Wizard Oil: Fan Fiction

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Title: Wizard Oil
Creator: Carol Pinchefsky
Date(s): May-June 2006
Medium: online
Fandom: multifandom
External Links:
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Wizard Oil: Fan Fiction is a two-part 2006 essay by Carol Pinchefsky.

It was posted in two parts at "Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show":

Some Topics Discussed

The Article Ends With Advice for Fan Writers, Pro Writers, and Media Corporations

  • "Strategies for the author who doesn't want to allow fan fiction. -- Send a cease and desist letter demanding that the fan writer immediately stop. Be very clear and firm, but polite. Feld suggests writing something like, "Dear fan, I'm glad you like my work, but I'm very attached to my character and I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to stop."
  • "Strategies for the author who wants to allow fan fiction.... "Creators need to take proper precautions to make sure they don't appear to give up control. You would never want to say on your website, 'Everybody, feel free to do what you want.' Not only does it open the door to material a creator might find terribly offensive or damaging later, it might give up valuable commercial rights."
  • "Strategies for the fanfic writer. [...] Contact the authors that you wish to write fan fiction about. Many of them would love to hear from you. If they need you to sign a disclaimer, do. If they want you to not write fan fiction, ask them if they would consider creating a disclaimer. If they don't agree, respect their wishes. Also, unless your favorite authors had access to your computer, they probably didn't steal your writing; most ideas aren't nearly as original as you think they are. Don't sue them."
  • "Strategies for the media corporations.... "If the big media companies alienate the fans, the fans stop buying your comic books, stop going to your movies and stop watching your TV shows. Companies that hold the copyrights learn[ed] after a while that coming down with a sledgehammer is not the way to deal with [fan fiction]. The copyright holders need to behave with business savvy and intelligence, and they need to see fan fiction not so much as a rights infringement issue but as a marketing opportunity. While at the same time, they need to exercise proper caution that their rights remain unambiguous."


When I wrote fan fiction, it was during the halcyon days of mimeographs and physical distribution and Gene Roddenberry's beneficent approval. But the current years have brought us the Internet, intellectual property, and tightly maintained copyrights. Now, what started as a flight-of-fancy to be shared among friends could easily end in a lawsuit.

Modern-day fanfic writing has become its own kind of passion play -- a heated argument over who controls the rights of fictional characters. Some professional authors are refusing to give approval for the fictionalization of their characters and universes, while fans continue to write.

There is no consensus, not among fans and professionals, and not even on a personal level. In fact, when interviewing professional authors and writers of fan fiction, I encountered some remarkable contradictions:

A professional author who does not allow fan fiction of her work but anonymously reads and writes fan fiction (but does not post).
A fanfic writer who doesn't like other writers to use the original characters he created.
A professional author who does not allow fan fiction of her work but permits fan art.
A professional business writer who prefers to write fan fiction rather than create her own universe.

Are professional authors wrong to feel threatened by fan fiction? All of the authors interviewed here at one time or another have read it. Even author Robin Hobb (Assassin's Apprentice, and others) who does not care for fan fiction, admits to reading the selections at godawful.net, a smorgasbord of Bulwer-Lytton-quality writing. But none of them read the extrapolations of their own universes because of a real-world worst-case-scenario.

Hobb says, "Suppose you did a Google search for your own name, and found that someone had written an article condemning the civil rights movement, and used quotes from your work out of context, and attached your name as an authority for it. Or if someone put up a Wikipedia article about you that listed a substantial criminal history that wasn't yours. You might be horrified, yes? Fan fiction does that to established fiction writers. It links not just a quality of text, but ideas to a writer's name, in a way that the writer cannot control.

"And when those readers find something on the Internet using my familiar characters, and mentioning my name and the titles of my books, they assume that either A) I wrote it or B) I am somehow connected with it in a permission or advisory way. Fan fiction writers know that fan fiction is not by the original author. Most other people who come into contact with it don't really get what it is on first reading."

As much of fan fiction is written by amateurs, the professional authors feel their well-honed work becomes entangled with substandard, even incompetent, writing. (Although I have indeed read exceptional, well-crafted fan fiction, most of it reeks of adolescent fantasy.) Authors who have fan fictions written about their work feel their reputations are put at risk, reputations they worked long and hard to acquire.

Fans write fan fiction because they want more interaction with the characters they have grown to love. Yet professional authors believe that since they created the characters, no one should write fan fiction without their permission -- which some choose not to bestow. For some authors, creation means ownership.

Author Jane Fancher (Groundties, and others) shares the concern and gives it yet another twist. "I deal with some very sensitive topics and complex character issues in my books, and it takes a long time and multiple books to resolve [them]. Some fan might well correctly read the setup and write a fanfic that bears superficial resemblance to the solution I've been building up to, and post it before my book hits the stands… But what if some unknown number of readers internalize that 'wrong' solution only to become forever resistant to the resolution I'd just spent several hundred thousand words and years of my life building up to?

Mercedes Lackey (Arrows of the Queen, and others), who is similarly positive on the subject, comments. "I think it's an excellent outlet for people, whether they just want the thrill of being read or a tool to become an honest-to-god professional. I think it would be horrible if some monolithic ruling came down that said thou shalt never do this again."

Lackey is an out-of-the-closet writer of fan fiction of City of Heroes, a MMORPG. "It's all collaborative stuff that depends very strongly on the reaction of the other people's characters, and as a consequence, manipulating entirely unexpected reactions that I have to react to. That's one of the things that keeps it fresh and allows me to think about different plotting paths that I might not have gone down. This is opening up new synapse paths for me. It's made things a lot more interesting in my 'real writing.'"

Lackey embraces her inner fan, while Fancher recently found herself in a similar, eye-opening position: "This last summer, I discovered an anime that really hit me where I lived. The thing is, I could only get the first two DVDs from Netflix, and that left me at a terrible cliffhanger. For the first time in my life I was inspired to write in someone else's universe, and for the first time I understood fanfic on a gut level. [The interview has] caught me at a real turning point. I'm still not ready to allow blanket posting of fanfic based on my work, but I'm looking very hard into viable options."

It is because of [the] love of character, these emotional responses, fan fiction writers will probably not stop writing and publishing fan fiction. Karlsson says she and others write fan fiction not because they are trying to compete with professional writers but because they are "fans, first and foremost. It's the fandom that prompted my interest, and my outlet took writing as its format. This is a labor of love."


Some fans believe that professional authors who do not allow fan fiction create something of an intellectual disconnect. Karlsson says, "When a professional writer publishes something, they're putting something out there for public consumption, to engage the public's imagination. Some people will have such extreme interest that they will want more stories, or slightly different stories, than the author can produce."

...at least one fanfic writer has managed to turn her adult fan fiction into a book of erotica by changing the names and abilities of her characters so as to make them unrecognizable to mainstream readers. But fans of her particular universe will easily identify the source of her material. She has stopped writing fan fiction in favor of her new career.

Harold Feld, lawyer and Senior Vice President of the Media Access Project, a non-profit public interest law firm, clarifies the copyright law: "If you're distributing it to friends in hardcopy, it's okay under most interpretations of the 'fair use' exception to the copyright act. But sharing fan fiction with the whole world without permission is a violation of copyright law."


But even outright illegality may not stop fan fiction writers from doing what they love. According to Feld, "Fan fiction will be here to stay. What's needed on all sides is a sense of proportion and restraint."

When I conducted my interviews, I was struck by the passionate responses by both the fanfic writers and the professional authors. Infatuation for the characters and the universes, ardor for their work or hobby, and fear about their futures: the fanfic writers are afraid of losing a cherished activity, and published writers fear both losing their livelihoods and alienating their fans.

Where authors have a very real interest in maintaining their intellectual property, corporations have the same interest in keeping their fanbase happy. If I were to take up fan fiction again, there is no question as to which universes I would choose to write in.