Fan Fiction

Last week I wrote about my dislike of fiction based on someone else’s fictional characters or universe.  (See WW 5-08-13 for exactly what I mean by this.)  I don’t know why, but I never anticipated that the subject of “fan fiction” would come up in response.



How do I define fan fiction and how is it different from the type of novels I discussed last week?

The biggest difference is that fan fiction is often written about works that are actively owned by someone else, rather than being in the public domain.  Sherlock Holmes is (mostly) in the public domain.  So is Jane Austen.  So is the Wizard of Oz.    Or Jane Eyre.  Even though a single unique author wrote the work, that author’s copyright has expired and the work is now open for use by the greater public.

What takes a work out of copyright?  Time.  Pretty much nothing else.  No.  It doesn’t matter if the work is no longer in print.  That doesn’t mean it’s in the public domain, any more than the fact that you’re not wearing a certain pair of shoes means that someone else can take them from your closet and wear them.

Always be careful about assuming a work is no longer protected by copyright.  Copyrights can be renewed.  Translations are copyrighted separately than the work from which they were translated.  Sometimes (as in the case of the poet Emily Dickinson), a work may be published after the author’s death and so the copyright has nothing to do with the life span of the original author, but rather with the date of first publication of the particular piece.

Fan fiction has a long tradition.  However, only recently could writers of fan fiction easily publish their work for a large audience.  Before that, availability was usually limited by the number of copies the fan author could produce.  The mimeographed fanzine was later succeeded by the photocopier, but both of these involved some expense and – in many cases – a considerable outlay for postage.

The Internet has changed all of that.  Now fan writers can publish their take on Harry Potter or Game of Thrones or whatever takes their fancy at the push of a button or two.  Moreover, instead of being available to a few hundred people, the work is available to the world.  (Available doesn’t mean read by, just available.)

Is this really publishing?  Fan writers may not think so – after all, no one has paid them for their work.  However, according to a prominent intellectual properties attorney who I consulted before writing this, yes, posting something on the Internet counts as publishing, even if no money changes hands.   Therefore, it is a violation of the original author’s copyrighted material.

I asked several writers how they felt about fan fiction based on their work.  Most said that, although they were flattered, even if they did not actively attempt to “shut down” the writer, they would just as soon not have people writing fan fiction and publishing it on the Internet.  Many stated that they do not read fan fiction based on their own works lest at some future time there be a potential conflict.

How do I feel?  Pretty much the same.  I’ve been repeatedly approached by fans of my works asking if they can write fan fiction or a script or do a comic book based on my works.  My answer is always the same…  What you do in private, to stimulate your personal creativity, is your own business.  However, if you really love my worlds and characters, please don’t attempt to profit from them, even if the only profit is a boost to your ego.

(I should note that the intellectual property attorney I consulted said that “commercial gain” can be widely interpreted by courts.  Simply driving a lot of traffic to your website can be construed as commercial gain, especially if the website or blog runs advertisements or in any way generates income for anyone at all.)

If you do think you have written a saleable screenplay or script, then talk to my agent.  Don’t show it to me.  I won’t read it.  Worse.  I really can’t read it without setting myself up for a potentially ugly situation down the road.

Ugly?  Here’s what I mean…

About the time I was starting my career, a Very Famous Science Fiction Writer (VFSFW) who shall remain nameless was sued by someone who claimed that the VFSFW had stolen his idea.  As evidence, the person bringing the suit produced a short story and a letter from the VFSFW commenting on that short story.  A jury who knew nothing about SF – including how many shared concepts there are (things like faster than light travel or space colonies or anti-gravity) decided that VFSFW had taken advantage of the poor new writer.    Damages were, reportedly, considerable.

This isn’t precisely the same situation as fan fiction.  However, fan fiction holds the potential for the same sort of situation – or even worse.  After all, the characters, setting, and even elements of plot may be the same.  So, sadly, professional writers are forced to protect themselves by walking a tightrope between awareness and ignorance.  The situation becomes even worse with trademarked material, but I’m not going into that.

Yes.  There is fair use, but fan fiction rarely stays within those very limited parameters, so I’m not going into that particular issue here, either.  Sometimes even a very limited reference to another writer’s work or setting – such as Walter Jon Williams’ reference to “Damnation Alley” in his novel Hardwired –  can make a publisher insist on permission from the original author before they will publish the work in question.

I’m not immune to the appeal of writing fan fiction.  I’ve done my share – as has almost every writer I know.  Some fan fiction is written because the writer has an idea about something the characters might have done but didn’t.   Another reason is that the fan fiction writer has come up with a story that will smooth out a perceived problem within the official story line.  Another common reason for writing fan fiction is because the series or book has ended, and the fan simply needs to fill the void.

Fan fiction can be a great way to write with “training wheels.”  (I have used this term for years and was amused when my fellow writer Steve Gould – author of Jumper and the recently published Impulse –  used it in his response to my query.)  After all, someone else has created the characters, the setting (including all the world building – a thing that looks easy until you start doing it), and may have even provided the seed for the plot.

All the fan writer has to do is come up with the rest of the plot and maybe a supporting character or two.  It’s a great way to learn.  But it’s not a great way to publish.

Works such as those based on Sherlock Holmes or the Wizard of Oz, or sequels approved by an author’s estate, or even collaborative works may give the uninformed writer the idea that anything published is up for grabs.  It isn’t.  Keep your fan fiction for  yourself and a small group of friends.  Everyone will be happier for it.

15 Responses to “Fan Fiction”

  1. Lauren Fleming Says:

    I can totally understand why authors wouldn’t like fan fiction. Completely. 100%. But as a (I’ll admit, not very avid) reader of such stories, well… it’s just awesome. I can see my favorite characters in situations that weren’t in the canon, and I can see my favorite couples that never were in canon paired together and living happily ever after. I even tried to write some fan fiction and I found it was even harder than writing my own work, because I had to keep it in character and I didn’t always know everything about the character like the author did. Doesn’t make it right, but I think it’s an interesting perspective.

  2. Alan Robson Says:

    I detest fan fiction. It is intellectually lazy in the sense that the writer has to steal the characters and the world (presumably because they lack the skill to create their own). It is insulting to the original author whose ideas have been hijacked (how dare the fan fictioneer claim to know better than the author how the story ought to proceed and what the characters should do). And 99.999% of it is so laughably inept that you wonder why they even bothered in the first place.

    And yet…

    Philip Jose Farmer made a very successful career out of fan fiction (Tarzan, Doc Savage — the whole Wold Newton thing, Oz, not to mention his “fictional author” material. Sorry, I wasn’t supposed to mention his “fictional author” material). Laurie R. King has done more with Sherlock Holmes than Conan Doyle ever did. Kim Newman breathed new life (or do I mean new undeath?) into Dracula. If you have skill and talent, it is possible to do it right.

    But mostly it’s done wrong. Mostly it’s beneath contempt. Mostly it’s just literary masturbation.


    • Sally Says:


      I’ve never written fan fiction. I’ve never even read fan fiction. However, I have to say that I think I understand why an enthusiastic reader might want to write such stories, as a way to get a little further inside a created world that speaks to some hunger inside her.

      As a writer I hope to create worlds that do just that, that draw readers in, worlds that speak to them, perhaps in ways I can’t even understand. Having done that, I think I’d feel a bit of a hypocrite if I blamed them for wanting to play in my world. (Not that anyone ever has, as far as I know.)

      That, of course, only applies to play, not publication.

    • Texas Triffid Ranch Says:

      Alan: so you’re telling me that you no longer want to see any of my “Absolutely Fabulous”/”Farscape” slashfic? Sob. And here I thought you LIKED my Edina Monsoon/Pilot erotica…

    • Alice Says:

      If you want a little irony, the fanfiction world has a culture of rabid antagonism to fanfiction of fanfiction. It’s vicious and there’s absolutely no self-awareness of the hypocrisy of it. They’ve got all the arguments in place about why it’s not okay to fanfic their fanfic, starting with how horrible it is when people pervert something they worked so hard on.

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    If we’re going to talk about Farmer, Walt Disney (that great extender of copyright) should be mentioned as one of the reasons why copyright laws keep changing. The point is that copyright law does change over time, and right now, the divide between the law and internet practice is gets pretty wide.

    I agree with Jane–trespassing works best when you leave exactly no evidence that you did it.

    • Alice Says:

      One famous author suggested that fanwriters write the fanfiction and then do a search/replace of the names. The author despises fanfiction as theft, and even compares it to sexual violation, but says that this is perfectly acceptable. I suppose that’s a form of leaving no trace. Seems much more dishonest, theft-like, and more comparable to assault than fanfiction, though.

      What’s frustrating to me about copyright law (US) is how far it has drifted from the clear purpose laid out by the Constitution. Yes, the law changes and should with the times, but I feel the Constitutional purpose and constraints are still legitimate. Limited term was there for a reason and we’ve completely abandoned both the limitation and the purpose for that limitation. I don’t buy for a second that “infinity minus a day” is a limited term. I think more than the life of the author gets into problematic territory so far as the purpose of copyright goes, since it allows people who put no artistic effort into a work to profiteer from it. Copyright is supposed to be a balance between the rights of the consumer, the rights of the person that builds on the works of others, and the rights of the original author. It was meant to encourage progress by allowing a term to earn money off a creation and then allowing a new creator to innovate from it. It was supposed to prevent an author from simply resting on his laurels without continuing to contribute to society. It was not supposed to create an endless stream of revenue. It was not intended to create wealthy estates for an author’s heirs. It was supposed to work just like patent works with inventions. Works need to reach the public domain within a reasonable time. Progress does not happen unless we can build on previous creations. But the balance no longer exists.

  4. Paul Says:

    I’ve always wondered why people write “fan-fic” when they could be spending the time on their own original creations. The answer I’ve gotten most often is that the writers are just so enamored of this or that book series or TV series that they can’t help it. That’s all right, for their own pleasure or writing exercise, but certainly not for on-line “publication” taking someone’s characters in directions they were never meant to go. That said, there were a couple of authorized paperbacks of “Star Trek” fan fiction published professionally (this was before the Star Trek books floodgates opened). I remember reading a short story in a “professional” magazine (probably a one-shot, but it was for sale on newsstands) where fan authors wrote their own sequels to the first “Star Wars” movie (I can’t imagine that Lucas didn’t file an action on that, if he saw it). On the other hand, David Gerrold took the “Star Trek” template and produced a very different novel from it (“Yesterday’s Children”) with his own spin, with which I had no problem. I guess…it all depends.

    • Alice Says:

      “I’ve always wondered why people write “fan-fic” when they could be spending the time on their own original creations.”

      And share those original stories with who? Only a small percentage of people wind up published and an even smaller percentage wind up with any kind of audience. Fanfic comes with a built in audience of people who will appreciate an amateur work from someone who put huge effort into it, but doesn’t have the capability to ever be published.

      I’m not saying that justifies it, but that’s an important aspect to understand. Others will say it’s about ego. I guess. I think it’s more accurately described as being about community. People want to connect with fellow fans. Creative people want to do that through creative endeavors and they want to share those endeavors with people that will appreciate it. Odds are, they don’t have close friends and family that will. There are numerous internet communities that will. It’s very human to want that, regardless of the moral and legal aspects. .

  5. Dominique Says:

    Hehehe. I like the photo of the fan. Clever Jane. 🙂
    While I have been tempted a few times, I have never written fan fiction. The temptation comes from what Jane described as filling a void. I wanted to encounter a particular writer’s world and characters again after they were gone.
    Also, I am curious, does time actually run out on a writer’s copyright of a novel (like The Wizard of Oz), or is this just an unwritten thing?

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      Yes, the sands of time do run on copyright. When they run out depends on where you are, but generally it’s the author’s life + 50-70 years. IOW, your grandchildren can expect to live off the fruits of your labour, but not their grandchildren

    • Heteromeles Says:

      The variation in time is due largely to Disney’s so-far successful quest to maintain the copyright on Mickey Mouse in perpetuity. Copyright used to expire much earlier than it does now.

      I’d also add that, if you want your grandchildren to profit from the fruits of your labor, you have to make explicit provisions for that in your will. Most heirs don’t have a clue what a copyright is worth, nor how to go about keeping an author’s works in print after the author has passed (and assuming there is a market for that person’s works). Neil Gaiman wrote a really useful blog post on this point. It’s several years old, but the points are still valid.

      • Alan Robson Says:

        Of course it helps to live in parts of the world that aren’t subject to American law. I can (quite legitimately) download, possess and pass on to my friends many things that you cannot. They are out of copyright here, though they remain in copyright in America.


  6. janelindskold Says:

    Great discussion!

    One of the “ghosts” asked me what I wrote fan fiction for… Well, if one leaves out those childhood daydreams where every single good book and interesting TV show gets mashed up, the one piece of fan fiction I remember writing was for the cartoon Thundercats.

    It was intended to fill in backstory about two characters and was, I think, rather good… I only showed it to two people, though.

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