“Fanfic”: force of nature

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Title: “Fanfic”: force of nature
Creator: technically by Teresa Nielsen Hayden but reposted by her husband Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Date(s): April 25, 2006
External Links: “Fanfic”: force of nature; WebCite
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"Fanfic”: force of nature is a short 2006 essay.

It is technically by Teresa Nielsen Hayden but reposted by her husband Patrick Nielsen Hayden.

The origin of this essay were originally posted to Annals of short-lived phenomena: Star Wars fanfic on Amazon, which was a comment regarding the for-profit Star Wars fan novel Another Hope.

There are almost 900 comments to this post/essay.

Some Topics Discussed in the Essay, and Comments

The Essay

Teresa says what needs to be said about “fanfic,” but buries it in the comments here. She can’t possibly promote it to the front page. Fortunately, I have no such compunctions.

Storytelling is basic to our species. It’s one of the ways we parse our experience of the universe. Whatever moves us or matters to us will show up in the stories we tell, whether or not we have a socially approved outlet for those stories. It might surprise you to find out how many writers have works of personal erotica tucked away in their unpublished-or-unpublishable manuscript trunks. There’s no good way to get those published, but they write them anyway, because they’re writers, and eroticism is an important part of our lives.
Good fiction gets under our skin. It can change the way we see the world. But whatever its effect, it’s a significant experience. It would be a bizarre thing—unnatural, even—for writers to not engage with that experience. They always have. I could show you stuff centuries old—heck, some of it’s millennia old—that’s fanfic by any modern definition.
Of course, it would have to be a modern definition. In a purely literary sense, fanfic doesn’t exist. There is only fiction. Fanfic is a legal category created by the modern system of trademarks and copyrights. Putting that label on a work of fiction says nothing about its quality, its creativity, or the intent of the writer who created it.
The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year went to March, a novel by Geraldine Brooks, published by Viking. It’s a re-imagining of the life of the father of the four March girls in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Can you see a particle of difference between that and a work of declared fanfiction? I can’t. I can only see two differences: first, Louisa May Alcott is out of copyright; and second, Louisa May Alcott, Geraldine Brooks, and Viking are dreadfully respectable.
I’m just a tad cynical about authors who rage against fanfic. Their own work may be original to them, but even if their writing is so outre that it’s barely readable, they’ll still be using tropes and techniques and conventions they picked up from other writers. We have a system that counts some borrowings as legitimate, others as illegitimate. They stick with the legit sort, but they’re still writing out of and into the shared web of literature. They’re not so different as all that.
Fanfic means someone cares about what you wrote.
Personally, I’m convinced that the legends of the Holy Grail are fanfic about the Eucharist.
This really is a basic impulse.

Addendum [Patrick's?]:

In the comment thread, WillA posts in response to “Their own work may be original to them, but even if their writing is so outre that it’s barely readable, they’ll still be using tropes and techniques and conventions they picked up from other writers”:

I’ve got a joke to back up this particular point:

There was once a conjurer who boasted that he had become god-like. One god happened to overhear, and challenged him to a contest. “Can you do this?” the god asked, scooping up a handful of dirt and making it into a bird. They watched the bird fly away.

“Sure,” said the conjure-man, and reached down for a handful of raw material.

“Hey,” said god. “Use your own dirt.”

Props to any writer who can make a story fly. None of us use our own dirt.

General Comments

NOTE: The comments on this blog are not threaded, meaning they were simply added in the order they were posted. This means that conversations are somewhat disjointed as fans were responding to comments by other fans further up.

[Alice]: To echo Jane, fanfic is all fine and good, except when it isn't. Fanfic as a modern phenomena is more than mimeographed sheets shared with people in the neighborhood. Because of today's ease of distribution, it's everywhere, and it dilutes what the creator of the original work has done.

I do understand that copying is the sincerest form of flattery. It's also fundamental: it's how we've evolved. But copyright was invented because copying became easier and easier, and copyright preserved the value of what the creator made for the creator, to encourage more people to invest in what is already a not very lucrative field (for the majority of non-Lucases of the world).

Yes, all writing cribs from previous sources. I also agree that modern changes to copyright laws have put a lock on the growth of the public domain that has been bad for artists. But there has to be a balance between outright stealing what's out there and synthesizing something new out of old. There is a difference.

I'm not sure I'm being very coherent, but in the rush to support a natural phenomena (trying to immitate what we love) I think we have to think about the consequences of wide distribution of the copies of someone else's creation.

[John Blonde]: I very much appreciate Theresa's take. I wrote my first novel as fanfiction precisely so that I would never try to publish it. Also, since character and setting were given, I had to work on plot entirely. It was a useful excersize, and as a bonus, the few people who have read it seemed to enjoy it.

That said, and as noted, extending other people's stories isn't anything new. Pepys notes in his diary going to see The Tamer Tamed, which was a Shakespeare fanplay. Who knows what Bill thought of it? I'm sure that through the ages story tellers added on to legends and made new stories with the characters. Maybe Hercules only started out with a couple of labors.

Poppy Z Brite has a comment over on the LiveJournal feed in response to this post that I found just as wierdly self-justifying as all the fandom wank. After disclosing that she's written and published what is essentially RPF (real person fic) [1] and retold a Lovecraft story in her writing life, she then goes on to say, "Personally, when a stranger takes the liberty of writing about my characters, it makes me feel as if somebody sneaked up behind my husband and stuck a finger in his butt."

What I find curious is that it isn't her own butt in question, but one removed. If she weren't married, would there be no problem?
[Patrick Neilson Hayden]: "Authorly arrogance here, sorry, but I don't believe anyone writes a character better than the originator."

As a categorical statement this is plainly false, unless you really want to argue that, for instance, King Leir [sic] is superior to Shakespeare's reworking. In fact literature is full of people writing characters better than the originators. The fetish of "originality" is a quirk of the modern age, not an eternal human verity. Maybe it's a good quirk. I'd say the jury's still out on that.

As to whether fanfic can be upsetting or hurtful, why, of course it can. Was Teresa saying fanfic is always wonderful, or that its effects are always benign? Of course not. Her point is that discussions of fanfic and its rights and wrongs could benefit from a broader view of how, historically, people have told stories and made texts. She's suggesting we be less provincial. Arguing with her as if the question on the table were "Fanfic: Bad or Good?" is not engaging with the actual matter at hand.

[Alice]: "Is literature a zero-sum game?"

I guess I don't know what that means.

As to what I mean by dilution, let me start with an aside by using comic books as an example. There you create a set of characters, place them in ever-changing environments, and, if you're lucky, the characters last for decades on monthly installments. Well, actually, they don't. The original characters become stale. The story lines repeat. Sales drop. So the owner of the characters hires new talent to reshape the characters, create new sets of story lines that fit these new personalities, and go from there. Success! Until, after a while, that flags too. So, we repeat, ad nauseum. After enough intallments, the current version of the characters bears only the slimmest relationship to the original. This works in the comic book field, because the characters are not owned by their creators, the audience keeps changing, and this is the expectation.

For a book, where the characters do belong to the creator, and the creator has invested in that personality and that world, the constant "what ifs" published by others makes these characters and this world stale. Unlike comic books, the world created by the author is meant to be finite. There may be sequels, but they fit withing the framework that the author has created. The fanfic dilutes the creator's work, because it can become lost in what others have created.

George Lucas, as I understand it, has been pretty good about letting fanfic flourish. But I think it's up to the creator to decide whether it's okay, or not. And given the wide and fast distribution of fanfic these days, I don't have a problem with the base line being: fanfic is not okay unless the creator says it is.

[dotsomething]: Because of today's ease of distribution, it's everywhere, and it dilutes what the creator of the original work has done.

Don't mean to pile on here (like Patrick, I'm curious to hear how it dilutes). But I think it's the opposite of dilution. Rather than diluting the original product, fanfiction enhances and intensifies it. One function of fanfic is to analyze characters and offer reactions to what they've said or done. Good, insightful fanfic has made me love and understand the original characters more. It's brought characters to my attention I might otherwise overlooked, or shed light on some aspect of a relationship that I didn't quite grasp. It's multiple conversations going on at once, one between the original writer and the reader, and another between the fanfic authors and the reader. The reader comes away with a lot of intellectual riches. There's no down side, unless the reader is reading bad fanfic, and why would anyone want to do that? (Fanfic, like everything else, has good, bad, and awful. The ninety percent of everything is crap rule.)

[Renee]: 'Dilution' is one of those vague terms that can mean different things to different people. For me, it involves first and second impressions.

F'instance, my first exposure to Buffy et al was through sexually explicit fanfic (most of it bad). Ergo, when I finally saw the series (I didn't own a TV during the series' first run) my reaction was not what the original creators intended--or wanted, I'm sure. I found myself wondering when/why character1/character2 so much that the stories took back seat. I lost interest completely shortly after.

I have no doubt I would have the same reaction to other fanfic/original work, so I avoid the former as much as possible. I consider it the only way for me to be fair to the original creator. YMMV.

[Lenora Rose]: Renee: I've heard that before; people turned off the original work by reading its fanfic first. What I always end up wondering is *why* they end up reading fanfic for something whose original they haven't sampled? (Not critical, just curious. For me most of the appeal of fanfic comes from seeing how it bounces off or resonates with what the original creator meant, so there's no popint to reading even a good fanfic in a universe and among people one doesn't know.)

Greg, you're generalizing writers' motivations on copyright again. I still disagree with you on a copyright term that ends prior to the death of the author, and yet I have no problem with the idea of fanfic. As far as I'm concerned, the term of copyright has more to do with fair compensation than anything else.

Fanfic falls under the debate about what constitutes fair use, and where spin-off works fall. There's a reason it seems to be at least partly the authors' will whether fanfic is a good thing, or a bad thing but not worth pursuing, or acceptable, or flat out not wanted under any circumstances.

I certainly don't think that fanfic, even bad fanfic that misinterprets the characters or the feel, 'dilutes' the original work, any more than a badly-made but legally-agreed-to movie does. If someone is concerned that it will do so, that someone doesn't read the fanfic, or watch the authorized film, for that matter.

There are stories whose fanfic, or even movies or anthologies or other legal tie-ins I haven't perused, or watch/read while mentally rewriting the character names to something saner, because I honestly can't see the connection. (This latter includes bad Arthurian films that make more sense set in Ruritania than even an idealized a historic Britain, as well as at least two damn good fanfics which could have worked far better as "original works" than some original works do whose serial numbers were inadequately filed off. Again, not the legal/copyright aspect of fanfic.)

Some works seem to be whole and intact on their own.

But some seem to work best in interaction with other things, with a sort of busy, messy, chaotic whirl of activity. I can't explain why I choose to read the fanfic of some universes but not others, except that some universes seem to be improved by the byplay.

And on those rare occasions a work really does seem weaker and worse after reading its good fanfic, I don't blame the fanfic writers....

(For me, when I fantasize about those far-off days when my own books are out there and some crazy kid writes fanfic, you know what my greatest fear is so far? Reading one that so completely screws up and miswrites my characters and their motivations that I can't stop myself and I say something stupid and mean to the hapless kid. Who won't deserve it, and I'll get a reputation as one nasty -----.)

[Stephen Frug]: But I think it's up to the creator to decide whether it's okay, or not.

I disagree. Here's an alternative: let the market (not so much the commercial market but the literary market) decide. Those works which find an audience will flourish; those which don't will be ignored.

Now, I think creators have a very strong right to be paid for their creations. But I don't think they have a right -- that is, I don't think they should have a right -- to control what happens to those creations.

Which brings us back to a subject which has been brought up in earlier threads about copyright: mandatory licensing. The precedent here is from music: if you want to record another's song, you have to pay the composer -- but they can't deny permission.

This, I would argue, is clearly what should happen with literary characters and worlds. Anyone who wants to write the starship Enterprise should have to pay a percentage of the take to Paramount. But I don't think that Paramount should get to decide what works get written, get published, get sold or get read.

Bad works, damaging works -- as decided by readers, not writers -- will be ignored. How many revisions of Odysseus there've been -- most of them simply ignored in favor of Homer. But those with some real power (Dante comes to mind) add to our view of the character. (And, of course, this is decided on an individual level -- the literary market just being a sum of the individual decisions.)

Copyright should be a vehicle for making sure artists get paid. But it shouldn't be a vehicle for control.

[Greg London]: Stephen, the problem with "mandatory licensing" or "compulsory licensing" as used in the music industry is that it requires the government to set prices on every little variation of possible use. I'm unconvinced that the government can do what's best here, given their history to date in setting terms and rights etc based on who pays them a campaign contribution. As it is now, there are compulsorary licenses for cover songs, and I believe that is the entire extent of mandatory licensing. There are no compulsory licenses for sampling, derivatives, mixes, and the like. There are also no compulsory licenses for turning a novel into a movie, a movie into a novel, or an original oil painting into a poster. Copyright also covers software, and the idea of Microsoft ever allowing compulsory licenses for software, let alone trying to figure out the pricing that would actually be "fair" is boggling.

Compulsory licenses that would allow paid fan fiction, from a copyright point of view, would mean that two of the most complicated concepts in literature, characters and worlds, would have to be put on some sort of bureaucratic look up table and a price put to it. What percentage do you pay Lucas to put Chewbacca in your shortstory? Or just a wookie? Or to set a short story on Planet-Wookie? A flat rate? All different rates? And if so, how much? What about action figure wookies?

That's one of the actual beauties of copyright: licensing is left to the copyright holders rather than trying to have some bureaucratic nightmare try to create a single look up table to apply to every possible derivation. The author decides how much they are willing to accept for their works or to license their works.

At that point, this would still prohibit a lot of current fan fic, because current fan fic is by fans who aren't charging money for their works. I don't believe you can use the "compulsory license" to make a cover of some popular song and then give that song away. I believe the original artist must get some money somehow, some way. Which means most current fan fic would still not be allowed by "compulsory licenses".

Compulsory licenses would solve the derivative problem. The only problem is that it would create a nightmare of bureacracy. It's the modern day equivalent of communism being the worker's paradise. In theory, sure, in reality, never.

[perianwyr]: I am rather uncomfortable with the idea that one should have total control over the impressions that one's ideas give, in any form.
[Dave Luckett]: I ... don't know.

I stand before you confessing to fanfic myself, only I got paid for it. In my first book, a fantasy, I had a group of travellers who try to cross a mountain range, get turned back by a magically-induced snowstorm, find a passage under the mountain in which they are ambushed and lose one of their number who turns up again later in another guise, revealed as a great magic-worker.

Nobody's ever called me on it. It might be because it was a different group of characters, doing something completely different for a different purpose, and the lost character turns out to be, well, different.

So what? Well, there's something not kosher about using the very same characters that have been created by someone else, to do the very same things in the same way in the same setting to get the same outcome. Is it still so if you change one of those things? I... think not, tentatively. There's a sort of line, somewhere. I know how Patrick feels about boundary conditions, and anyway I'm not up to defining this one, so I can't say where the line is. It's over yonder, somewhere. I don't think I crossed it. I think it is possible to come a lot closer than I did, and still not cross it. But I think it does exist, and it can be crossed.

[Scott H]: There's another aspect to the argument besides the rights of the author--what about the rights of the culture?

The culture in which you grew up is a big part of who you are, and a big part of any culture is its mythology.

For instance, the Greek heroes were a big part of the imaginative life of 19th-century kids. That's still true to some extent today, but I'd argue that the positions formerly occupied by Zeus, Hera and Hercules have largely been usurped by Superman(TM), Wonder Woman(TM) and Luke Skywalker(TM).

I'm not arguing that creative minds aren't entitled to financial reward for their labors. However, the trend for effectively perpetual copyright seems to me excessive and actually slightly dangerous. When was Superman's first appearance? 1936ish? When did Jerry Siegel die? 1992? I dare you to post Superman fanfic on Amazon--he's got a movie coming out this summer, and the lawyers are liable to be testy.

At this writing, the character of Luke Skywalker has been part of the public consciousness for over a quarter century. He is an important component of the childhood imaginative life of an entire generation. It's darn nice of George Lucas and his minions to have come up with him and I don't argue that Lucas entitled to his share of the wealth and (to a lesser extent) kudos, both of which he has in abundance.

However, at the risk of incurring yet more wrath, I will say that my reverence for the rights of intellectual property holding corporations is somewhat limited.

Bear in mind that when we talk about intellectual property rights, we're usually not dealing with individual human beings, but rather with holding companies. Take Marvel as an excellent case in point. When it emerged from bankruptcy, Marvel comics came back with a stated business model of being a holding company rather than a creative force. Since then they've zealously sued any number of (to my mind) innocent geeks who dared use any of Marvel's characters without permission.

I see perfectly well how Marvel might think its ability to squeeze profit from, say, future video game franchises is affected by existing games that let users tailor the interface to appear suspiciously similar to Marvel's IP--I just don't give a shit.

If we as a culture have gotten to the point where the average citizen seriously values the right of Avi Arad (Marvel CEO) to buy himself a bigger jet over the right of creative kids to express themselves, then we, as a culture, are really dumb.

I'm not going to read Another Hope because the writing is painful. I agree that the author was breathtakingly naive to hope that she could get away with it. But Christ, Star Wars has been part of the public consciousness for close to three decades. It's part of the imaginative life of a generation. When, exactly, does it stop being a @$^%ing felony to play with George's toys?

I would argue that if we, as a culture, continue to insist that the right to profit trumps all other rights then we will inevitably strangle ourselves intellectually, competitively, and spiritually. Actually, I'll go even farther and say that it's already happening.

Software patents, anyone? Grr. Argh (tm)
[rhandir]: If your first exposure to, say, Batman is the sixties tv show, then that can become your framework for interpreting what's good about the premise. The essential "batman-ness" has become fixed in a particular way, which leads to bafflement when you see the movie Batman Begins. Suddenly your understanding of "why people like this stuff" doesn't work. It's not camp, its...something else.

TruFans of course, become endlessly divided over what the real "batman-ness" is, but the problem is that multiple takes on a given work tend to lock people out who would assume that there is only one true way to understand what something is. (Director's cuts anyone?)

Fanfiction presents a special problem: trufans produce it, because they love the world-work so much, but at the same time they are multiplying the possible ways of understanding it.

(Sorry, I feel like I'm not tying this together well.)

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that the Western idea of a one to one coorespondence between the author's vision and the one true authorized work is part of the problem. Its like the Western idea of a one to one coorespondence between any idea and a physical reality, e.g. purity=virginity, democracy=voting, etc.

Right, so the reason why fanfiction upsets us is the reason why we produce it: we fell in love with a particular interpretation of a story-world**, and want that to be the entry point for everyone, or the canonical way of understanding that world. At the very same time, we love that story-world so much that we want to play with it. (The second case, love producing fanfiction, is misleading, because not all creative borrowing is motivated by love of the original work.)

[Michael]: If there is a moral argument for authorial right to control their original materials, it's not the same as the copyright bargain.

Copyright is effectively a bargain between society as represented by government and creative artists (as represented by publishers) wherein to encourage the public good of the creation of art and the addition to the cultural discourse, artists are granted certain limited rights for a set period of time. Society gains in that at the end of the rightholding period, the works become our collective property. Without this bargain, some art wouldn't be created at all. With it, we can count on a continually refreshed pool of cultural artifacts to play with and artists can plan how they and their descendants will be compensated over the commercially viable life of their work.

That's a commercial bargain, a public good for created right, where both sides win. It's not the recogintion of a moral obligation, where absolute control is granted because it is objectively right. However, it's an old bargain and people are emotionally attached to it. It's also become subject to erosion and regulatory capture. Additional protection of (for example) Mickey Mouse was valuable enough to the Disney Corporation that the large amount of lobbying money they spent on retroactive copyright extension was strictly a prudent investment, even if getting the bargain changed was harmful to the culture (in that it was not getting an infusion of public domain art and characters).

[Adrienne]: Another point to think about as far as "legal" versus "moral" rights -- a lot of us have a lot of difficulty respecting that "authors have a LEGAL right to own their creations; OMG you're STEALING THEIR LIVELIHOOD!!!!" when most of them DON'T hold their own copyright. Copyright inheres in the publisher for several years on a lot of authors' contracts, and in the record company forEVER (so far as i understand) on a lot of musicians' contracts. The creators get royalties, but they don't OWN THEIR WORK as far as that goes.

I have a lot of respect for free and anarchic movements (fairtunes.com was the big one, but it got shut down) that try to get illegal downloaders to send money directly TO THE ARTISTS. Their position is that the record labels, not having done any of the "creative" work, don't have any MORAL right to be paid regardless of the legality of their position, whereas the creators DO have a moral right to be paid for their creations.

I understand this is almost certainly a really irritating position to those of you in the publishing industry -- and i'm not saying i AGREE, entirely, with it.

But the sheer magnitude of the legal difference between "who holds the copyright" and "who MADE THE THING" may go some way toward explaining why a number of fanfic authors, illegal downloaders, and other "pirate" consumers of culture don't care much about arguments based on legality.

[Relly]: JK Rowling seems amazingly level-headed about the (admittedly insane) fandom community which exists around her work. For example, there's one well-known website full of explicit Potter erotica which was contacted by representatives of Rowling's. It wasn't a Cease and Desist, though, just a request that the site institute password protection to keep kiddies from stumbling across the fics. (Of course, by "request" I mean "do this or else we will bust out the C&D," but that's not the point.)

The site locked down its contents and is still running today. So on the subject of Potter porn: JKR knows, and is either unconcerned about it, or bothered yet still willing to let fandom tiptoe into those creepy nooks and crevices. Either way, I'm impressed.

As for me - I was part of a long-running RPG based on Rowling's series, and it has improved my writing by leaps and bounds. All writing flexes the same muscles, and keeping them in shape did wonders for me.

Yes, the general quality of fanfic can be pretty low, but then, most completed manuscripts don't get published, either. What's that saying again? 90% of everything is crap?

[David D. Levine]: My take on The Fanfic Question is a little different from the comments I've read above. Whether fanfic is (or should be) an intrusion upon the creators' rights or not, whether it is well written or not, I personally don't read or write fanfic because I think it's creatively lazy.

I'm defining "fanfic" here as "new stories about existing characters and settings, written by someone other than the original creator or their designates." So Dave Luckett's snitch of a fragment of plot from Tolkien isn't "fanfic" by my definition.

Fanfic can be a way for new writers to learn their craft by relying on existing characters, character relationships, and settings so they can focus on plot, prose, pacing, and all the other aspects of writing. Certainly, there's no reason that such stories can't be entertaining and emotionally valid. But I find them unsatisfying for the same reason I find most series television (and tie-in novels, and many sequels) unsatisfying: because the characters and their relationships are already established, they can't grow or change much (unless the fic is prepared to violate canon to an extent that most of the fics I've read don't).

Also, many fics are weak because they rely too heavily on the crutch of the existing characters (and the reader's knowledge of those characters), sometimes to the extent of omitting character description completely. The characters become merely labels, or puppets, animated more by the reader's existing knowledge than by the writer's craft.

I'm a plot-focused writer. I want to see things happening -- things with consequence, things that change the characters' understanding of the world. Most fanfic fails for me because it is, instead, focused on the reader's involvement with the characters -- the purpose of the fic is to enjoy another hour or two with old friends, or to deepen existing relationships (often taking a non-sexual relationship to a new or more intense sexual level), rather than to create new situations and change the characters' lives.

So I have no moral objection to fanfic. But it doesn't turn my crank.

Laura Hale, who is copying and pasting directly from Fan History Wiki with a very vague citation]: Media fandom has been impacted by creator interaction with fen in terms of their giving out of cease and desist letters, actors not being comfortable with material being written about their characters, etc.

The biggest example of corporate interference in a fan fiction community is the Star Wars one. The corporate people at Lucasfilms. (And because I'm feeling some what lazy... rather than retyping, large chunks of what is below are from my personal fan fiction history wiki...) They managed to severely stifle their fandom repeatedly.

By 1981, the Star Wars m/m situation got to the point where Lucasfilms Ltd. felt they needed to act to protect their interests.[2] The community was primed and this year would be the one remembered. In May, Guardian #3 was published. This fanzine contained two version of a story called A Slow Boat to Bespin. One story was by A. E. Zeek. The other story was by B. Wenk. While both of these stories featured heterosexual pairings, Zeek's story contained material that would, in today's society, likely garner an R rating. This story was the reason that the publishers of Guardian #3 likely received a cease and desist letter from Maureen Garrett, the first president of the Star Wars fan club. Several other zines during the same period, including ones that had published slashed, received similar cease and desist notices. In response to the demand for clarity on what was acceptable to publish and not publish, Maureen Garrett promised guidelines. None came until October. When they came, they were not viewed as being particularly helpful. The guidelines were nothing more than a statement saying Lucasfilms Ltd. would not tolerate pornography, vulgar material, and material that was excessively violent or gory. (Langley) The net effect of this incident was that it shut down almost all production of slash in the Star Wars community. This created an increase of people from other communities where m/m and f/f [3] was more prevalent but who did not like this material joining the community. Fen who did not leave or who were active in both also began campaigns around this time, trying to convince the powers that be in their fannish communities to crack down on m/m and f/f, like Lucasfilms Ltd. had done.

This attitude of hostility towards adult material and fan control over fan works led into the 1990s, with the official Star Wars site trying to lay copyright claim to all fan creations uploaded to their StarWars.Com fan site. The community also generally balked at adult and slash material. The major exception to this was the Masters and Apprentice list. Fan fiction sites, like TheForce.Net generally continue to be leery of adult fan fiction and slash even now.

Around the time that Lucasfilms was cracking down on adult material, some fen were leaving Luke/Jan [sic] stories on Mark Hamill's property and his kids stumbled upon it. Hamill did not react favorably. This probably did not help put the fannish material in any better light from the perspective of the professionals.[4]

One of the other examples of a media fandom being basically shut down was Babylon 5 and jms. He cited the Marion Zimmer Bradley incident as one of the reasons for his keep the material out of his view, away from him, so he could not accidentally stumble upon it. There were enough fen in the fandom back during the show's initial run that were connected to him or other stars on the show that they were basically able to enforce this fan fiction is under ground thing. And it stuck with it. This did not shut down the fannish activity but it shut down or hid most of the fic. (This hide the fan fiction issue was coupled by the CDA which was also helping to keep adult material out of public spaces on the Internet during that period.)

Other corporate interaction in a negative light for fan fiction writers includes the following examples:

The Highlander was not one to escape threats of legal action. In 1996, a Highlander fanzine recieved cease and desist letter. (Farmer, V. (1996, October 30). Having my say. Message posted to alt.tv.highlander) [5][6]

Anne McCaffrey had been aware, based on interviews, of fan fiction since 1985. As fan fiction moved on-line, she, in consultation with lawyers, created a licensing policy for people who wished to write fan fiction in her universe. On her official site, this policy was explained as one required because of contracts related to Anne McCaffrey's books having been turned into video games. Given all this, it does not come as a surprise that in 1997, a Dragons of Pern fan fiction site recieved a cease and desist letter from McCaffrey's legal representatives.

On November 23, 2003, Duck's Fan Fiction Archive, a Buffy: the Vampire Slayer fan fiction archive, recieved a cease and desist letter. (http://www.denialbubble.com/ducksfanfic/new.html) There was some controversy regarding this as the show's creator had been an avid supporter of fan related activity in his fandoms.

The Caroline in the City fan fiction community, though small, was not spared from recieving legal threats. One fan fiction site recieved a cease and desist letter from CBS in 2004. (Chilling Effects) That same year, sg1archive.com, a Stargate fan fiction archive, received a cease and desist letter.

William Shatner considered going after slash fic but was talked out of it by his lawyer during the 1970s.

A nephew of Allison Janey was upset by characterizations of the character Janey portrayed on West West as gay and kerfluffled over that.

The Lord of the Rings fandom of that era also had issues in trying to decide if it should follow tradition of pastiche or following the science fiction fandom's zine traditions. The early community was also stymied by J.R.R. Tolkien's ambivilence towards fan fiction. An early example of this attitude dates to 1966 when a young writer named Joy Hill sent a note to J.R.R. Tolkien asking if the writer can have permission to write stories using the names of characters from Lord of the Rings and write a sequel. J.R.R. Tolkien responded that he would forward the request on to his lawyers but, basically, it was not going to happen. (http://www.khazaddum.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-1866-p-2.html) [7]

There are probably more examples that aren't fan favorable in terms of media (as opposed to author or real people) corporate interaction but those are the ones I can immediately cite (or copy paste the bits I've researched.)

[kutsuwamushi]: Another "thank you, Teresa" - this time from a lurker.

I see it the other way around: Believing that fanfic wrongs you and that it should be stopped is where entitlement comes into play. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of fanfiction based on my work, but I firmly believe it wouldn't be right to interfere ... in the unlikely event that anyone wrote some.

[Leah Miller]: A great deal of my inspiration for writing things comes from such what ifs, though far more general.

What if characters in this situation acted like real people?

Or, more specifically and more frequently, what if women in this situation acted like real women?

Long ago in the ages of middle and high school a friend and I had a long conversation about a series of books we would write called "Plus one sensible," all of which would be retellings of classic tales with a sensible person either substituted for the main character or as an additional member of whatever cast was involved.

One particularly insane idea was "Ophelia's Oilcan" which was a rewrite of Hamlet with Ophelia as the one sensible character. Things ended pretty much the same (we realized while writing it that "you can't stop Hamlet") but at least someone was present to realize how much things were falling apart.

Of course, this kind of thing is almost omnipresent in modern day parody. Scott Evil from the Austin Powers movies is one of the best examples ever of a fully functional, integrated "plus one sensible."

[NelC]: Not just the Holy Grail, but I'd say all story cycles from pre-literate times are a form of fanfic. I first realised this when thinking about Hercules, of all people. When I look at the Labours and the other bits of myth he's involved in, they seemed to me to have the quality of somebody literate trying to paste up a bunch of stories that others just made up about their favourite hero while gathered around the campfire. Those in the oral tradition can tell tall stories without a lot of regard for continuity or the other fine sensibilities of the literate, because they're more concerned with immediate audience reaction to Hercules' bad-assedness.

But then that applies to all myth cycles. They're stories told for instruction, or illustration, or to excite or otherwise entertain as their primary aim, not as pieces of a grand unified story. If you look at everyone's favourite collection of myth, the Old Testament, the stories don't make a lot of sense all bound together, and even directly contradict each other (two creation myths?).

Or the New Testament, what is that but a collection of Jesus fanfic? Okay, maybe not. Maybe the gnostic texts are more like fanfic, while the New Testament is part of the official Bible Cycle(tm), approved by the authors' heirs.

But it seems to me that fanfic is the natural mode for story-telling in our species, that stories (like most ideas) benefit us by being shared. Once you put an idea in someone's head, it doesn't belong to the original storyteller any more, it belongs to both parties. Trying to control what happens to your story when it's in someone else's head is folly, and trying to control the expression of what's in their head under the illusion that you own it is dangerously close to folly piled on folly.

[Kristine Smith]: I haven't read much fanfic over the years. The stuff I have read hasn't been particularly good. I think this is because the characters didn't translate well when written by someone who wasn't carrying all that backstory in their heads. Authorly arrogance here, sorry, but I don't believe anyone writes a character better than the originator. Yes, I've pondered how I would write someone else's characters, but I've tried to pull back from that over the years. They're not mine to play with.

It's the difference between filling in the spaces in a paint-by-number kit and starting from the bare canvas. The thing that's wholly yours is going to contain something that the kit pic never will.

[Dan Laymon-Kennedy]: It's the difference between filling in the spaces in a paint-by-number kit and starting from the bare canvas. The thing that's wholly yours is going to contain something that the kit pic never will.

Except that it isn't, of course - comparing fanfic to paint-by-numbers is an analogy that just doesn't hold up. It seems to imply that the author is merely phoning in a piece where the work's already been done, and if you think that's something inherent in fanfic, you'd be very wrong.

(If fanfic has a counterpart in the visual arts, I'd say it's collage more than anything else. But that may be another discussion.)

I get the point you're making with a work being "wholly yours," but it seems worth pointing out (as others in this thread have done) that story is never wholly the author's; it's always remixed from bits of other plots, other characters, other archetypes, other Cool Stuff. Makers of story are more or less in the business of twiddling knobs on existing material to see what happens - fanfic is only, perhaps, the most transparent example of this because the writers haven't bothered to change the names and file off the serial numbers. And, objectively - setting aside for the moment the issue of "ownership" - why should they?

Is Odysseus "mine" to play with? Is Hamlet? How about Fagin, or Ahab? Even if I were to accept that no one could possibly write any of them as well as the "original" author (which I don't, but okay), is that enough reason to not use them as a jumping-off place for a new work? And if every other particular of plot and narrative were (somehow) original to me, is that really any less "mine" than if I changed the names and fine details but more or less wrote Moby-Dick?

Comments: Marion Zimmer Bradley and/or Mercedes Lackey Focus

[jane]: Okay--a sour note here. I know of at least two instances where fanfic in modern universes were devastating to the authors, one being Marion Zimmer Bradley. The problems can arise when a fan "owns" a piece of the invented universe and turns around to sue the originating author. Or otherwise harass the inventing author.

I had to ask a couple of fans NOT to make an online game of my Pit Dragon books because we were in the middle of negotations with a movie company (which like most movie deals, fell through) that wanted those rights as part of the deal.

It is true that playing in pd domains are a large part of writing, both fan and fic, whether those domains are biblical (DaVinci code etc.) or Arthurian or Arabian Nights or Sherlock Holmes. But I would think it only polite that if an author who has invented a world asks you to desist SELLING your fanfic or fangames or desist from posting them in an open forum online, that you take your passion for the place and keep it private.

Satire is, of course, something else, and protected.

[Wren]: I'm sure there's someone around who can cite this better, but as I recall the MZB lawsuit related to a Darkover novel that allegedly contained plot or character elements similar to a fanfic that was submitted to her magazine, i.e., one that MZB could be assumed to have access to prior to writing her novel.

The moral being, if you as an author become aware of fanfic for a universe you have any intention of continuing to write in, for crying out loud stay away from the fanfic. This is also reportedly why the Babylon 5 newsgroup spawned a moderated subgroup, so JMS could participate with some level of protection against random passersby lobbing episode "suggestions" at him that he would then be obligated not to use.

[Patrick Nielsen Hayden]: Ah yes, "Marion Zimmer Bradley's situation."

Did anyone actually google "marion zimmer bradley" "fanfic lawsuit", as someone suggested above? Did anyone notice the extraordinary variety of stories thus elicited? In some of which, Marion "lost a book"; in others, she was "forced to sue" to protect an existing work; in others, a contract offer from DAW was rescinded.

This should be a clue that perhaps, just perhaps, this is one of those overheated rumor-mill stories where the truth is perhaps a little more complicated than it's being made out to be.

Then there's this and this. True? Who knows? It seems as plausible as the insistence that "Marion lost a book! Because of fanfic!"

Do I have any idea what actually happened? I do not. Evidently, though, the difference is that I know I don't have any idea. And I know how to recognize the signs of what Mormons call a Faith-Promoting Rumor. Pending more reliable information, I think a moratorium on using the MZB tale to prove anything would be very much in order.

[Teresa Nielsen Hayden]:

Re the Marion Zimmer Bradley story: You can find assorted versions of What Happened [8] and some further pertinent history here [offline].

That first linked page is interesting, for a collection of hearsay. What it tells us is not that fanfic is inherently bad or harmful, or that any author who condones it risks losing control of some part of their creation. In my opinion, it doesn't teach us anything at all about fanfic, because that's not what was going on.

Here's something you don't usually hear in the circulating versions of the story: the disputed events took place twelve years after the publication of the first Darkover anthology, a collection of stories by other authors that was published by DAW and edited by MZB. In the intervening time, there'd been a new anthology published each year.

So we're not talking here about some clear-cut, well-defined situation where some uninvolved author discovers one day that her fans are writing fanfic on their own. Neither is it a lost-Eden scenario where kindly ol' MZB was letting her fans play with her toys, until one of them ruined it for everyone.

MZB was writing and publishing Darkover novels at the same time that she was editing anthologies of original Darkover stories written by other authors. She was reading all the submissions to those anthologies, and she was reading other Darkover fanfic as well. It shouldn't have taken a lawyer to tell her that that setup was courting trouble.

MZB solicited other authors' professional participation in the Darkover franchise. The disputed story had been published in its author's own fanzine, but that hardly matters; the first Darkover anthology was drawn from material that first appeared in fanzines. It was not unreasonable for other authors to feel their own stories had a certain amount of legal standing. Nothing could have been more predictable than the dispute which subsequently developed.

When this tale gets told, why do we refer to the Darkover stories by other writers as fanfic, and its authors as fanwriters? Because that's how MZB described them in her own version of the story. Fans of her writing will, I hope, forgive me if I point out that she had an interest in depicting the situation that way.

Do you see why I argue that fanfic is a legal not a literary category?

Two more observations:

First, something every author knows is that non-writers and some amateur writers have an exaggerated sense of the relative importance of idea to book. Who hasn't had someone tell them they've got a great idea for a book, so they'll contribute the idea and the author will do the writing, and they'll split the take?

I do not assert, but I suspect, that something of that nature was in play. Hey, that's an interesting idea, mind if I use it in the book I'm already writing? is not justification for demanding a shared copyright. It is, however, what fulsome acknowledgements, waivers of all further rights, and one-time flat fees were made for.

Second: the other thing this episode teaches us is that MZB couldn't or wouldn't write around the problem. A more satisfactory solution might have been for her to come up with other ideas that not only avoided the idea under contention, but knocked the other writer's work clean out of canon. It's what Blackburn would have done.

[Alice]: Patrick, I posted before seeing your post. As an example of "dilution" I'd use Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series. She authorized the publication of short stories by others. As a die-hard Darkover fan, I purchased them. They were, in my opinion, not as good as the original, and usually repetitive of her tropes. The series lost some luster because of it. The additional volumes that have been published after her death have also diluted the story by adding to her world without her specific style and storytelling talent.

I assume that the additional volumes have not hurt sales--I don't think fanfic does. To the contrary, it probably is a great vehicle for advertizing the original. But it doesn't help the original story.

It's a value assessment, not an assessment of volume.

[dlnevins]: Regarding the Marion Zimmer Bradley incident: I think it's worth remembering that J. K. Rowling recently found herself in a similar situation, when a woman sued her claiming she had invented the term "Muggle" and Rowling had stolen the idea from her. Had Rowling lost that suit, it would have had a severe impact on her ability to continue publishing her work. The litigant in that situation was not a fanfic writer, though, but another professionally published author. I don't think there's any way a writer can ever be completely safe from the possibility of someone popping up and attempting to claim ownership over part of their work.
[Kimberly]: Mercedes Lackey said, "That said, I am in favor of not-for-profit fanfic. I just have to protect myself by making it policy that I never, ever, ever read any fanfic based on my work." I've noticed this is the official policy of many-a-creator, and I think it's one that mostly works. It protects the originator, but also protects the fans(and fanficcers), in a way. I think it's sad that it's neccessary, but understandable in the modern litigeous culture we live in.

I've been following the discussion with fascination, because I come to it as a fanfiction reader, not writer, barely an original fic writer (as in, barely finish anything). To put forward my view, especially on the topics of the 'harm' it does to canonical works, I have gotten into more fandoms through fanfiction than out of them. I have stayed in them longer because of fanfiction than without. I also believe that it has helped me to deepen my understanding and enjoyment of the original by seeing these different takes on things that I did not (at first) see. I don't always agree with those takes, but it forces me to see why someone would and why I don't.

Fanfiction also, like in the case of Harry Potter, provides a sort of stop-gap of frustration while waiting for the next installment. Whose theories will be closest, whose most out there, etc.? I think this is a good thing. It keeps interest high, while without it interest might wane in the long breaks between installments, or between seasons, or even after a series is done. In addition, there are always unanswered questions, even in the most well done books, television series, and movies. Fans want to see those questions answered, those holes filled.

I just know that should my stories ever get (a)finished and (b)published, I would be ever so thrilled to know people were writing stories about my creations...that means they've read them and that they were engaged enough to do something about it. Rarely do you see fanfiction without a worthy canon. People just wouldn't care, and I think that's the goal of most authors: make the audience care.

[Julie L]: Quoth Laura: "The Lord of the Rings fandom of that era also had issues in trying to decide if it should follow tradition of pastiche or following the science fiction fandom's zine traditions. The early community was also stymied by J.R.R. Tolkien's ambivilence towards fan fiction. An early example of this attitude dates to 1966 when a young writer named Joy Hill sent a note to J.R.R. Tolkien asking if the writer can have permission to write stories using the names of characters from Lord of the Rings and write a sequel. J.R.R. Tolkien responded that he would forward the request on to his lawyers but, basically, it was not going to happen. (http://www.khazaddum.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-1866-p-2.html)"

Ironically, Marion Zimmer Bradley once published an anthology (I assume professionally? There's a Locus listing for the original 1985 Academy Chicago edition here) which contained a piece of Tolkien fanfic called "The Jewel of Arwen", previously published as a chapbook in 1973.

Subsequent reprints by Daw and Orbit omitted "The Jewel of Arwen".

[Mercedes Lackey]: Patrick et al

I actually am privy to and part of the "Marion Zimmer Bradley situation" and I can state with confidence the facts of the matter.

Marion had begun to write a Darkover book about Regis Hastur. She 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 acknowlegement in the front of the book. She had done this before with other fan authors (even though she didn't have to, after all, you can't "own" an idea).

However in this case, the next party heard from was the author's agent, who demanded cover credit and co-authorship, or there would be a lawsuit.

Now, having been a party in a lawsuit myself, I can tell you that when you sue or are sued, the only people who win are the lawyers. Even if you win the case, you lose; time, effort, your sanity...in my case, before the suit was over (we were sueing our insurance company to get them to pay over my husband's studio fire) I was on three Prozac a day and hadn't been able to write for six months. And that was just a civil suit over stuff.

This would have been over Marion's baby, her pride, her joy, her universe. She felt passionate about Darkover.

And she, too, had been involved in lawsuits by that time, so she knew what she would have faced even if she won.

She elected not to finish or publish the book. So that book will never see the light of day.

In her shoes, I'd have done the same thing.

Thats the facts, Jack.

That said, I am in favor of not-for-profit fanfic. I just have to protect myself by making it policy that I never, ever, ever read any fanfic based on my work. If it gets sent to me, it's returned unseen my me. But I got my start writing the stuff, and I managed to get a lot of lousy writing out of the way by doing so.

Though I am sure that there are some who would say that last statement is debatable. There are days when I would say so myself (grin).

[Mercedes Lackey]: Back again. This is as irresistable as double-chocolate fudge chunk ice cream and about as bad for you. I should be writing paycheck prose...

Theresa and Patrick; yes indeed, you have good points. Marion operated on some assumptions that might have held back in 1950 in the Golden Age of Fandom but certainly were not in operation at the time of The Affair, and believe me, I am the first to agree to that.

I like fanfic. I like it in the way it lets people ask "what if" and "what then" questions. I like it that it gives people who may become pros a place to concentrate on *one* thing--plot--or maybe two--plot and character--without having to invent a universe of their own. The latter reason, by the way, is why I like to write urban/urban-historical fantasy, since everyone knows what "our world" looks like. I like that it gives people who want desperately to tell a story a built-in audience. OK so it follows Sturgeon's Law of "90% of everything is dreck" but what doesn't? And OK, the idea of some people taking rather...extreme...*ahem* liberties with my stuff does make me go a bit ewwwwwwwww (sometimes more than a bit ewwwwww) but as long as they lock it down into a place where theoretically only 18-and-over can go...

But I really, cross my heart, am not that curious about what they're writing. It's a bit like the reason why I don't read Amazon reader reviews of my books. I don't want to know. Sometimes it gives you a swelled head and sometimes it makes you want to reach through the screen and strangle someone and neither reaction is good for you.

I cannot, for the life of me, see how it can really hurt anyone. But then, I have a kind of complicated relationship with my books. They are my babies right up until the point where they leave my hands.

Then they become something else, and that something else is different to everyone who reads them. I can't control that. It's stupid to try. All I can really do is tell the best story I can, and what happens after that is out of my hands. The babies have grown up and become independant, and like a wise parent I do my best to let go.

And that includes all the "what ifs" and "what thens" other folks imagine.

[Mercedes Lackey]: I wonder whether any of the advocates of "fanfic is third-rate writing by people who can't muster the creativity to work in their own universes" feel up to tackling the question of successful professional authors who take to writing fanfic.

The ones I've heard describe the process talk about it much the same way any other fanfic writer does: a story popped into their head, so they had to write it out.

EEP! I've been outed.

I....shuffle mumble shuffle....still write fanfic. Of all darn things, fanfic set in a superhero MMORPG, City of Heroes

It is my brain candy. I admit it, it's mostly rough-draft prose, but it's the sort of thing I don't get to do for a paycheck.

It is extremely collaberative (to the point where I often use a piece of software called MoonEdit that allows several people to be writing the same piece of prose at the same time). The joy of it is that people take the things I put down and by their reactions send the story in a direction I would never have considered. It's turning out to be very useful, in that it's exercising my writing muscles in different directions.

And yeah...I had to do this. I started out just being a role-playing gamer, but these characters came alive just like all my book-characters do and they started demanding real stories out of me.


  1. The 2000 novel "Plastic Jesus."
  2. This is not true. It wasn't m/m fiction that propelled The George Lucas Letters.
  3. If there was any f/f Star Wars fic, it was so underground as to be invisible,
  4. This is very, very likely untrue, and sounds like some sort of repeated urban myth/scare tactic.
  5. In which a fan gets a cease and desist for what appears to be a single posted fic to the internet: Screw this., by Vicki Farmer, Ocotber 29, 1996
  6. In which the fan gets a follow-up letter telling her the Cease and Desist was a complete mistake: Having my say., by Vicki Farmer, October 30, 1996
  7. This was also posted in 2010 by Laura at Slash is not gay: Homosexuality, class and fan fiction communities, A historical perspective
  8. here