s point about Marion Zimmer Bradley brings to mind something similar. Terry Pratchett, British fantasy author, doesn’t particularly mind that fanfiction of his work exists, but he doesn’t want to read it. Not because he thinks it’ll automatically be *bad*, but because of the legal concerns. If person X has written about new thing Y, and Y then shows up in one of his later books, person X might go, “Hang about, you got that from me.”

    Marion Zimmer Bradley might have come across something similar.

  12. As I understand the situation with MZB, apparently she allowed people to post their fanfics of her work in some kind of hosted forum. One person suggested an idea to MZB, and MZB liked the idea and asked if she could use it. The idea itself, from what I’ve read, was a minimal one, and almost inconsequential to the story’s plot as a whole; MZB also thanked the fan in the acknowledgements.

    Then the book got all the way to the editor, and the fan sued for part-royalties, insisting she “owned” the idea. It was eventually settled out of court, and two things happened. One, that book was not published–though she may have poached parts of it for later works–and two, the allowance for fans to write fanfiction, and MZB’s encouragement of it, was shut down overnight.

    I know this is the reason that Whedon’s writing staff wouldn’t read BtVS fanfiction. Any chance that they did read it, and then later had a similar plot line, and it’d open the door for another greedy fanficcer to claim idea-ownership. (Two BtVS writers actually threw themselves into the fandom, reading mucho, once they moved over to AtS and were no longer risking a ‘taint’ of reading fanfic.)

    The drawback of MZB’s case being settled out of court, oddly, is that we still have no precedent on whether a fanficcer owns anything, such as the idea of the story, but not the characters or the world. Most fanficcers consider their plotline and resolution their own, but acknowledge they’re using someone else’s characters and/or world to get there. Quite a gray area, really, and sans legal precedent, still wide open for debate.

  13. While not casting aspersions on MZB, if I were to ever say to someone, “that’s a great idea, can I use it?” any such oral agreement would very quickly be followed by a legal document in which that person signed over all rights to that idea (and any derivatives thereof) to me in perpetuity in every format, across the entire universe. That is what lawyers are for, after all.

    This is why I steal only from dead people.

  14. According to the US Copyright Office, , among things that cannot be copyrighted are:

    Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration

    To my mind, this would mean that an idea, per se, is not ownable, but only the written expression of that idea. So if a fan gave an author an idea for, say, a plot twist, and the author used the idea (but not the precise language that the fan used to convey the idea) then the copyright law is firmly in the author’s court.

    In addition, I found this in the FAQ:

    Only the owner of copyright in a work has the right to prepare, or to authorize someone else to create, a new version of that work. Accordingly, you cannot claim copyright to another’s work, no matter how much you change it, unless you have the owner’s consent.

    …which would seem to imply that a fanfic writer could not claim ownership of a plot idea occuring in a pre-existing copyrighted “universe” created by the original author, in any case, since the copyright to that base setup belongs to the original author. It’s like swiping a slice from someone else’s birthday cake, then offering the birthday kid a bite and crying “thief” when they munch. Personally, although I’m certainly no expert, it seems that MZBs fanfic writer was actually in the position of borrowing the leg they couldn’t stand on, if you get my meaning.

  15. MZBs fanfic writer was actually in the position of borrowing the leg they couldn’t stand on

    Great line!

  16. Fascinating topics, both of these, and I appreciate the way you’ve intertwined them.

    If people are writing fanfic to become better writers, they should be writing other stuff, since it’s the other stuff that will get them published.

    I’ve no doubt you’re right about the latter part of this statement, for “the obvious copyright reasons”. The statement as a whole, however, suggests that you’re making some interesting assumptions about fanfic, chiefly (1) that writing fanfic won’t improve one’s writing and (2) that writing for publication will. My experience both as a writer of slash fanfic and as the kind of fanfic peer editor Emily describes above calls the former assumption into serious question: it breaks down entirely in my own direct experience (that is, my writing – both in my field and in my fandom – has improved noticeably since I began writing fanfic and betaing for others) and appears to break down anecdotally for…well, for pretty much every fanfic writer whom I know well enough to have read their back catalog, let alone those for whom I’ve been honored to beta over time.

    My experience as a reader of a great many kinds of offline-published writing – novels, genre fiction, histories, how-to manuals, nonfiction anthologies, popular magazines, scholarly journals, and so on – calls the latter assumption into equally serious question. The basic structural problems in, say, the average James Patterson thriller comprise only the most ready-to-hand example for my pre-caffeine brain. (I’m not even going to go into the pathetic prevalence – in genre fiction in particular – of egregious errors in punctuation, grammar, spelling, capitalization, and sentence structure, since I understand these to be more the province of the copyeditor and proofreader than of the editor. I don’t agree with that assignment of responsibility, but it does seem to be the custom.) Moreover, I’ve been a professional copyeditor of academic journals and books for years, stuck at the point in the editing process at which the substantive/developmental work is supposed to have been done, and based on that experience I can testify first-hand that no automatic correlation exists between quality of writing and acceptance for publication.

    (It is, of course, entirely possible that you would draw a sharp distinction between professional editing of fiction and professional editing of nonfiction. If so, I’d like to hear more about that distinction as you see it, and would be happy to submit it as a reader’s-choice topic, if you’d prefer.)

    It seems to me you’re also implying that “writing to become a better writer” necessarily translates as “writing with an eye towards becoming a published writer.” Based again on my own experience as both writer and beta and on my knowledge of others in my fandom, I feel comfortable saying that a fair number of fanfic writers have as a primary goal becoming better at writing without any interest whatsoever in offline publication, either of their fanfic or of other writing they may do. They write for the love of storytelling, for the joy of using the language, for the attention they get for what they write, out of the methadone craving you so evocatively identify above – for any one or more of a number of reasons. Would you argue that publication’s frequent absence from that list necessarily means that what such writers write cannot, by definition, be as good as what others produce with an eye on publication? If so – and leaving aside, for the moment, the existence of piles of published writing for which “good” is hardly the word – what does one make of the fact that, at least in the fandom in which I write, more than a few of the contributors are already published writers of both fiction and nonfiction? Does the act of writing fanfic simply turn off the professionally edited and published writer in their heads?

    Seconding Night Dog: the world contains an enormous and regrettable amount of prize-winningly dreadful fanfic, a good deal of which arrives on the authors’ websites to puzzlingly clarion calls of approval and acclaim. Much the same can be said for the world of offline-published writing. Neither professional editing nor the publication process in the service of which such editing is performed comprises a magic pill, ingestion of which automatically makes the writer good, or even better than other writers. At its heart, writing – for whatever end – is its own creative act, independent of external forces, be they the putative “training wheels” of fandom or the pressures and structures of being published professionally. To be good, writing must contain some germ of creativity, inspiration, passion – of life. Editing can foster that central seed, but it can’t create it where it doesn’t exist. And the seed emphatically can – and does – exist as surely in fanfic as in other kinds of writing. I can testify to that, and I’m confident I’m not alone.

    Thanks for the opportunity to think about and respond to this topic. I’m grateful.

  17. This is a great post — I found it (and its comment-thread) very interesting. Two points: (1) more than a few professional fiction editors, for fun and relaxation and a myriad of other reasons, do peer-reading for fan fiction writers (myself included); (2) one of my authors began as a fan fiction author — I read her fan fiction and loved it, and asked her to write me original stuff, and when she did, it was so good that I bought it for Tor’s list. Obviously this is not the case with all fan fiction authors, but it’s true for some, and (IMHO) bears mentioning.

  18. As I write fiction and non-fiction professionally, I can say there is indeed some variation in how the two are edited.

    Look, guys, I’m not saying there isn’t well-written fanfic or that writing fanfic can’t be useful in developing writing skills — again, as noted in the article. You’re clearly wanting acknowledgement that not all fanfic is unreadable crap, which I am cheerfully willing to grant; it’s amateur writing, but “amateur” in the sense of “doing it for the love of doing it,” not “not being good enough for professional publication.” It’s sometimes the latter, but always the former.

    What also needs to be clear is that I’m not a snob about this sort of amateur writing, or indeed any other amateur pursuit. Not everything has to be crafted with an eye toward a paycheck at the end of it. As an example, I am an amateur musican; I have no ambitions to make money off it, ever, but I enjoy making music for the sake of doing it.

    But once again, if indeed one is looking to become a professional writer, eventually one has to get out of the fanfic sandbox, because aside from any value in improving one’s work through peer review, it does not address dealing with important aspects of getting one’s self published, which includes working with editors and with addressing the needs of the market. This is the same advice I give people who do all their writing online or indeed any sort of non-pro writing — if you’re happy doing that, that’s fine, and enjoy yourselves. But if you want to be published, you need to start doing the things you need to do to be published.

    Anna Louise: Indeed, there’s no doubt that people who are writing excellent fanfic can turn about and write excellent original fiction as well — this is where (I think) the experience of working with some exisiting characters and situations allows one to improve ones’ writing skills in other directions. And of course I think it’s great you and other editors do actively look for good writers in fanfic and elsewhere — I mean, speaking from personal experience, proactive editors are good thing indeed. And if you’re giving them your pro perspective while they’re still writing fanfic, that’s all to the good. I’m a fan of editors who share their knowledge.

  19. I’d be interested to see a copy of the original complaint in the MZB suit.

    i.e., some variation of the “work for hire” thing.

    Eee, work-for-hire has a lot of very specific and picky requirements.

  20. Mythago:

    In the mainstream comic book world, at least, the two biggest companies rely predominantly on work-for-hire, and they do a lousy job of meeting the specific and picky requirements, and they routinely win in court. (They have probably improved; most WFH and WFH-type cases in comics are for work done in the 70s and earlier.)

    This demonstrates two things: the well-known proposition that the winner of an IP case is usually the party with more money, and that courts are inclined to take work-for-hire less stringently than the letter of the law.

    I would guess that an implied work-for-hire contract for fanfic/ideas that was technically deficient would still pass muster in most courts.

  21. Soni- I am a law student finishing up a semester of copyright law, and I think you’re misreading the copyright circular you’re quoting from.

    The section you quote first is there to distinguish between, say, a principle of physics, and a diagram explaining that principle of physics. The former is uncopyrightable, the latter may be copyrighted. I’ve never heard any suggestion that a particular plot twist involving particular characters would be uncopyrightable in the same sense, and I’ve seen cases to suggest the opposite. For example, if you and I jointly write a book, and I contribute only descriptions of plot while you contribute all the final writing, we have jointly created the work and will most likely end up sharing the copyright.

    As to the second quote, copyright exists only in what you create. (That’s part of why you can’t copyright the principles of physics, but you can copyright diagrams explaining them. The principles always existed, the diagrams are your creative effort.) Lets say MZB licenses me to do a fanfic. Then, MZB has copyright in everything she has created within the universe of her books, but not something created within the universe of her books by me. I own that. All that section is saying is that only the creator of something can authorize new versions of it, so if I write a fanfic of MZB’s books, I can’t authorize you to also write fanfics of her books. I could only authorize you to copy whatever it is that I own copyright to, not what she owns.

  22. “Lets say MZB licenses me to do a fanfic. Then, MZB has copyright in everything she has created within the universe of her books, but not something created within the universe of her books by me. I own that.”

    Unless it’s a work for hire. In which case, it’s kit and caboodle for MZB (or whomever).

  23. I’m fascinated by this thread – mostly because I’m one of those fanfic writers who is also professionally published in fiction and non-fiction. (my first fiction novel is due out in 2 weeks – published by a traditional press, not self-pubbed, FYI.).

    I enjoy fanfic (writing and reading) for a variety of reasons. As a writer, it creates an interesting challenge to force myself to write in someone else’s universe. Plus, hey, I’m a storyteller, I like to tell stories and have been wondering “what if” since I can remember. As a reader, I enjoy the myriad possibilities, the stories untold by the original canon.

    In my own fiction, I love the world-building and the lack of previous restrictions. I can create my own parameters. It’s a whole different kind of freedom.

    I like John’s attitude that fanfic creates fans. Many of my own readers are fanfic writers/readers that I know from various fandoms. I also think that if I ever see fan fiction in my universe, I’ll faint with excitement – it’s another version of having arrived. (Okay, maybe I’ll buy the Mercedes, too – like John. ::g::) The wholesale condemnation of fanfic writers and readers is, to me, pointless.. Let them tell your stories and buy your books. I want them to buy mine. (Not that I see that here. There was a recent thread in one of my pro writer’s lists that came to near flames.)

    I also applaud Anna Louise’s attitude. It’s refreshing to know that major houses have editors that don’t automatically dismiss fic writers as weird basement-dwelling mouth-breathers. Yay, you. Good writing is good writing, and I’ve seen some excellent examples in fan fiction. (BTW, Anna L – I think I’ve met you – at the MWA Symposium.)

    That said, as others have pointed out ::waves at Queue:: – there is a LOT of crap out there. Although fan fiction isn’t a child of the Internet, I remember reading fic stories typed on manual typewriters and reproduced on ditto paper, the Internet just made it easier for the fic writer to post his or her stories. Just like digital technology made it easier for writers to “publish” – via one of the vanity houses…no editing required. As a writer and reader, IMHO, *everyone* needs a good editor. I’ve been blessed with fabulous editors both as “beta” readers (in both fanfic and published fiction), as well as an excellent professional editor at my publishing house. They see things from a different perspective, catch plot holes, writing flaws, and much more. Good editing has helped me hone my craft.

    Somewhere, I remember reading that fan fiction is a modern version of oral storytelling. It’s our new campfire tales and Paul Bunyon stories. As such, I hope they continue, because stifling creativity is the last thing I want our society to do.

  24. If someone creates an unauthorized derivative work, they cannot copyright it.

    For example, about 10 years ago some young artist sent D.C. Comics a drawing of what he thought a future successor to Bruce Wayne as Batman would look like. D.C. said “no thanks,” but sure enough when they created Batman Beyond, it was basically this guy’s design. He sued, but dropped the suit when they threatened to countersue for his infringement of their copyright.

  25. Congratulations on the upcoming novel, Maria. That’s wonderful. And a interesting perspective on both the pro and fan writing.

    I do think there’s something to be said about playing in someone else’s universe, whether one does it in an amateur fashion via fanfic or professionally via a media tie-in novel. A lot of it is a known quantity, and I think there’s something enjoyable about taking the characters you already know you like and doing something with them.

    Mark: I don’t doubt that some Star Trek novels (and some Star Wars novels) are fanfic, in the sense that the writers are longtime fans of those universes. I would suspect, however, that in the practical terms of writing, the inspiration equations for fanfic and media tie-ins are reversed. In fanfic — I suspect — enthusiasm for the universe is more important than demonstrated pro writing skills, whereas in media tie-ins it’s more important to be a competent writer, and secondarily to have an enthusaism for the universe the story is in. Ideally, of course, you’d have someone who is both a good pro writer and a fan of the universe.

  26. I think there’s a stage of writing for both fanfiction and original fiction where the skills overlap. You’re learning to frame a story question, develop pacing, handle dialogue and description, and all those other nitpicky things you’ve got to be able to do as a writer.

    But then there’s two separate skills that are developed. Can you take characters and situations with which we’re already familiar, and breathe new life into them, so that you give us something more than what we knew before? And can you create a living, breathing world filled with three-dimensional characters people will care about?

    So if you wanted a career as a professional original novelist, I agree that fanfic wouldn’t give you the skill you needed. But it would give you the skill you needed to be a professional novelist writing for something like Wizard of the Coast’s shared world series, where the whole point is that someone else has developed the world and the plot lines, and it’s up to you to put meat on the bones.

  27. Queue: “I can testify first-hand that no automatic correlation exists between quality of writing and acceptance for publication. ”

    Having been involved with academia at various times, I can say that there is quite a bit of difference between academic writing and mainstream nonfiction. In academic journals, the science is paramount; reviewers and editors are focused on logic, experimental design, and whether the conclusions follow. They are not going to reject an Einstein level paper just because the authors have poor grammar or think that sentences are supposed to be longer than 100 words.

    Academia also has relatively low standards for writing because so many scientists/professors are so bad at it. If it takes 10 minutes to understand each paragraph, I can guarantee that they would never make it writing for the general public. But I wouldn’t say there is no correlation between writing and publication. I have seen (mainly pre-submission) papers where the writing is so bad, it’s hard to make out what is being done and what is being addressed. Such papers are either going to get rejected or have no impact on the field as no one will understand it.

  28. They have probably improved; most WFH and WFH-type cases in comics are for work done in the 70s and earlier.

    Exactly. Remember that the Copyright Act of 1976 made drastic changes to the law. 30 years is a lot of legal water under the bridge.

    That said, you’re quite right about what the law says vs. filing lawsuits, which I think it getting a little lost here–“Plaintiff X filed a lawsuit but then dropped it” does not necessarily tell you much about what the law allows you to do.

    Dropping a lawsuit may mean that X ran out of money to pay her lawyers, that she didn’t think the loss was big enough to pay the lawsuit, or that the two parties agreed to an off-the-books settlement in return for the lawsuit being dropped.

    Copyright is a subset of intellectual property; the rules for patent and trademark are different. I’m a lawyer, but I would hesitate to apply even my hobbyist’s knowledge of copyright law here to tell people what Is Legal and Is Not Legal. For that I’d recommend checking with a real-life copyright lawyer, or checking reliable sources for up-to-date info.

  29. Data point: Cassandra Claire, who wrote the famous “Very Secret Diary” parodies of the Lord of the Ring movies, and is also writing a long, more serious Harry Potter fanfic series, has just sold a YA trilogy to Simon & Schuster.

    (Oh, and fanfic often contains original characters (or turns cameo appearances into fully-developed characters), and expands or revises the setting of the source material. If you want to work such skills, there’s no reason you can’t in fanfic.)

  30. John,

    Thanks for the answer. I think authorization is the key. Otherwise it’s infringement. In that vein my current interests are in the Da Vinci Code/Daughter of God case. I’m hoping Lew wins. Interested readers can find info at Da Vinci Crock

  31. From Anna Louise:

    >>But if you want to be published, you need to start doing the things you need to do to be published.>>

    This is why I only have two fanfics posted on a popular website. First, to show my writing, warts and all (and how much I’ve improved since then I hope). And second, for the love of the genre.

    I also have a 400+ sprawling fanfic on my hard-drive that only I will ever see. I can’t DO anything with it. If I want to write to sell, it won’t be with fanfic. Not at first, anyway.

    That said, when I am fussing with my own work and am not clear on it, dropping back to play in the fanfic ALWAYS gets me going again. By working with established characters/worlds, I force myself to adhere to certain “canon” and if I can do it there, I realise that I’m being lazy in my own work and must clarify.

    Fanfic is a double-edged sword – you can like it so much you never move on. Or you can realise the growth potential and start building your own worlds.

    In building those worlds, I discovered that occasionally I can take whole scenes from the never-seen fanfic and incorporate them into the story, changing names and venue as needed to make it work. By the time I’m done the story was not recognisable as having anything to do with the fanfic world at all. Basically, I had done a re-write (something professional writers must learn to do).

    Do I still play with my fanfic? Not really. But I keep it on my harddrive and occasionally, when stumped I’ll go read. And I will recognise glaring errors, such as my comma fetish and my not-precise use of language and meaning.

    That knowledge comes from practising the craft and having knowledgable others point out my errors. Part of my learning to write is directly attributed to fanfic.

    For me, fanfic was a step towards being a storyteller. I don’t regret it at all. And like most fanfic writers, I do dream of writing just ONE STV that would get published .


  32. So here’s a question:

    When does fanfic (unauthorized and unprotected) cross the line into parody (protected under parody/freedome of speech laws)?

  33. I know this is the reason that Whedon’s writing staff wouldn’t read BtVS fanfiction.

    It’s the reason the writing staff said they didn’t read it. It’s the reason they didn’t officially read it. But somebody–I don’t remember if it was in TNH’s “Namarie Sue” or “Squick and Squee” or one of the glossies–mentioned that a couple of fanfic writers were eventually approached to write canon on the basis of their fanfic. I imagine the legal bits were handled carefully, and it had to be done with a great deal of discretion; the source I remember didn’t name the people involved. And of course that kind of thing is rare. But how can you not check out what people are doing with your baby? Who could resist the temptation? *g*

    Soni: When does fanfic (unauthorized and unprotected) cross the line into parody (protected under parody/freedome of speech laws)?

    Charles Petit discusses that in a series of posts on his blawg. (Use the Search function there; I’m pressed for time and so won’t link the posts.)

  34. Haven’t slogged through the comments, so don’t know if either of these have been addressed already:

    First, slash refers to romantic relations between characters of the same sex in fanfiction. Sometimes ‘femmslash’ is used to distinguish two girls.

    Second, fanfic writers do use editors. The more high-profile a particular story is, the more editors the author tends to use. A chapter of The Draco Trilogy, the most widely-read piece of Harry Potter fanfiction, goes through at least three editors before being released onto the internet. The difference between fanfic writers and published writers, as far as editing goes, is that it is entirely optional to the fanfic writer.

    This is an excellent essay, and I greatly enjoyed the ideas about online distribution of novels producing more profits, at least up to a certain point. And it’s always good to hear of published authors who don’t belittle fanfic authors for doing something they love. As someone who’s been in fandom for six years, it’s enormously rare and gratifying to come across sentiments like that.

  35. I understand that many writers who write fanfic have no real ambition to be writers aside from the specific fanfic they write — it’s a slightly more intellectual version of playing with dolls, and therefore its own end, and it doesn’t really matter what the quality is. For the fanfic writers who do actually want to be writers, I think there are advantages and disadvantages.

    Fanfic writers *are* already writers. Their skill or lack thereof has nothing to do with the form of writing they happen to choose, or whether they aim for eventual publication.

    I write fanfic as an avocation, for my own enjoyment and for the enjoyment of others (and, no doubt, the dismay of still others). I strive to do so as well as I can because the pursuit of excellence in art gives me pleasure–something that, as an amateur musician who has no doubt put in many hours trying to improve your craft, you should understand. I am not currently considering trying to get my fiction published because I already *have* another career. I know I’m not the only one.

    There are many historical periods in which writing for profit was considered hopelessly declasse–only art produced by amateurs, insulated from the vulgar demands of the market, could be truly great. I’m glad that your stance on fan-fiction is generally tolerant, but I think in this day and age we can move on to admit that the circumstances under which writing is produced, and the form it takes, do not determine which is “real” or “good” writing. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and that is all.

  36. Just a word on Scalzi’s argument that fan-fic can be beneficial to the sales of the original universe:

    I began reading fanfics for the ‘Teen Titans’ animated series in early 2005; at the time, I was only a casual fan of the series. In the past year, I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on comic books and DC Comics related DVDs.

    The fan fiction eased me into the universe so that I went from mostly clueless to intimately familiar with the DC Universe in less than a year, and I still find myself at the comic shop ever week. If you don’t think Fanfiction can help the sales of the ‘real’ product, thing again!

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