BY ELSBETH HYMES HANCOCK
The phenomenon of Fan Fiction has always been around in some way or other. The biggest argument in support of this is the biblical catchphrase ‘there is nothing new under the sun’, implying that we may as well just re-work what is around us and what we love, whatever the legal ramifications may be. Arguably any re-working of ancient myth — which has been so prominent in the last few years, with Hollywood films such as Hercules, Troy, etc. — could count as Fan Fiction now, just as it did for the ancient Greek playwrights. It’s a matter of definitions and perspective, but the point is that we have always wanted to imagine and daydream about our favourite heroes and heroines.
For those still confused, Fan Fiction refers to stories written by individuals based on the world and rules of other works, including their favourite characters. Hence a portrayal of Hercules as a geeky teen who ends up with his first wife (in the Disney film) is against ‘canon’ (where he actually murders her in a rage), but there is no problem with that because myth is always being adapted and we have few reservations about publishing and copyrighting multiple conflicting versions of these myths, fairy tales and older fiction. This has always been the case. But the situation changes when you are building on copyrighted story lines written by authors sensitive about their characters and intellectual property.
Modern Fan Fiction started with science fiction fans in and around the mid-1970s, particularly to do with Star Trek, and has remained popular in this realm for a long time. Now, a Google search for Twilight — or whatever your particular obsession might be — will provide you with endless alternative story lines for your favourite heroes, showing that more and more Fan Fiction is being written and published. The most prominent sites for such activities include fanfiction.net, Wattpad, and Archive of Our Own. As the names suggest, these stories are written by fans and, just like playwrights of old, they manipulate characters, romances, and story lines, changing them creatively to fit their new imagined stories. Where else could you read a Firefly/Buffy crossover, or your favourite characters finally getting together?
Beyond entertainment and community, teachers have even seen how Fan Fiction can motivate students. They have set assignments, encouraging students to write Fan Fiction as a way to learn to write and enhance creativity: read more about it here. Indeed, Hugh Howey, the author of the best-selling Silo Trilogy, wrote that writing Fan Fiction is “writing with training wheels” — and what better way to fall in love with writing than in a safe environment?
But what are the legal ramifications? It depends on the individual author. There are a few dangers for authors reading Fan Fiction, as they may be accused of plagiarism or copyright violation due to similarities between their works and works fans have already published. It is common to have an established “I never read any Fan Fiction based on my stories” for just such legal protection. Read more about that here.
Ultimately, as long as there is no monetary gain, there is nothing that can be done to stop Fan Fiction. In fact, this engagement with an author’s world can actually be beneficial to a series or brand, since it helps to keep fans interested, and can even grow their fan base. Entering into a community of others who shared in your fandom can be rewarding, and most Fan Fiction starts with some sort of disclaimer asking either not to be sued or just a simple statement that they are aware that they the characters originated with someone else.
Corporations have only just now arrived on the scene. In May of 2013, Amazon launched Kindle Worlds, which is essentially a selective, monitored and monetised version of the above websites. While contributions are significantly lower, it is a place where Fan Fiction writers can, at long last, can acquire their own copyright and profit.
The release of the book After, a piece of fiction based on the group One Direction, has thrown Fan Fiction into the mainstream once more, since 50 Shades of Grey was adapted from Twilight Fan Fiction (Masters of the Universe). So what has changed? People are still publishing Fan Fiction online by the thousands, but more and more of it is leaking into traditional publishing, with writers either shaking off their Fan Fiction origins or publishers finding raw talent and having them write something more easily copyrightable. It is becoming easier for authors to move from publishing at a Fan Fiction dedicated site to self-publishing, with some authors being scouted online without having to send manuscripts out.
Now, finally, we can ask what this means for Creative Commons. In order to be copyrightable, a work must be original and expressed in a tangible form. Does Fan Fiction count as original? It is certainly creative — but 50 Shades of Grey had to be adapted out of its original Twilight context, and After had to change the names of the band members. But originality does not necessarily mean completely new, and therefore can be similar to other works so long as there is no copying. Indeed, in the United States, fair use has been considered to apply to works of Fan Fiction in a non-profit (or educational) scenario.
Rather than rigorously guard one’s characters and stories, part of the point of writing is to be read — that is, getting your ideas out there. It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and this holds true for Fan Fiction. Hugh Howey encourages Fan Fiction within all his worlds, posting them to his own website, and he has also engaged in Kurt Vonnegut’s world via Amazon’s Kindle Worlds.
The answer is always to be more open, to allow for maximum creativity. A Creative Commons licence on an original work shows that an author is open to Fan Fiction: open to his or her fans adapting, building on and sharing the work. The financial side will always be the more difficult. For now, however, people should be encouraged to explore writing, being as creative as possible by using, adapting and recreating fiction which can then be shared and exchanged easily.
Elsbeth is a recent immigrant to New Zealand who has recently finished her PhD and continues to follow her passions of writing and travelling.