Crimes of Fanfic
A couple of e-mails have come in recently — whether independently or coordinated, I can’t say — asking me if I had any comment about what seems to be a long-running kerfuffle in the Harry Potter fandom about a particular fanfic author who allegedly plagiarized other works in the construction of her own fanfic story. As evidence of this I was presented with a whole bunch of links that turned out to be really tremendously not useful because nearly all of them were like dropping in on a heated argument that had a subtext one could learn nothing about, and anyway the argument was in Albanian, so all you knew was there was a lot of yelling and shouting.
The wrinkle is this particular fanfic author is in the process of crossing over to writing original material, and I can only assume that these folks e-mailing me about the kerfuffle want to blow the lid off of this writer’s alleged previous sins before she escapes into the real world. The e-mails hinted that this was something along the line of Lori Jareo or Kaavya Viswanathan, the former being a case where someone was stupid enough to try to commercially publish their fanfic, and the latter being a case where an author put forward an original work, portions of which were plagiarized from other novels.
Well — and bear in mind that I’m working from a bunch of links and LiveJournal hissy fits that I fully admit I can’t find a coherent thread in — I’m not feeling a whole bunch of outrage here, nor frankly do I find that a) what this fanfic writer has allegedly done has any consequence outside fanfic circles, or b) that this fanfic writer needs to be punished or humiliated prior to their formal publication. This writer may or may not have plagiarized other works in their fanfic — I can’t tell at a glance, nor am I inclined to research the matter to any great length — but if they did, I’m hard-pressed to see why it matters in the larger scheme of things.
Let’s remember one fundamental thing about fanfic: Almost all of it is entirely illegal to begin with. It’s the wild and wanton misappropriation of copyrighted material (I’m sure there is fanfic that features public domain characters, just not nearly as much as there is of, say, Harry Potter fanfic). Copyright holders may choose not to see it, or may even tacitly encourage it from time to time, but the fact of the matter is that if you’re writing fanfic, you’re already doing something legally out of bounds. And, really, if you’re already wantonly violating copyright, what’s a little plagiarism to go along with it? Honestly. In for a penny, in for a pound.
I recognize this attitude probably won’t sit well with fanficcers, but this is really an “honor among thieves” sort of issue, isn’t it? If you’ve already morally justified intellectual theft so you can play with Harry and Hermione and Draco and whomever else you want to play with, I’m not entirely sure how one couldn’t also quite easily justify taking juicy chunks of other people’s text to play with as well. Think of it as the literary equivalent of a “mash-up,” if you will. Everyone seems to think The Gray Album was a perfectly fine thing to do (well, except EMI), so how is this any different? As long as it all takes place within the confines of fanfic sandbox, it’s all pretty much the same, morally and legally speaking. Out in the real world, I take plagiarism rather very seriously, but then, out in the real world, I take appropriation of copyright seriously as well. If fanficcers want me to oblige their outrage about fanfic plagiarism, I suppose I would have to ask how it is essentially more serious than the appropriation of copyrighted characters and settings, and how if I must criticize one why I am not also therefore obliged to criticize the other.
On the other portion of the issue, should what an author does within the confines of the fanfic sandbox have any effect on what happens when they start to do original fiction? I think not, personally. What happens in fanfic, stays in fanfic. I’m perfectly content to think of fanfic as a sort of free play area where anything goes and what goes on has no bearing in the real world of writing. No harm, no foul. In the case of this particular author, if the original fiction they’re working on turns out to be chock full of plagiarism, that’s another discussion entirely. But since the original fiction isn’t even out yet, there’s nothing to suggest that it is, and I don’t think it’s useful or fair to the author to make such a suggestion or implication.
I’m not a fanficcer, and while I have a generally have a very relaxed attitude toward to the concept of fanfic and find it largely beneficial to the well-being of any media property’s longevity, I’m not inclined to pretend that it’s got a legal or moral leg to stand on, either. So, at best, the response I have to people engaging in intellectual theft complaining about other people engaging in alleged intellectual theft is amusement, followed by mild confusion as to why I should care. In any event, in this particular case, I’m not in the least bit inclined to name the parties involved in this kerfuffle, or to condemn them. This is one literary crusade that will have to get along without me.