Marion Zimmer Bradley Fanfiction Controversy
|Event:||Marion Zimmer Bradley and a story in the zine Moon Phases|
|Name(s):||Marion Zimmer Bradley|
|Type:||urban legend, fanfic controversy, creator's rights, profic|
|Click here for related articles on Fanlore.|
Beyond her well-known writing career, Marion Zimmer Bradley (often called MZB) is famous in fandom as the central figure in a controversy over fanfiction which supposedly made it impossible for her to publish one of her own novels. The story is told often and in widely varying forms throughout fandom and among professional authors. It's frequently cited by authors who object to fanfiction to one degree or another, or as evidence that professional authors should avoid reading fanfic based on their published works, to a degree that approaches "urban legend" status. The details in popular accounts vary widely, involving alleged threats of lawsuits on both sides and estimates of the amount of material lost ranging from incomplete notes to "four years of work".
There is no evidence of the fanfiction writer suing the author in this case.
- For another event involving fanfiction and the Bradley Trust see: Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Works Trust and Unauthorized Fanworks.
Before the Controversy
Marion Zimmer Bradley had been writing professionally since the early 1950s.
Her first Darkover novel appeared in 1958. In the 1970s, Bradley wrote several stories for Star Trek and Tolkien fanzines. According to Jacqueline Lichtenberg, she was asked by Gene Roddenberry to write a script for Star Trek and turned him down. She also edited the fanzines Mezrab and Astra's Tower.
She was actively aware of and participated in the fandom arising from her Darkover stories and novels. After recieving a fan story, Darkover Summer Snow by Eileen Ledbetter, Bradley was inspired to create her own fanzine, Starstone which was first published in 1978. "It is interesting to note that "Darkover Summer Snow" was the first amateur story about Darkover. When Marion Zimmer Bradley received it, she was so impressed that she decided to establish Starstone, the first Darkover fanzine." 
Bradley also gave specific approval to several zines, including Moon Phases, and implicit acceptance to others. In 1982, she edited the Darkover fanzine Bitter Honeymoon and Other Stories: The Amorous Adventures of Dyan Ardais.Bradley also actively encouraged fan writers to write Darkover and other fan fiction in her universes, a topic that came up early on, and to some, worrisome: In an undated Darkover Newsletter (issued between January and May of 1978), a fan writes a con report about Boskone and describes how a fan approached her, and several others, and instigated a lengthy discussion about the inherent problems regarding Marion Zimmer Bradley's heavy involvement in Darkover fandom. While the account below was written for publication in the newsletter, it is specifically addressed to MZB and to Jacqueline Lichtenberg. It provides much foreshadowing to the events that would occur fourteen years later:
Marion Zimmer Bradley responded in the same newsletter:[Name redacted]... wondered about the problems involved when pro writers allow (and even encourage) fans to write fiction in their universes. We all floundered around in this discussion because none of us understand copyright law, and because we consider this a potentially sensitive subject... [Name redacted] wondered why you as pros encourage fans to write Darkover and Sims fiction. We said (1) to make us happy and allow us the egoboo of getting published (2) to collect ideas on what interests us, for possible future work, thus allowing us to contribute to your work. We said you did much of the fanzine [referring to Starstone] yourselves, because fans were going to write fan fiction anyway, and this way they can do it officially and legally. You aren't just out for egoboo or professional or personal self-aggrandizement. (And, what the heck, if this publicity manages to help win a Hugo for you, well, your influence on the sf field can only be good.)... [Name redacted] is particularly concerned that fan writers might get hurt feelings if one of you takes one of our ideas and uses it professional. We said, 'No, we'd be pleased,' and besides we trust you. Hopefully, we all manage to trust each other, and we fans get to feel part of a living universe. But I still thinks she feels that this would be unfair to us, that you would be using us, albeit with our very willing consent. I said certainly, you're 'using' us, and we 'use' the opportunities you provide, and everybody's happy... [Name redacted] also worried about the possibility of YOU getting hurt, at least in reputation, if some encouraged fan writes a story or zine in your universe and proceeds to get it copyrighted themselves, perhaps leading to legal hassles. All we could say is, we have to trust each other. 
After Darkover became popular both from Bradley's published books and among fanwriters, Bradley began to accept submissions from fan and professional authors for a series of Darkover anthologies published by DAW, beginning with The Keeper's Price (1980). It was in the author's foreward for "The Keeper's Price" that Bradley stated her own disapproval with authors who sought to suppress fan fiction set in the worlds they had created, as well as why she enjoyed writing alongside fans in Darkover:... While I can't speak for Jacqueline, I participate in Darkover fandom because it is FUN. I would be writing non-publishable peripheral Darkover stories for my own amusement, and publishing fanzines about something or other... where does it say I have to be professional all the time. I am a fan. I think [name redacted] argument stems from a fear that Jacqueline and I will exploit young writers using their ideas in our professional work, ideas which they, themselves, might later make use of in their own private world... I have encouraged young writers to speak in their own voice -- one of the first things I ever wrote to Jacqueline was that she would never do anything worth doing, professionally, until she got out of Roddenberry's Star Trek universe and started creating her own. And of course, this ties in with the fannish question I get very tired of hearing... 'Where do you get your ideas? As if ideas were a precious commodity, so scarce that I would be reduced to stealing them... I can get a couple of thousand story ideas between breakfast and dinner, and very few of them will I ever have time to write... So why should I snitch any of the fannish ideas about what happens in the Starstone world (which I, frankly, regard as a 'parallel world' to Darkover, not MY Darkover, not quite.) Now, I suppose if I were sick, or exhausted, or overworked, or had writer's block, and happened to come across a fannish story with the gem of a good idea it in, I might write the kid and say, 'Hey, I like that idea, and you probably don't have the skill to make a novel out of it. I'll give you (say) twenty bucks for the idea.' And if the kid should say, 'Hey, wow, I'm flattered, use it for nothing,' I would still say, 'No, I want you to sell it to me, so that you kick if I do something completely different than you want to, or so you won't later think I ripped you off, when you get older.' On the contrary, if the kid says, 'I want to use it in my own private world some day for a story of my own,' then I would just have to start with that idea and work on it till its own author would never know I began there... Mostly I let other people write about Darkover because it is so much fun to read a new Darkover story without having to sit down and slog through the writing of it! I don't need to borrow ideas. After all, I KNOW what really happened... and yes, it's egoboo, but it's not just an ego trip. I'm just sharing, I think. I don't have as much time to write Darkover stories as I'd like to. I have to do other books that pay me more. So I like to think somebody's keeping it warm for me when I'm not there. 
…by reading the Darkover short stories written by my young fans, and sometimes criticizing them and trying to explain just what is wrong with them, I have somehow learned to write short stories myself and been encouraged to try my hand at this best and subtlest of fictional forms. The four stories in this volume are, I think, among the best of my short stories, and they were written because, after seeing the kind of mistakes I could recognize in other people’s stories, I could learn to avoid them in my own writing. So that I have learned as much from my fans as I hope they have learned from me about the art of writing.
Some critics have been disturbed about the possibility that I might exploit my young fans, or steal their ideas, or use their work in future novels. No, except that everything I read finds its way into my subconscious, there to undergo a sea-change which alters raw ideas into fiction. But this is just as likely to happen with a story by roger Zelanzy – or Daphne du Maurier – or Agatha Christie – or Pearl S. Buck.
Of course I get ideas from my young fans, just as I give them ideas. But as for stealing their ideas – I have quite enough ideas of my own. If their ideas find lodgment in my head, it is in the same way that I “got the idea” for my novel Planet Savers by reading a classic study of a multiple personality, as an assignment in my psychology class; or that I might get an idea from National Geographic or Scientific American, which are magazines in which I browse when temporarily short of inspiration…
This is why I don’t mind other writers writing about Darkover, and at the same time, I have no wish and no need to exploit their ideas. If I ever do make use of a fan’s writing, it will be so altered and transmuted by its trip through my own personal dream-space that even the inventor would never recognize her idea, so alien it would be when I got through with it!
Nor do I feel threatened by stories not consistent with my own personal view of Darkover. To me all Darkover stories written by anyone else are presumed to be in a parallel world to “my” Darkover; or one of the parallel universes, which can be very close to my Darkover, or very different, just as the young writer wishes.
Because, in a very real sense, I regard myself not as the “inventor” of Darkover, but its discoverer. I others wish to play in my fantasy world, who am I to slam its gates and in churlish voice demand that they build their own? If they are capable of it, they will do someday. Meanwhile, if they wish to write of Darkover, they will. All the selfish exclusiveness of the Conan Doyle estate (which went so far as to demand that the late Ellery Queen anthology, ‘The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes’, a very fine volume of Holmes pastiches, be withdrawn from sale and never reprinted, thus denying Holmes lovers a wonderful reading experience) as not stopped lovers of Sherlock from writing their own stories and secretly sharing them. Why should I deny myself the pleasure of seeing these young writers learning to their thing by , for a little while, doing my things with me?Or, look at it this way. When I was a little kid, I was a great lover of ‘pretend’ games, but after I was nine or ten, I could never get anyone to play them with me. And now I have a lot fo fans, and friends, who will come into my magic garden and play the old ‘pretend games’ with me. 
Ghostwriters and Collaborators
In 1989, Bradley's health failed; it's widely believed both among fans and sf/f industry professionals that after that date, most or all of the books published under her name were either collaborations or entirely ghostwritten by other individuals. Some sources assert that Bradley was entirely unable to write after 1989. Evidence for this belief varies widely where specific works are concerned, sometimes amounting to little more than rumor & speculation, while in other instances collaborators received cover credits or other acknowledgement. In the case of at least one series, the copyrights were later reassigned to the second author. An interview with Rosemary Edghill mentions Bradley's health issues and describes the process Edghill followed as one such collaborator. One fan speculated:
But easily the biggest problem, that starts to unravel the whole thing - MZB had a stroke on October 30, 1989, and continued to suffer from heart congestion and more strokes for the rest of her life. This and future strokes (and perhaps a previous stroke in 1987, but most sources peg the 1989 one as the significant one) left her with significant cognitive impairments. Every single book ostensibly written by her after that point was at most, co-written, and, judging by the words of at least one ostensible co-writer, MZB's input didn't extend too much farther than her name and approval.  Even the most adoring co-writer only talked a lot about MZB's ideas and inspiration, but didn't say a word about the actual text itself.  The last book that was probably mostly written by MZB was published in 1989, 3 years before all this happened. No matter what else happened, whoever's book might have been scuttled by the fan's lack of cooperation - it was almost certainly not hers.
So...who were these ghostwriters? Well, MZB's inner circle. She'd dedicated herself to mentoring new and upcoming writers for a long time. MZB was honestly, in my opinion, a better editor than writer, and she had three major venues where she picked up new authors to mentor: her Fantasy magazine, the Sword and Sorceress anthologies, and Darkover fanfic, both the official anthologies and fanzines. As such, there were a lot of authors who got their first publishing credit from MZB and who she continued to mentor and encourage and some of whom were, presumably, willing to keep churning out novels for her with a minimum of credit in her time of need. With the severity of her health problems, I can't imagine that money didn't become a rather pressing matter. And so, at some point the decision must have been made to continue her series via ghostwriters, to keep the money flowing in.
The three who seem to have been most deeply involved early on were Elisabeth Waters, her secretary and housemate who dabbled in writing but mostly seems to have been the one who took over the anthologies (to whatever extent they might have been taken over, since the state of her ability to edit is less clear than her ability to write), Mercedes Lackey, MZB's prize student and who's generally the one I've seen talk most about this case in public, and Diana Paxson, MZB's sister in law who was the one who took over ghostwriting the most potentially profitable of MZB's potential series, Mists of Avalon. Keep in mind, though, these are only the names which come up most often, and the person most responsible could've easily been someone else all together.
Between her stroke and the incident, things were pretty slow. They'd kept up the anthologies well enough, with a new S&S and Darkover fanfic anthology coming out on average once a year. Black Trillium had been co-written with Andre Norton and Julian May, which judging by the timeline, could've been either mostly completed before her stroke or mostly written by Julian May with input from the other two (or both). The Forest House by Diana Paxson and Rediscovery by Mercedes Lackey, the first of the real ghostwritten novels, would've been in the pipeline, considering they were published only a year later in 1993, but that was all. Probably, that's where the four years worth of work idea came from - that's the duration of the gap between the last book and the first ghost-written book. During this lull where they were just beginning to experiment with ghost writing, the zine with the novel that would become the fanfic at the center of all this seems to have been published. I can't dig up the date anywhere, unfortunately. There might've been a free copy sent to MZB, there might not have. I'm inclined to say there was, if only because MZB did encourage fanfiction and so I'd be surprised if she didn't get a free copy of most zines that published her fanfic, and that particular zine had had material by her run in it in the past. Either way, one of them saw it, and obviously liked it enough to send the letter that started the whole mess.I want to be very clear here - it was not a coincidentally similar idea. Period. It was an idea that one of MZB's ghostwriters thought was awesome and wanted permission to use , and was willing to pay $500 for the free and clear right to do so. Mercedes Lackey herself mentions that fact.  , and that it wasn't the first time MZB had done such a thing. In fact, Elisabeth Waters had apparently become acquainted with MZB when MZB rewrote her story into the title story for one of the Darkover anthologies. 
The belief that Bradley was using uncredited and/or unacknowledged collaborators during this period is likely to have influenced fan and industry opinions regarding the subsequent controversy over Bradley's "lost" novel. (If the most extreme accounts are correct -- that Bradley couldn't write at all after 1989, and that abandoning the novel cost "four years of work" -- then it follows that the lost work must have been a ghostwriter's. This is, however, a big "if".)
It was during this period that the famous fanfiction controversy occurred.
The Controversy -- The Tipping Point
The main controversy focused on a story by Jean Lamb titled Masks, published in Moon Phases #12 which was issued July 1991, and a prospective novel titled Contraband ascribed to Bradley. Both works are said to have focused on the character of Regis Hastur. Bradley had read Masks, and wrote to Lamb sometime before September 1992, offering a payment of $500 and acknowledgment in exchange for the use of Lamb's material in Bradley's work-in-progress. Lamb tried to negotiate different terms, but the parties were unable to reach an agreement. Contraband was never published.
Points of Agreement
Sources -- including Bradley herself -- agree that Bradley had in fact read Masks: "one of the fans [Lamb] wrote a story, using my world and my characters, that overlapped the setting I was using for my next Darkover novel. Since she had sent me a copy of her fanzine, and I had read it,..." It's also generally agreed that Bradley's initial offer to Lamb involved money and an acknowledgment or dedication in what would have been Contraband had the book been published. According to Moon Phases editor Nina Boal: "Marion did offer Jean a special dedication and also $500. Jean refused this, saying that she wanted a byline for the novel." 
It's at this point that accounts begin to vary. Lamb's own statement is that: "I received a letter offering me a sum and a dedication for all rights to the text. I attempted at that point to _very politely_ negotiate a better deal." Mercedes Lackey, widely regarded as a member of Bradley's 'inner circle' at the time, frames the offer in slightly different terms, saying that Bradley "liked the 'take' a particular fan author had on the situations and asked to use that spin on things for her book in return for the usual acknowledgement in the front of the book."
The different phrasing makes it unclear whether Bradley (or a hypothetical collaborator/editor) wanted to incorporate text from Masks directly into Contraband, or merely to draw on material from Lamb's work as back story/reference material in shaping her own narrative.
Lawyers & Legalese
Accounts of the negotiations between Bradley and Lamb are vague as to who may have first retained legal counsel (and for what reason). Bradley, again in the Writers' Digest letter, mentions "the cost of inconvenience of having a lawyer deal with this matter". She also writes several times of her lawyer's involvement in the Darkover Newsletter #58 that was published in September 1992.
Lamb's account insists that she didn't initiate a conflict, at least not on receipt of Bradley's offer: "I did not threaten any sort of suit whatsoever; in fact, a few months later I received a letter from Ms. Bradley's lawyer threatening me with a suit should I be a bit too frank about Ms. Bradley's um, writing methods," This is contradicted by a statement Ann Sharp made to a fan who'd asked if Bradley had read the Darkover poem he'd sent to her. "You may not be aware that, as a result of an unfortunate incident two years ago, complete with threatened legal action, Bradley has had to forego the pleasure of reading fan material."  Nina Boal also states that "Jean also became convinced (erroneously) that Marion intended to plagerize (sic) from her fan-written work about Danvan Hastur", and Robert Frieling's 2003 report quotes a representative of Bradley's estate to the effect that "the fan threatened to sue".
It's unclear, however, at what point or to what purpose Lamb may have sought legal representation -- and it's interesting to note that the alleged threat Lamb received from Bradley's counsel doesn't appear to involve a copyright action (or, indeed, to involve Masks directly at all).Diann Partridge commented on the legal fallout with respect to other Darkover authors:
- Then the lawyers got into it and that year everyone who got accepted got a big long contract to sign,  instead of the short one we'd always gotten before. and after that they refused to let Bradley do the pro anthologies anymore for fear she'd be sued by some fan writer who accused her of using one of their ideas.
Bradley's Letter to the Darkover Newsletter"Holes in My Yard," a letter by Bradley to the Darkover Newsletter #58 signals the end of Marion Zimmer Bradley's involvement with fanfiction. The letter was published in Septemer 1992:
There is a note included after this letter:
- "I've finished 'Rediscovery' and 'Return to Darkover'... My next project was going to be 'Contraband,' the novel about Dyan Ardais I mentioned in the introduction to Elisabeth Water's story 'A Proper Escort' in 'Renunciates of Darkover.' Unfortunately, my decades of encouraging young writers and allowing fans to 'play in my yard' just caught up to me. Somebody had written a fan novel covering the same time period, and I had read it. It used my characters, sometimes in ways I wouldn't have, but it also contained a few ideas I liked, so I offered the author a reasonable sum of money (about one sixth of what she would have received as the advance of a first novel) and an acknowledgment in the dedication for incorporating those ideas (not her writing) into my book. I offered this even though ideas cannot be copyrighted, because I have never believed in taking advantage of my fans. She wrote back saying that, while she could live with the monetary compensation Id offered, what she wanted was a shared byline. It might be that she thought I was asking to collaborate with her, although I cannot imagine what in my letter could have possibly given her that impression... This was essentially the same deal I made with Jacqueline Lichtenberg on 'Thendara House.' but unfortunately this person still did not seem willing to accept the deal. I talked to... my editor at DAW Books, who says the only person she would agree to have me share a byline on a Darkover novel with is Mercedes Lackey, who has collaborated with me on my last two Darkover novels, and is the writer to whom I am leaving the series when I am no longer able to write it. [My editor] also says that, under the circumstances, DAW cannot publish 'Contraband.' She was kind enough to refrain from pointing out that I had been an idiot to read fan fiction set in my world without a legal release form. I have, however, agreed to refrain from such behavior in the future. From now on, the only Darkover material I will read is anthology submissions accompanied by the proper release form. If you publish a Darkover fanzine, run an APA etc., do NOT send me copies. They will be returned unread by my office staff. (Instead, send any courtesy copies you would have previously sent to me directly to [address for the Mugar Library in Boston]. This is the depository for the 'Marion Zimmer Bradley Collection, and your work will contribute to making the collection more complete.) I'm sorry that things have come to this. I never wanted to have to keep a "professional distance" from my fans, and for more than twenty years I didn't need to. But I guess even the longest streak of good luck runs out eventually, and sometimes one bad apple does spoil the whole barrel. I regret having to give up a novel that I had already started work on, and I apologize to all of you who wanted to read it." --Signed, Marion Zimmer Bradley.
"The fate of the Darkover fanzines, and of stories Marion Zimmer Bradley does not buy for the anthologies, is still being researched by Mrs. Bradley's lawyer. The person who started this problem has received a cease-and-desist order from Mrs. Bradley's lawyer. If she continues to distribute her Darkover material or writes any further Darkover material, there will be serious legal consequences, both for her and any fanzine or APA editors who may publish her material. We will keep readers abreast of further developments." -- Signed, Ann Sharp (editor of the newsletter).
Who Spiked The Novel?
Sources disagree as to who made the decision not to publish Contraband. The March 1993 Writers' Digest letter quotes Bradley as follows: "my publisher will not publish my novel set during that time period, and I am now out several years’ work." Bradley writes in Darkover Newsletter about her planned works and for the first time in the newsletter mentions "Contraband.": "The third Darkover novel, waiting in the wings as it were, is called Contraband. At present all I know about this one is that it covers the events in "Heritage," mentioned between Regis and Danilo; and is about Rafael Hastur and Rafael Syritis. No other details yet."  By contrast, a 2003 report from Robert Frieling cites correspondence from Bradley's estate to the effect that: "Contraband will not be published. Not enough of it was written down for anyone to finish it. Mrs. Bradley was still in the plotting stages...so she went on to something else and never wrote any more of it." However, novelist Jim C. Hines reports in 2010 that "I’ve also spoken to Betsy Wollheim at DAW, who states that this was Bradley’s decision, not DAW’s".
This puts the sources into direct conflict, and one that seems unlikely to be resolved.
Investigations & Analysis
Catherine Coker wrote a symposium article about the incident for Transformative Works and Cultures Vol 6 (2011). The article claims (without giving evidence) that Lamb threatened to sue Bradley, but offers some interesting reactions to the fallout and quotes from an email by Lamb that is consistent with other accounts on this page.
- Queen's Own, Mercedes Lackey newsletter, December 1992, accessed 5.29.2011
- Writing Guidelines sent by Ann Sharp to a fan, posted 5.13.2003 (archived link) and the same letter, posted 1.18.2003, accessed 6.7.2011
- a statement by Jean Lamb in 2001, accessed 6.26.2011
- from Mercedes Lackey written in 2006, accessed 6.26.2011
- in which Elisabeth Waters talks of her collaborations with Bradley, written in 2008, accessed June 26,2011
- Rethinking the MZB case, posted May 12, 2010, accessed June 12, 2013 
- one telling of the tale, posted May 16, 2010, accessed June 26, 2011
- La controverse Marion Zimmer Bradley - a French summary and translation of the controversy
- "Beyond Bounds: Intergenerational Relationships in Science Fiction and Fantasy" by Linda Frankel, 2007
- from Darkover Newsletter #11
- from Darkover Newsletter #11
- Bradley, "The Keeper's Price 7" New York, DAW books, 1980, page 14
- Interview with Rosemary Edghill/reference link, accessed May 27, 2010
- Interview with Rosemary Edghill/reference link, accessed May 27, 2010
- Darkover, Deborah J. Ross/reference link
- Re: Marion Zimmer Bradley Newsletter: Darkover Anthology Stories (was Re: Digest Number 215)/reference link, posted October 12, 2004, accessed June 11, 2013
- Making Light/reference link, posted April 26, 2006, accessed June 11, 2013
- Rethinking the MZB case/reference link, posted May 12, 2010, accessed June 12, 2013
- Re: The infamous Marion Zimmer Bradley case. March 19, 2001 post by Jean Lamb to rec.arts.sf.written. Accessed September 30, 2008.
- The infamous Marion Zimmer Bradley case, 19 March 2001.
- Writers Digest, March 1993.
- Re: Contraband. July 19, 2003 post by Nina Boal to mzb_newsletter on Yahoo! Groups. Accessed September 30, 2008; WebCite and WebCite.
- “Fanfic”: force of nature, 26 April 2006; WebCite.
- from Darkover Newsletter # 66 (September 1994)
- Re: Contraband. July 17, 2003 post by Robert Frieling to mzb_newsletter on Yahoo! Groups. Accessed September 30, 2008; WebCite.
- this two-page contract can be seen in Darkover Newsletter #58, see that page on Fanlore
- Re: [Marion Zimmer Bradley Newsletter]: Darkover Anthology Stories (was Re: Digest Number 215). October 12, 2004 post by Diann Partridge to mzb_newsletter on Yahoo! Groups. Accessed September 30, 2008; WebCite.
- from Darkover Newsletter #48 (March 1990)
- Jim C. Hines: Marion Zimmer Bradley vs. Fanfiction Accessed May 26, 2010; WebCite.
- WebCite for Fanworks.org's Bradley page, accessed February 17, 2012.
- Catherine Coker. The Contraband Incident: The strange case of Marion Zimmer Bradley, in Transformative Works and Cultures, Vol 6 (2011). (Accessed 15 March 2011)
- WebCite for Queen's Own, Mercedes Lackey newsletter, December 1992, accessed February 17, 2012.
- WebCite for Ann Sharp's Writing Guidelines, accessed February 17, 2012.
- WebCite for Mercedes Lackey's comments written in 2006, accessed February 17, 2012.
- WebCite for Elisabeth Waters 2008 Interview,accessed February 17, 2012.
- reference link
- WebCite for opusculus blog entry, accessed February 17, 2012.
- WebCite for La controverse Marion Zimmer Bradley, accessed February 17, 2012.