Fan Fiction: Fun, But Potentially Dangerous

Fan fiction

Okay, today I want to talk about fan fiction. Fan fiction (or fanfic) is the practice of using the worlds and characters created by other writers in your own stories, without the approval or input of the original author. It can be a fun way to tell alternate endings, create additional characters, or expand on a completed series.

For some writers, it’s a way to hone their skills in a “safe” environment. It’s like training wheels for stories. The writer doesn’t have to do the hard work of thinking up the character’s backstory or motivations, or figuring out how the story world works. They need only build on what the original writer has already done.

And this is generally fine, as long as it’s for your own use and entertainment. The trouble comes when you post your writing online or publish it in any form.

Is fan fiction legal?

Fan fiction lives in a grey area. Not legally, mind you. The law (at least US copyright law) is very clear. The original author owns the copyright to everything he or she created. That means the world, the characters, etc. all belong to the original author. Anyone who writes anything using those creations without the express approval of the author can be sued, even if they don’t profit from the work.

In practice, however, things are muddier than that and usually come down to the author’s personal feelings on the matter. Or the extent of the use/abuse by fanfic writers.

Some authors allow writers to use their characters and worlds, as long as it’s simply for personal enjoyment and the writer makes no attempt to profit. Others place some restrictions. For example, J.K. Rowling asks that people keep their stories PG. Her series is intended for kids and she doesn’t want X-rated Harry Potter stories circulating around.

Other authors explicitly state that you cannot use their characters and worlds in your own stories, whether for personal use or not. There are a variety of reasons authors take this position.

For some, it feels like a violation. They spent the time creating these characters and it isn’t fair that someone else gets to use them. They liken it to theft. (Which, legally, it is.)

Others will call out fanfic writers for being lazy. They don’t appreciate someone co-opting their stuff because the fanfic writer can’t be bothered to come up with original material. Fair or not, some authors feel that way and have no problem labeling individuals as lazy.

Some authors come from a legal perspective. While they can’t legally stop you from writing something for your own use in your own home, if you post it online or publish it in any way, even if not for commercial gain, they can come after you for breach of copyright. For some, it’s a case of, “If I don’t defend my copyright against every violation, I’ll have no leg to stand on in the event that a major violation happens.” So they’ll track down anyone who posts even a whiff of fanfic based on their work.

It’s not personal. It’s simply the stance they have to take to prove their seriousness in defending their copyright should it ever get to court. The courts do look at whether or not the original author ever attempted to defend their copyright, so some authors err on the side of caution and defend against everything. Even if it seems like “small potatoes” to you.

Most authors that I know, even those who aren’t in favor of fanfic, won’t go quite that far. (Although don’t assume that they won’t.) Lawyers are expensive. Plus, there is a certain amount of  understanding that a fan who’s passionate enough to write stories based on your work is a true fan. Such fans are great for book sales and word of mouth marketing. However, if there is ever a hint of profit, whether you intended it or not (for example, if someone else copies your work and tries to make money off of it), you can land in legal trouble.

An author may also come after someone if they feel that their work is being devalued or damaged in some way by fanfic. For example, if you take a squeaky clean character and turn him into a drug dealing pimp, that would be problematic. The original author might feel (rightly so) that damage is being done to their brand and seek compensation.

Almost all authors, regardless of their stance on fanfic, will tell you that they will not read your fanfic or comment on it. This absolves them of any claims that they “stole” the fanfic writer’s work. They will also tell you that you should seriously be writing your own stuff. “Why waste the time on something that you can’t sell and don’t own?” is a common refrain.

Many authors list a fanfic policy on their website stating their wishes. Abide by that. If there isn’t one, you can contact the author directly and ask, or simply err on the side of caution and keep any fanfic for your personal use only.

As a writer, should you write fanfic?

That’s up to you. It does require a lot of time (all good writing does). That time might be better spent writing your own unique stories. Even if the first attempts aren’t very good, you’re still learning what makes a great story, character, and world. And if it is good, you can sell it and reap the rewards.

On the other hand, writing fanfic can be fun, particularly if you really love the original work. It can help you improve your skills. (Although, any writing will do that, so you may still be better off doing your own thing.) It can also be a lower-stress way to participate in something like NaNoWrimo. You can focus on the story without having to create all the things that go along with it.

If you want to make money, though, fanfic should not even be on your radar. If you try to profit from your stories, you could end up in serious legal trouble. Aside from the potential fines, a judgment against you could hurt your future career prospects. Publishers are leery of taking on a writer who stole another’s intellectual property.

Most publishers also won’t seriously consider fanfic as a writing credential. (No matter how many views and likes it gets.) They can’t sell it, so it’s meaningless to them. They want to know that you can create original work and see it through to the end. If an original story is online and getting lots of attention, that means more to them than any fanfic.

So while fanfic may help you hone your writing skills, it won’t do much for your career as a writer. If you’re serious about being published, your time is better spent on original work.

As an author, should you allow fan fiction based on your work?

The short answer is, it’s up to you and your comfort level.

If you feel like you can handle the consequences or potential brand damage, then it may be worth it to you to allow it. Or to allow it with restrictions. If you don’t want to be the person who drops the hammer on your most ardent fans, it may be possible to work with your fan community to set certain parameters for what’s allowed. Be very clear on what’s allowed and what’s not, and the potential consequences for disobeying your wishes.

However, if you feel like you’d rather defend against all threats, then that’s your prerogative, too. Just be sure to be fair when dispensing justice. If you don’t want to allow fanfic at all, that should go for all fanfic, not just the stuff you don’t like.

Regardless of your feelings on fanfic, you should make a clear statement about your preferences either way. Put a section on your website stating your wishes. That way, if something happens that violates your desires, you have the legal high ground. (Or at least the, “I told you so,” ground.)

Use Your Words

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