The hearsay on the street is that Amazon has now purchased rights to have fan fiction on its site for several television shows such as Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars. This means that a fan fiction writer could get paid for their work without risk of a copyright lawsuit.
Under copyright laws currently, fan fiction is considered plagiarism. It, in pure simplicity, takes the idea of another artist. But in most cases, no one pursues legal action against it. For one, people don’t try to profit from their stories, rather share and post them online for free. This makes it difficult to enforce copyright law, it being more of a financial concept. If you don’t like the existence of fan fiction but it’s not making any money, you’ll do best with a cease and desist letter. You don’t hear a lot of authors or publishers going after fan fiction writers because they’re not making any money, but also it would be really bad P.R.
Most big publishers discourage authors from encouraging fan fiction, however.
All works are protected under copyright, even if you have not gotten an official copyright. (You send a manuscript with a form and a fee—35 to 55 dollars—to the U.S. copyright office.) You, however, must prove with evidence that you wrote the work first and that the “theft” has taken significant parts of your piece, and sometimes even proof they had the opportunity to steal it. (How did they see the manuscript?) This is where the “Poor man’s copyright,” comes into play, in which you send a sealed envelope to yourself through the postal service, giving it a legal date and proof of its existence. However, it isn’t necessarily going to hold up in court. Another option, is to have the manuscript notarized, along with a list of any parties you sent it out to.
So why do works like Fifty Shades of Grey and the Immortal Instruments—books that the authors admitted to originating as fan fiction—get away with it?
Two possibilities: One, the copyright holders are the ones to enforce the law. They can choose who to pursue or not to pursue. If the authors/publishers aren’t bothered by fan fiction making money, you’re free to do so. (Getting written permission first can bypass the problem). Two, because the stories are completely rewritten with new plots, characters, and text, only the faintest of ideas still influenced, it crosses the line of plagiarism to inspired by. The work is still majorly the writer’s own, even if it had a foundation on someone else’s.
Copyright law is actually vague and poorly stated. Satire and spoofs are perfectly legal, meaning I could use the idea of Twilight and “make fun of it” for financial benefit. And, the burden of proof is on the copyright holder to show that it isn’t a satire, but actual plagiarism. It’s somewhat of a “I’ll know it when I see it law,” meaning that we don’t have strict, blanket definitions, but rather use context to judge each individual circumstance. Evidence that it subtracted from the original author financially is the best bet.
But the main point is that while many authors allow fan fiction of their work to exist, even cheerleading it unofficially, it exists predominantly now as just a fun pastime. Writers and publishers will sometimes license individual pieces of fan fiction to be produced into a profitable book, but having the online site of Amazon purchase rights so that its freelance writers can blitz out anything they think of… that’s a different story.
I have no moral problem with this—the copyright holder still has to agree to it, and it actually enables a little more control over having fan fiction created of your work. However, it leads to another question: If this becomes a popular tactic for Amazon and successful authors, would I license my work out?
Right now fan fiction has a more “blind eye” policy. The author of the original does not necessarily agree to it be written, but it’s not being placed side by side with its remakes. There’s not really a fan fiction section in the bookstore. It’s more like porn; hidden away from the public eye, but readily available on the internet for those who chose to look for it.
And I kind of like it that way. I admire fan fiction writers a great deal because taking other people’s ideas and maintaining continuity and a genuine sense of the original is extraordinarily difficult, especially for me. But having fan fiction come out as an official story seems to unnerve me.
In my mind, fan fiction is an inevitable response to any successful work. It doesn’t matter if you want people to reimagine your idea. In this day and age, it will happen, and trying to chase down any fan fiction writer is just bringing down wrath on a, by definition, true fan. Plus, it’s like trying to kill an infestation by squashing a few ants. You will never prevent people from doing it, unless you want to develop a reputation as the insane author with a vendetta against his own readers.
Yet there is a difference between allowing something to happen and actually giving permission. Once you actually inform a person he is allowed to do something, he begins to cross boundaries. His comfort in his permission takes away the natural subtly and caution brought by the uncertainty. It’s like, I know you’re doing it, you know I know you’re doing it, but because I haven’t exactly said it’s okay, you’re not going to push your luck. I don’t have it shoved in my face the whole time.
If blanket licensing of a title becomes standard, allowing anyone to sell any fan fiction they write through a specific third-party seller (Amazon), would you license your book?
The benefits are the same as any fan fiction. You keep people talking about you, keep them excited about your work, give your fans more joy, and now you get the added benefit of getting paid—although I doubt it is as much as it would be if you licensed individually.
On the other hand, you’ve lost control of the reputation of the source material and the saturation of the market.
Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, has always been my greatest hero. For a long time he fought with syndication for the rights not to sell Calvin and Hobbes merchandise. While he retained final say as to whether or not someone could license the right to make t-shirts, there was a great amount of pressure from those around him to do so.
His reasons he didn’t want a movie, stuff animals, mugs, backpacks, or any of the like was because he believed it would affect the reputation of the source material.
“The visual sophistication of Pixar blows me away, but I have zero interest in animating Calvin and Hobbes. If you’ve ever compared a film to a novel it’s based on, you know the novel gets bludgeoned. It’s inevitable, because different media have different strengths and needs, and when you make a movie, the movie’s needs get served. As a comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes works exactly the way I intended it to. There’s no upside for me in adapting it,” he says.
And on sequels, reboots, and other continuations… “You can’t really blame people for preferring more of what they already know and like. The trade-off, of course, is that predictability is boring. Repetition is the death of magic.”
Lastly… “Every artist learns through imitation, but I rather doubt the aim of these things is artistic development. I assume they’re either homages or satiric riffs, and are not intended to be taken too seriously as works in their own right. Otherwise I should be talking to a copyright lawyer.”
We can easily over saturate the market, making something lose its original umph. It can look mainstream, or just start to get on people’s nerves.
And then there’s the issue of continuity and what’s the “real” story. Even if fan fiction was obviously labeled as such on the cover, I could see there being a loss of control over the rules of the world if too many fans enjoyed the fan’s work as well. The writer’s careful heed of maintain the reality—many points of which are solely in the author’s head—can be destroyed by a barrage of other stories that disobey the guidelines. Hearsay alone can damage the perceived continuity—and thereby “realness” of the book.
The thought of actually giving official licensing to any fan fiction sold through a specific site is terrifying to me. I always believed in its right to exist, but I’m not sure I would be willing to give out my official approval.
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