The Twitters are abuzz today about Amazon’s new “Kindle Worlds” program, in which people are allowed to write and then sell through Amazon their fan fiction for certain properties owned by Alloy Entertainment, including Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars, with more licenses expected soon. I’ve had a quick look at the program on Amazon’s site, and I have a couple of immediate thoughts on it. Be aware that these thoughts are very preliminary, i.e., I reserve the right to have possibly contradictory thoughts about the program later, when I think (and read) about it more. Also note that these are my personal thoughts and do not reflect the positions or policies of SFWA, of which I am (still but not for much longer) president.
1. The main knock on fan fiction from the rights-holders point of view — i.e., people are using their characters and situations in ways that probably violate copyright — is apparently not at all a problem here, since Alloy Entertainment is on board for allowing people to write what they want (within specific guidelines — more on that in a bit). Since that’s the case, there’s probably a technical argument here about whether this is precisely “fan fiction” or if it’s actually media tie-in writing done with intentionally low bars to participation (the true answer, I suspect, is that it’s both). Either way, if Alloy Entertainment’s on board, everything’s on the level, so why not.
2. So, on one hand it offers people who write fan fiction a chance to get paid for their writing in a way that doesn’t make the rightsholders angry, which is nice for the fan ficcers. On the other hand, as a writer, there are a number of things about the deal Amazon/Alloy are offering that raise red flags for me. Number one among these is this bit:
“We will also give the World Licensor a license to use your new elements and incorporate them into other works without further compensation to you.”
i.e., that really cool creative idea you put in your story, or that awesome new character you made? If Alloy Entertainment likes it, they can take it and use it for their own purposes without paying you — which is to say they make money off your idea, lots of money, even, and all you get is the knowledge they liked your idea.
Essentially, this means that all the work in the Kindle Worlds arena is a work for hire that Alloy (and whomever else signs on) can mine with impunity. This is a very good deal for Alloy, et al — they’re getting story ideas! Free! — and less of a good deal for the actual writers themselves. I mean, the official media tie-in writers and script writers are doing work for hire, too, but they get advances and\or at least WGA minimum scale for their work.
Another red flag:
“Amazon Publishing will acquire all rights to your new stories, including global publication rights, for the term of copyright.”
Which is to say, once Amazon has it, they have the right to do anything they want with it, including possibly using it in anthologies or selling it other languages, etc, without paying the author anything else for it, ever. Again, an excellent deal for Amazon; a less than excellent deal for the actual writer.
Note that on its page Amazon makes a show of saying that the writer owns the copyright on the original things that are copyrightable, but inasmuch as Amazon also acquires all rights for the length of the copyright and Alloy is given the right to exploit the new elements without further compensation, this show about you keeping your copyright appears to be just that: show.
The argument here could be, well, you know, people who were writing fan fiction weren’t getting paid or had rights to these characters and worlds anyway, so only getting paid for their work once is still better than what they would have gotten before. And that’s not an entirely bad argument on one level. But on another level, there’s a difference between writing fan fiction because you love the world and the characters on a personal level, and Amazon and Alloy actively exploiting that love for their corporate gain and throwing you a few coins for your trouble. So this should be an interesting argument for people to have in the real world.
3. If this sort of thing takes off, I’m interested to see what effect it will have on the media tie-in market, and on the professional writers who work in it. Obviously it has the potential to greatly shift how things are done. If you are a corporate rights holder, for example, would you bother with seeking out pro writers any more, and paying them advances and royalties and all of that business? Or would you just open up the gates to paid fan fiction, which you don’t have to pay anything for and yet still have total control over the commercial exploitation thereof? Again, this is interesting stuff to consider, and if I were a pro writer who primarily worked in media tie-in markets, I would have some real concerns.
4. This won’t spell the end of unauthorized fan fic, and I’m very sure of that. For one thing, the Kindle Worlds program says it won’t accept “pornography” which means all that slash out there will still be on the outside of the program (Edit: to note not all slash is porn, although I wonder if Amazon won’t simply default it as such); likewise crossover fan fic, so those “Vampire Diaries meet Dr Who” stories will be left out in the cold. And besides that, there will be people who a) have no interest in making money and/or b) don’t write well enough to be accepted into the Kindle Worlds program (there does seem that there will be some attempt at quality control, or at least, someone has to go through the stuff to make sure there’s nothing that’s contractually forbidden). So if this was an attempt to squash fan fic through other means, it’s doomed to failure. But I don’t suspect that’s the point.
5. Speaking as a writer, I wouldn’t do something like this; I don’t generally like writing in other people’s worlds in any event (and when I do, I go public domain — see Fuzzy Nation) and I don’t like the terms that are on offer here. And of course I have my own things to write. Likewise, I would caution anyone looking at this to be aware that overall this is not anywhere close to what I would call a good deal. Finally, on a philosophical level, I suspect this is yet another attempt in a series of long-term attempts to fundamentally change the landscape for purchasing and controlling the work of writers in such a manner that ultimately limits how writers are compensated for their work, which ultimately is not to the benefit of the writer. This will have far-reaching consequences that none of us really understand yet.
The thing that can be said for it is that it’s a better deal than you would otherwise get for writing fan fiction, i.e., no deal at all and possibly having to deal with a cranky rightsholder angry that you kids are playing in their yard. Is that enough for you? That’s on you to decide.