George R. R. Martin is wrong about Lovecraft

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Title: George R. R. Martin is wrong about Lovecraft
Creator: Nick Mamatas
Date(s): May 8, 2010
Medium: online
External Links: George R. R. Martin is wrong about Lovecraft; archive link page one; page two, archive link page two
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George R. R. Martin is wrong about Lovecraft is a 2010 post by Nick Mamatas.

This essay was written in direct response to Someone Is Angry On the Internet by George R.R. Martin.

Some Topics Discussed

The Introduction

In some tilt against the windmill of fan fiction, George R.R. Martin makes the false claim that [H.P. Lovecraft] let so many others play in his sandbox, he essentially lost control of his own creations...[and] Those copyrights are ultimately all that separates an [Edgar Rice Burroughs] from a HPL.

Martin is wrong about many other facts in that post—copyrights do not need to be defended to be maintained, that's trademark—but he is gloriously wrong about Lovecraft.


Leaving aside the "issue" of fan fiction in general, Martin's most egregious errors deal with Lovecraft. I'm sure other people will flense Martin about the tangled mess of his various claims, but I'll step up for the old man. Martin's tubthumping is bad enough without grabbing Lovecraft's corpse by the ankles, giving it a shake and going, "Boogah boogah! Every time you write a Harry Potter fan fiction, God starves a racist to death!" (If only!) Martin's errors are three:

a. Lovecraft did not "lose control" of his copyrights because he allowed other writers to make reference to characters in his stories.

b. Lovecraft did not die in poverty because of this loss of copyrights.

c. If anything, the unclear provenance of Lovecraft's copyrights after his death (when they would have done him little good anyway) is what kept Lovecraft's work in print and vital to this day.

Finally, had copyrights worked out the way Martin would have had them, we probably wouldn't be talking about Lovecraft very much today. Derleth, for all his faults, was able to keep interest in Lovecraft alive and as he aged he encouraged writers such as Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley (see, Derleth was half-right!) to write "Mythos" stories. Colin Wilson's brilliant The Mind Parasites was written on a dare from Derleth. And it was the later underground comics and "acid rock" songs referencing Lovecraft that allowed the man's work to find a whole new audience. The loose leash built the audience, it did not dilute the audience. Part of Lovecraft's popularity is due to the fact that his work can be found in the Science Fiction Book Club (whose 2001 edition was produced with the cooperation of Arkham House) and edited by Joyce Carol Oates for the upmarket Ecco imprint (which did not cooperate with Arkham House). Lovecraft's copyrights could have easily ended up orphaned after Barlow committed suicide, or if Derleth had actually been compelled to show his paperwork to a court. That means nobody would have gotten to read the later stuff except for pulp magazine collectors. Orphaned copyrights can mean the end of a literary reputation.

Martin seems to think copyright is a magical deed to the "land" of a story rather than a government-granted monopoly that, among other things, expires. He wonders aloud if the Lovecraft estate got anything from various movie versions of Lovecraft's work without asking the equally important question—if it did, should it have as at least some of that work (e.g. 1921's "Herbert West: Re-animator") has probably been in the public domain for a while.
A large number of writers, many of whom have happily oinked away at the trough of the public domain and fair use in their professional careers and who certainly did so as readers, suffer from the delusion when it comes to their own stuff that owning a copyright is the same as owning a house. It ain't. Of course, companies do this all time—fair use ain't nothing but me using what I'm allowed to. When you do the same to my stuff though, well that's stealing! And you know what, that's fine. Writers can have all sorts of waterheaded ideas about what copyright means. If they manage to prosper despite their ignorance, good on 'em. But at the very least they should avoid rewriting history by trying to show Lovecraft as a negative example of the power of fanfic when ultimately, Lovecraft's reputation is what it is today partially because of fanfic.

Some Fan Comments

With a Focus of Marion Zimmer Bradley

For more on this topic, see Marion Zimmer Bradley Fanfiction Controversy.


I've long considered that obscurity and being a small fish in a big pond are a greater danger to my writing than fan-fic.

I recognised his citing of MZB--it was one of the reasons I was surprised Diana Gabaldon mentioned reading fan fic at all, since many of the authors I know who don't discourage fan fic also vocally note that they will not be reading the fan fic in their universe. What happened to MZB sucks, sure, but the lesson most people took from that was: don't read unsolicited work in your own universe and otherwise turn the benign eye away.

In terms of human response, the last thing I want to do is toss cold water on the passions of my potential readers. Basically, fan fic is increasing the positive feedback loop for my potential fans. They like the world, they write the world, they want more of the world, they seek out more. It loops back around, and best of all, it pollinates and spreads my world for OTHER people to eventually discover. And it keeps them engaged with the world, keeps it in the forefront of their mind while I'm between books. Seems like a great idea to me.
[nihilistic kid]:

Even the MZB thing may be a bit more complex than that. The fan's version of the story is rather different than the usual MZB one—basically, it boils down to "MZB had a stroke and can't write anymore, but we're encouraging fanfic to harvest the best of it and buy it at cut-rates as work for hire to put under MZB's byline. Cooperate or we shall crush you."

Of course, who knows which version of the story is so. But there is more than one version and thus no reason to accept more commonly told one as unreconstructed fact.
[a grummer]:

And here's Mereceds Lackey's take on the matter, as one of MZB's inner circle at the time.

Comparing it to Jean Lamb's version, I see an important point in common: Both agree that Lamb came up with an idea that MZB wanted to use, which contradicts the usual version of the story (repeated by GRRM), which holds that MZB and the fan came up with similar ideas separately.

That's fascinating. I had always heard it in the terms you mention—simultaneous ideas; OH NOEZ MZB CAN'T EVEN USE HER OWN IDEAS THANKS TO THOSE PESKY FANFICCERS—and seeing someone on MZB's 'side' acknowledge that they actually wanted to use an idea originated by someone else really puts a totally different slant on the whole thing.


Yes, that's what I had heard as well: simultaneous ideas. (Which seems likely to happen often enough if you're using the same base characters and world.)

It's weird but the "fan came up with the idea" aspect actually makes me think more kindly towards fan-fic in the light of the incident. Because I think the gut reaction that GRRM and other purveyors of that story are counting on is the "I couldn't even use my own ideas" aspect. The sort of cringe that will knock a writer to the gut, as they realise control of their creation has been ripped from their hands. And now that myth has been sorta gently laid on its side.

Yes. And the gut-punch of "What if I can't even use my own ideas?" is pretty profound; I'm pro-fanfic and I still cringe at that. It's a frightening thought, that you might not be able to use an idea that you worked hard on and loved without risking a lawsuit.

But if the fan really did come up with the idea first, it ceases to be "I should be able to use my own ideas about my own world!" and becomes "I should be able to use your ideas about my world!", which... is a much more controversial and (IMHO) problematic position.
[nihilistic kid]:
Listen, splitting money with collaborators and ghost-writers is hard. If you were a reeeeeaaal fan, you'd be happy to write me a novel for me to publish under my name with all the money going to me.
[pixel fish]:

Further reading from Nick and Avram's links seems to show that MZB offered acknowledgement in the authorial notes and a flat one-time fee.

But not getting a nibble, I don't understand why MZB didn't scrap that idea and continue the work in progress with another idea. Throwing the whole pile into the dustbin and going, "Mean ol' fan ficcers," seems to be attributing more power to the ficcers than they have.
[nihilistic kid]:
Between the lines—MZB seems have been working with substantially reduced capacity and many of her collaborators were basically doing all her writing for her, but publishing it under her name to keep the MZB system going.
This happened *before* the novels began to be published with dual bylines?

Yup. I think Rediscovery did get a cover credit to Lackey, and Heirs of Hammerfell was very likely a rejected non-Darkover manuscript that was hastily rewritten by her circle in the wake of the stroke, but Exile's Song, etc, in their original editions had only her name on it, and the only reference to the real author, Adrienne Barnes, was a non-specific reference in the acknowledgement.

I'm quite confident that MZB didn't 'throw away a manuscript' in the wake of Jean Lamb's refusal to be drafted as her ghostwriter; she was no longer capable of writing. Possibly Barnes did, but if she had started expanding Jean Lamb's text without getting clearance first, that was her own damn fault.

So what happened ran something like this?

1. MZB has her stroke, can't write, but doesn't have enough income to run her household ...

2. The assumption is that her fans are not willing to buy sharecropped fiction (was this before the later wave of such?) ...

3. Therefore sharecropped fiction must be published as by MZB alone?

I can't speak for motive; money is a distinct possibility, since first property they tried to exploit that way was the far more commercially successful Mists of Avalon. Diana Paxson was the sharecropper for that one.

But yes, I'd guess that they calculated that people would buy more copies if they thought it was written by her.

Heck, post-death, they were still pretending that the Darkover stuff was 'written from her outlines', IIRC... To be fair, I'm sure there were some notes and story bits lurking in the files, and she probably at least commented and had some input on the ones written while she was alive. She was not in good shape but not in a coma or anything; she's kind of strange and wandery in the depositions taken in the last year before her death, but not *incoherent*.

If you want a little glimpse of the process, Rosemary Edgehill is fairly open, if kind, about her sharecropping of the Ghostlight book series in this interview:

Money quotes: Rosemary: Working with Marion was great fun. Because of her serious health issues at the time of the books, it was a different situation than working with Andre and Misty, and much more than in either of those cases, I was not only trying to re-create Marion's own style without intruding anything of my own, but to re-create her style from about 20 years ago, which involved immersing myself in her gothics, so I could not only pick up her style, rhythm, and word choices, but her ideas and her motifs. ...

Of course she oversaw everything I did, and when I finally got to meet her at the Fantasy Worlds Convention out in Berkeley, she told me how delighted she was with Heartlight, saying it was exactly the story she had always wanted to tell.

Note that Heartlight was the last of the four books, so Edgehill, despite her polite genuflecting at the altar of 'oh, sure she oversaw me! sure I was working from some stuff of hers' didn't even meet or hear MZB's opinion on Edgehill's final manuscripts until after the series was done.

If you poke around Amazon's Look Inside feature, and you look at the original hardbacks, they have copyright as MZB -- and if you look at the recent Tor reprints, the copyright is now listed as Edgehill. And of course, in all cases, the covers say nothing about Edgehill -- it is Bradley's name alone on them.

Everything else produced post-1989 is the same, except that if the author had some genre pull of her own, she got a cover credit in the case of Lackey and Lisle (ghost for the Glenraven books.)

1989? Oh, my God.

The last one I cared about was Thendara House (1983), which would have been the penultimate one MZB actually wrote. I knew I stopped caring about the books, but I hadn't realized that MZB had stopped writing them at roughly the same time.

Weeeeelll, she probably wrote part of Heirs of Hammerfell. In fact, I'm pretty sure of it, because if it was straight up ghostwritten there were plenty of people in her circle who could have knocked out a better Darkovian pastiche. Hell, a number of them would over the next decade. I just don't think she wrote it as a *Darkover* novel.

Note, everything else I have solid backing for the ghosting. Either someone has come out and openly talked about it, such as Edgehill, or 'co-writer' credit has been quietly sneaked back in, as with Barnes, or you can tell from the copyright notices (i.e., Lisa Waters was the ghost for Lady of the Trillium.) My Heirs theory is just informed speculation from the observed facts and from having read it.

That is, it's nothing much at all like a Darkover book except for the names. I read it back when it came out, when I was still sentimentally attached to Darkover and had no idea about the stroke, and I recall my increasing bogglement and wondering why a regency romance was being called Darkover. Combining that with the fact that it was rushed out hastily after her stroke say "money was needed, there was an old romance she never sold hanging around, and it was rewritten with Darkover references."

Thank you--not only for a beautifully written putdown, but for the links to the posts on Lovecraft and copyright, and the multiple complexities of the MZB case.

I haz linked to your post and GRRM's (who, as a friend pointed out on my list, will no doubt be horrified at the flood of slash fiction that will innundate the internets as soon as the GoT is aired on HBO. He has NO idea, I venture to guess).

Great post!

Thank you for this history lesson, and for the further reading links about the MBZ case, which I heard talk of a lot over the years but have never researched (I only ever heard The One MZB Version, aka the cautionary tale to frighten authors with).

Personally I was incensed by all the bullshit, which you noted, coming from the confusion between trademark and copyright - how IS is that a foreigner like me (I'm French, our copyright rules are different, though we've signed the Berne agreement, of course) knows more about American copyright than a best-selling author (that is to say, an IP tradesman!) who feels qualified to /rant about it/? Has the man no IP lawyer, no agent to ask questions of, or no access to the internet? Yet he blogs... dot dot dot.

General Comments

[Matt Ruff]:

not anymore than George R.R. Martin giving HBO permission to make films of his books would lead to a dilution of Martin's copyrights

Well, actually, the whole point of a movie/TV contract is to "dilute" the copyright by transferring some of the author's legal rights to a production company and its partners.

The fan-fic equivalent would be if Martin said to HBO, "No, I won't formally license the rights to you, but if you want to drop fifty million bucks on a film adaptation, I probably won't sue you for infringement. Just don't show it to me!"
[nihilistic kid]:

No, licensing is not dilution—that's one of Martin's sub-mistakes.(Indeed, when copyright is unclear, licensing can be used to actually affirm a license. See Ron Howard's cooperation with the E.E. Smith estate over Lensmen—one could make a strong argument that some Lensmen stories are in the public domain, but for the next couple of years almost nobody will dare because they'd have to deal with Universal Pictures. The Derleth claim on Lovecraft's copyrights themselves worked this way for years.) "Dilution" actually means something—what it means just has nothing to do with what Martin is talking about.

The other is not realizing that Lovecraft didn't just vaguely tolerate fan-fiction, but gave explicit if informal license to several of his correspondents. That's not dilution at all; it's affirmation through use.
Thanks for the post. I find Martin's spaz-out fascinating particularly in light of long-time fanfic rejecters like Mercedes Lackey and Jim Butcher changing their minds of late, perhaps because of the realization that it keeps the conversation going, I dunno.

Funny fields to be so concerned about fan fic given that much of s.f. and fantasy have always shared common meme pools, and contemporary s.f. is full of homages and corrections to Heinlein and fantasy draws heavily on various mythologies.

Given that we no longer teach classical languages as a general practice in our high schools, the old way of learning to write by doing translations is not what it was, but many writers historically began by translating work from other languages, fairly evidently better training for writers than creative writing workshops.

Good fan fic/vids by people I know to be intelligent tends to make me check out the original.

What, you mean as opposed to the flood of slash fiction that's already there? Seriously, when a man publishes books in which yaoi, yuri, paedophilia and (fraternal) twincest are canon, he'd better not complain about slash-fic on that level of moral ground....

Oh, erm, the moral issue--Diana G. has major sex scenes of all sorts including sadism/masochism, and she still complained about the pornographic nature of fanfic. I cannot say what he will do, but the fact of what he writes (and as friends of mine have noted, he doesn't write the same sex sex scenes in as much detail as the het scenes) does not mean he will not find what OTHERS write to be more or differently or worsely sexual/pornographic than his stuff.
[nihilistic kid]:

It's not even necessarily confusion. Why might even an IP lawyer tell horror stories about The Copyright That Died? Well, it'll lead to more work for him, and a lot of IP law is ultimately case law—something could happen one day, maybe, and don't you want to be ready? (Ultimately, copyright lawyers would benefit from copyright being weaker, as there's be lots more hours to bill.)

Failure to defend copyright could potentially be useful in an infringement case to show that the infringement wasn't wilfull, or might reduce damages, but it doesn't push anything into the public domain.

George R. R. Martin?

Isn't he the fellow who writes War of the Roses fan fic with the serial numbers filed off and dragons added?

(And possibly a Mary Sue. Or a whole family of them. Their eyes are fucking purple, for gods sakes.)

Lovely post.

(And I love Martin's fan fiction a bit better than his other works.)
[nihilistic kid]:
Basically, GRRM is passionate about the subject, as prone to anyone else to leaps of logic and expansive claims when feeling passionate, and is surrounded by a lawyer of fans on his LJ who'll make all sorts of soothing noises (and less cooperative fans are screened away anyway by his assistant). So, silly conclusions are all but inevitable.

Well I may be going against the flow, but I think that GRRM should focus on this issue. From my sources, he is in serious danger of finishing his latest novel in the next year or so, so he obviously needs something to distract him for a couple months.

If he plays his cards right, he could say something like "Until this issue is resolved, I won't finish "Game of Dragon Storm Crows!". And then he'll have a full year to blog about sports with the full sympathy of his fans.
I've given up on the next volume in that series. Even if it does come out by then I will have forgotten all about the characters and plot, and will need to relearn it all, then wait another 20 years for the other three or so volumes. So fan fic is looking pretty good right now!
[pixelfish]: fic actually helps you keep characters and roles straight in your head while you wait.

But this is apparently a bug and not a feature for some folks.

My only reservation about people writing fanfic in my universe was that a lawyer had told me I should under no circumstances read or comment on it for fear of it triggering some kind of spurious but expensive to settle lawsuit.

But I joined the Organization for Transformative Works this week in response to the kerfuffle and their legal chair sent me a very nice and clear-headed piece of advice saying it probably really is OK to read my fanfic if I'm already reading fanmail and the like anyway.

I hadn't even thought about the fact that Lovecraft wrote short stories in the horror genre, and Burroughs wrote action novels. I *had* realized that Burroughs' main character was male, white, wealthy, aggressive, physically fit, and all-around heroic, while Lovecraft's main characters were creatures from beyond this dimension with tentacles instead of mouths. Kinda cuts down on the mainstream appeal, there; lots more audience for Sexy Warrior than Gibbering Slimebeast.

::ponder ponder:: Lovecraft's works are public domain in most of the world (L+50 or L+70); it's only in the US that some of them are in dispute. Several of Burroughs' works are in the public domain everywhere. As far as I can tell, the Burroughs estate is trying to prosecute trademark violations, not copyright violations, for unauthorized Tarzan works. Over the next decade or so, I expect to see an explosion of IP lawsuits & C&Ds that don't bother to distinguish between those. (2019: the year The Mouse goes public, barring exotic new changes in IP law. I eagerly await the YouTube remixes of Steamboat Willie.)

I suspect a lot of corporate IP lawyers are fairly oblivious to the difference between a copyrighted character and a trademarked one. They prosecute "unauthorized use of our characters" under trademark law, and it never occurs to them that unauthorized use of a non-trademarked character isn't protected--and doesn't need to be defended--the same way.

Also, none of the anti-fanfic authors want to acknowledge how much of fanfic qualifies as "parody" under the law. Harry Potter and Draco getting it on? Obvious parody. Doesn't need to be funny. The stuff they object to most, is probably the most legally defensible as parody or transformative.

GRRM's sub-argument seemed to run:

1. Burroughs is out of copyright.

2. Lovecraft is out of copyright.

3. However, if I wrote fiction based on Burroughs, Disney would sue the pants off me anyway. This would not happen with Lovecraft.

4. Therefore copyright is awesome.
[jalendavi lady]:

Unless you're working on something like The Wind Done Gone or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, you may never have to look at a list of authors who are completely out of copyright now. You may never have to know the year or even exact date a work will undeniably exit copyright.

Part of why I post CS Lewis fanfiction is that I looked and realized I'd be an old woman before the story that wouldn't get out of my head would be legal to sell. I had the choice of posting it now, or hoping I'll live enough years - or have heirs who care to remember to do it themselves - to be able to legally release it for money.

Martin? Doesn't have to do that kind of research.

And if you never write parody or works that are arguably academic analyses of a source work, you never have to understand the rights and limits of Fair Use yourself.

I remember staring at a photocopier in a university library wondering if the 'for personal study only' Fair Use warning applied differently if I ever sold the story for class I needed the research for, and wondering just why we never discussed Photocopier Research Ethics in my writing classes. I was one of the few students in the department doing library research for short stories - of course the other students and the professor weren't thinking about legal odd areas like that.

The people who are trying not to break a law probably know the lines better than those who don't ever have to worry about getting near breaking that law.

wondering just why we never discussed Photocopier Research Ethics in my writing classes

Because copyright law was created to punish *corporate* offenses, not individual ones, and the law has been having seizures for the last fifty years, since photocopiers became available to the public. Over the last decade, it's started going into death throes. Tech has been inventing new ways to copy cheaply & easily faster than court rulings can deal with them.

It's hard to sort out the ethics of an issue, in a way that can be discussed with students, when the practical applications change drastically every two years.

Thanks for this post - it's informative and cleverly written, and also helped assuage the top-of-my-head-popping-off-due-to-boilin​g-brains feeling I get whenever I see pro authors confusing trademark with copyright.

GRRM's argument should seem suspect anyway. The most fanfic-ed books online are Harry Potter, no contest. So obviously, by GRRM's logic, JK Rowling is destined to die in poverty because of her tragically diluted copyright.

...oh wait...
[ring of gyges]:

There are a lot of posts above and I've haven't read every one of them, but as a gamer something strikes me that I don't often see mentioned.

George Martin authorized, and earns money from, a Game of Thrones RPG. That's fan fiction folks. If I sit down with a gaming group and tell stories set in his universe, I'm generating fiction in his universe, with his characters. If the PC's meet Jamie Lannister, I have to come up with Jamie's responses and behavior, and George is going to like some of the things I come up with an dislike other things. Too bad. Other people get to talk about what you've written.

G.R.R.M's complaint can't coherently be about the special relationship an author has with his characters and how it breaks his heart when his creations behave out of character and what not. He's fine with fan fiction when he's being paid.
He made a (fairly incoherent) argument that gaming is somehow DIFFERENT from fanfic - maybe because he does it himself; one of the whiny points in the first post he made about it was that when HE was a wee lad, the stuff that he wrote that they called "fanfic" was FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT from what modern fic writers produce, and there was another word for what we do that he can't remember but it was insulting. His Wild Cards series was born out of a RPG and included filing off of serial numbers, RPF, and other people using his characters, but that was all both OKAY and DIFFERENT because he got the final say in what was published. My takeaway from this (beyond the lengthy rant I posted on my dreamwidth) is "If GRRM does it, it's okay, and if he doesn't it's creepy and weird."

"If GRRM does it, it's okay, and if he doesn't it's creepy and weird."

That is exactly what's been bothering me about so many pro writers' responses to this kerfluffle. "I cannot imagine why anyone would want to write about someone else's characters. Clearly they are doing so because they can't come up with their own fictional worlds, because they are not creative enough and they lack the capacity for original thought. Of course it's different when my friends and I do it."

Taking this a step further, Diana Gabaldon feels personally violated when people write fanfiction featuring her characters, but thinks nothing of sending one of her books to the actor who played the role on which one of her main characters was based--a book that includes a violent and explicitly detailed sexual assault committed against said character. That is not weird at all.
Also, RPS is not RPS when committed by Real Writers. (Consider all the historical fiction, or the non-historical-fiction that nevertheless drags in historical characters, even from the 20th century, and sometimes into romances. Like Diana Gabaldon's work.)
And now I have nothing but a gigantic ton of respect for Frazer Hines. He gave her an interview, after all that - if somebody did that to me, the only thing I'd be giving them was a restraining order.