Attention Fanfic Authors: The Characters Don’t Belong To You

I am always amused when fanfic authors get upset when the creators and copyright holders of the characters they are writing about dare to assert their legal, creative and moral rights. A great example comes from this recent Wall Street Journal article about Amazon’s Kindle Worlds, which allows fanfic authors a platform to write, publish and sell books about characters and fictional worlds they didn’t create and don’t own.

To avoid copyright infringement, Amazon struck deals with several authors and entertainment companies. Amazon gives them a cut of royalties and the rights to use the new characters and plot lines in the fan-fiction material in exchange for licensing their intellectual property. So far, Amazon has acquired licenses for 22 fictional properties, ranging from the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, to the comic series G.I. Joe, to Alloy Entertainment’s popular teen book and TV series “Gossip Girl,” “Pretty Little Liars” and “The Vampire Diaries.” […]The move to profit from fan fiction has alarmed some writers and copyright experts who see it as a naked attempt to rob amateur writers of their intellectual property, before they have a chance to build an audience.

What irks some of these fanfic authors are the clauses in the Amazon Kindle Worlds contract that reminds them that, hey, you’re welcome to play here, but you don’t own the underlying rights, the creators and copyright holders of the characters do.

The move to profit from fan fiction has alarmed some writers and copyright experts who see it as a naked attempt to rob amateur writers of their intellectual property, before they have a chance to build an audience.

tile_315x180._V381122512_These same “experts” aren’t concerned when amateur writers nakedly rob authors of their intellectual property by writing and disseminating unauthorized fanfic based on characters and worlds the fanficcers didn’t create and don’t own. They are only concerned when the creators and rights holders have the audicity to exert their moral, artistic, and legal rights to “profit for fan fiction”:

“It feels like a land grab,” said Francesca Coppa, an English professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Penn., who writes “Sherlock,” “True Blood” and other fan fiction on the side. “Big companies are trying to insert themselves explicitly to get people who don’t know any better to sign away rights to things that might be profitable.”

No one is stopping Ms. Coppa or these writers from going out and writing their own, wholly original, legally unencumbered stories. Instead, these writers choose to write Vampire Diaries or Silo Saga fanfic instead… to utilize characters that don’t belong to them and then whine when the creators want to share in any profits that arise from the sale of those works. If there’s a “land grab” here, it’s not the creators and copyright holders who are making it… it’s the fanfic authors who think they should be able to freely use, and profit from, other people’s creations. The fanfic writers should be delighted and thrilled to have the chance through Kindle Worlds to actually sell their fanfic…instead of complaining that they can’t own the stories set in the fictional worlds that they didn’t create.

“Under the Amazon agreement, writers are giving away more rights than they would for something that is quote unquote original,” Ms. Tandy said. “Writers should be very careful that they’re comfortable giving away those rights.”

tile_vampire-diaries_3._V381288068_I love how Ms. Tandy puts quotes around original as if its a lesser form of writing than stuff based on someone else’s work…and implies that it’s unfair for the creators of original work to want their legal, creative and moral rights protected…and that fanfic authors of quote unquote unoriginal work somehow deserve greater protections. She has it all ass-backwards. Fanfic writers aren’t “giving away” more rights in this scenario, they are being granted rights they didn’t already have… to use and profit from characters they didn’t create and don’t own.

(I should mention my own novel franchise, The Dead Man, is part of Kindle Worlds and that there are presently four licensed fanfiction books based on the series, which I co-created with William Rabkin. I also wrote, as a work-for-hire writer for Penguin/Putnam, eight books based on Diagnosis Murder and fifteen books based on Monk, two TV series that I didn’t create. So I know what it means to write novels that I don’t own and, on the other side, to own a franchise licensed to Kindle Worlds.)


14 thoughts on “Attention Fanfic Authors: The Characters Don’t Belong To You”

  1. I’m waiting for them to add a Western World, but I’d use Fanfic wouldn’t worry about the creator or copyright stuff, just take advantage of the platform to perfect my writing skills, and then move onto create my own original stuff.

  2. Fan fiction is great–when you’re 12–to learn how to write. That’s what I did. I wrote my own James Bond and Man from UNCLE stories but, back in the dark ages of the ’80s, there was nowhere to display them, and I wouldn’t have done it anyway. It was always my desire to do something original, and once I started stretching my wings and having Bond, et al., do other things, and started changing the names and experimenting with different plot lines, I eventually left “other people’s stories” behind and wrote my own. That should be the only purpose of fan fiction. But in this modern era where people are owed a living and deserve success they didn’t work for, it’s probably too much to ask.

  3. As frustrating as it is to hear amateurs make complaints about Amazon that are STUPID, I am just as disgusted with the Wall Street Journal for giving them a voice. Perhaps, in a misguided attempt to be “fair and balanced,” the journalist felt the need to find the opposing viewpoint. The problem with that approach is that, when the opposing viewpoint is idiotic, you’re forced to interview idiots.


  4. “Big companies are trying to insert themselves explicitly to get people who don’t know any better to sign away rights to things that might be profitable.” ???

    I agree with Chris Wells: I don’t understand why the WSJ would give someone a forum to voice this obviously misguided viewpoint–except to point out the its invalidity.

  5. One of the things not mentioned in the article is the point that for the vast majority of fan fiction authors they understand they aren’t the copyright holder and can’t profit from the use of copyrighted material. Hence the practice of posting a disclaimer at the beginning of every chapter (usually) stating exactly that. From what I’ve seen, fanfiction typically follows a general trend. First you get the types that wanted the story to go in a different direction than the original. Then you get the writers who use the criticism (hopefully constructive) to improve their writing ability. Finally, you get the crowd of everybody and their brother that has no skill at grammar and doesn’t seek a proofreader (beta reader) before posting. But for all of their differences almost all fan fiction writers have something in common, they’re writing for their own enjoyment.
    I think though that the primary reason they’re complaining is the fact that they recognize that because their work is selling, there’s something there in the changes they’ve made that is profitable. What they don’t realize though is that without the original content as a backdrop, their story wouldn’t exist which is why they don’t have a legal leg to stand on. My opinion on it is fairly simple. The writers making money at this need to quite whining. They didn’t create Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Alex Cross or any of the other multitude of characters the creation of whom made their writers millionaires. Hone your writing skills, come up with your own idea, and make your own millions. Just, in the meantime, don’t annoy the publishers to the extent that they pull the plug on all fanfiction.

  6. When I dabbled in writing fan fiction years ago, I contributed short stories to fan magazine publications instead of write full-length novels in bound editions. I always used original characters that “existed in the established universe” of the series instead of using the established series characters because:

    a. I felt that the readers would disagree with my interpretation of the established characters and not like the stories as a result
    b. I respected what the creators of these characters did to give them dimension and scope
    c. I didn’t want to risk imitating a specific episode and treat it as “original” out of creative arrogance.

    I once proposed an idea for a collection of stories using this premise and solicited submissions for contributions from other fanfic writers in the form of a flyer/fanzine ad. I was told by several people that such a fanzine wouldn’t sell because readers would rather read stories featuring the established characters than emotionally invest in either new characters that existed in “their universe” or expanded explorations of one-shot “guest characters.

    I was once told by the creator of a British SFTV series that was on-the-air for 4 years that the main rule for writing a TV episode is to “follow the money,” basically focus the story on The Stars instead of The Guest Characters. I guess most of the fans who criticized my proposal would agree with the TV executives who established this rule. That’s probably the main reason why I stopped writing fanfic to this day.

    If something like Amazon Kindle Worlds existed at that time, I would have been intrigued enough to participate in it and I definitely wouldn’t gripe about anyone using my “original characters” in “a universe I didn’t create.” If anything, I’d be flattered and write them off as successful experiments in story writing that I would use in creating my own stories in a universe of my own making. To read the complaints of these literary also-rans reminds me of the rap artists and mixers who complained that they had to pay leasing fees for using music that was copy-written by other artist! Myopia and Ingratitude for being able to use other people’s creations for a fair fee doesn’t seem to be considered by these ingrates, I guess!

  7. I am a fanfiction writer who posts stories to the web. However, I have some semblance of a brain (I hope), and do not want to actually publish said works because some of the characters are not mine. If I really, truly wanted to publish anything, it would not contain characters and worlds already created by other people. To do such a thing is unfair to the original artists and to creativity as a whole. I completely agree that fanfiction writers who are upset by Amazon Kindle’s legal conditions are being ridiculous. While certain plot points, witty lines, and original characters are theirs, the rest was dreamed up and made by a person or group of people who worked tirelessly at perfecting every aspect of their creation. Fanfic writers must leave the rights to the original owners. They need to stop pretending like they have any creative ground to stand on when their entire works is based off of something that isn’t theirs.

  8. In a democracy, on any issue, there will be the majority opinion and the minority opinion. Both are deserving of respect. With copyright law, it was invented to protect novelists, and it was created before films and TV were invented. So, I would guess, that there is a tension between laws that were created to protect the characters and story worlds that novelists created and those created by films and TV series.

    For instance, Edgar Rice Burroughs created ‘Tarzan’ and then wrote many, many Tarzan novels. Should fanfic writers use this character? No. Why not? Because Burroughs was actively creating novel/story after story. However, should the same law apply to TV series characters when the ‘original creators’ are no longer creating stories with these characters? If 3 years goes by, and no Monk TV shows are created, why should fanfic creators pay anything to the ‘creators.’ (I question the term ‘creators’ because Monk/Natalie is an obvious copy of Holmes/Watson.)

    I can’t say I know the answer. But what I do know, is that novels are very much different from TV series. TV series are much more immediate in the public imagination than novels are. And so I think a case can be made for TV fanfic being free from the same laws that govern novels, their story worlds and their characters. It’s only my own view. But I feel that copywrite should be speeded up. And as far as ‘creators’ go, I see that they are copying the genre far more than they are ‘creating’ anything new. And so why should they ‘own’ these ‘COPIED characters’? (But it’s just a point of view.)

  9. One risk that the character owners will have to deal with is the issue of ‘naked licensing’.

    That’s a trademark issue – which basically means that if you license out your trademark to a 3rd party without doing any quality control, then a 4th party can simply take you to court to get a declaration that you’ve given up all control of the trademark, and have no further exclusive rights to it. (Yeah – I just oversimplified a bit – but it’s a very real risk for trademark holders)

    One of the difficulties with trademark is that the rights holder has a legal obligation to prevent competitors from using that ‘mark’ on their traded products. That means that they must fundamentally prevent anyone using their ‘mark’ in commerce – even if they really don’t mind.

    It isn’t like copyright where you can turn a blind eye to infringing use without losing copyright control. You are fundamentally risking a lot by letting others use your ‘mark’ on their products.

    It really surprises me with how much restraint publishers and authors are having on this issue. They really should be commended for opening the door as much as they have.

  10. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with fanfiction in general. Most of it is only written for fun and non-profit, and I’ve really enjoyed a lot of what I’ve read. Writers objecting to fanfiction seems to me like the NFL objecting to fantasy football. I think the main reasons that it’s hard to legally object to fanfiction is that it’s not for profit, and using someone else’s idea for profit is what’s really illegal and that it’s so, so widespread (a bit like slavery; you might not like it, but there’s no way to really stop it).

  11. I was totally unfamiliar with fanfic until I read how Fifty Shades of Grey started as Twilight fanfic, but the more I read about writing fanfiction, the more I wondered why someone would prefer to write about characters they hadn’t created themselves. To me, writing is about creating – creating the character, creating the plot, creating the stories.

    So I didn’t understand the fuss about Kindle Worlds or the whole discussion about having rights about writing stories about characters the writer doesn’t have the copyright about. Of course I was familiar with movie tie-in books, but I don’t see licensed movie/tv tie-ins as fanfic. I’d sooner compare it with ghostwriting, where a writer who has a way with words helps to give a non-writer a voice. Some movie tie-ins I read provided more background to the characters, and in a way could make watching the movie more enjoyable.

    It just brings home the whole issue that being a writer means more than possessing a facile way with words, but also the creative depth to conjure compelling characters out of thin air. If that sounds like I consider fanfic writers ‘second rate’, well… I do. I understand the desire to create something with characters you admire, but I won’t apologize for considering a John Rain novel written by another author than Barry Eisler, or a Jack Reacher novel written by another author than Lee Child, to be derivative and therefore not equal to the the stories created by the original author. Even when the estate of a deceased author grants a license to a writer to continue a successful series (Dune, James Bond), will still consider those books unequal to the original author’s work.

    Martyn V. Halm, author of the Amsterdam Assassin Series.

    • …the more I wondered why someone would prefer to write about characters they hadn’t created themselves. To me, writing is about creating – creating the character, creating the plot, creating the stories.

      If you’re still wondering about this (I know, it’s been two months, but you might be), I’d say: absolutely! Good fanfic – most of it is bad, just like most original fiction is bad (the key difference being, bad original fiction doesn’t often get published anywhere!) – uses the original as a starting point, directly copying as little as possible. It’s a way of exploring a beloved world beyond what the original author has written, or will ever write. J.R.R. Tolkien is never going to tell us about Gimli’s childhood (to pluck a purely random example): he’s a bit too dead for that.

      But is fanfiction equal to the original? Not a chance. Is it derivative? Absolutely – that’s the point of it. Should it be SOLD? I’ve been a fanfic writer for over a decade, and I’m emphatically against the idea of selling fanfic. That’s… not what it’s for. Nor should it be.

      (Though of course, this doesn’t speak to the quality of the writer. Eoin Colfer didn’t drop down in writing skill while he was writing the Hitchhiker’s Guide sequel ‘And Another Thing…’, then jump back up when he moved back to his own series; equally, fanfic writers can be brilliant writers, even though their work is derivative. But that’s not the same as being a published author!)


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