Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Fanfiction Debate

Over at Jami Gold's blog there's been a discussion about fanfiction and plagiarism raging for the past few days. In reading the comments, I noticed a lot of authors and perspective authors who were completely dismissive of fanfiction and those who write it. I decided that I wanted to add my two cents, but I decided to do it here instead of in Ms. Gold's comment threads.

First of all, anyone who tries to monetarily profit from fanfiction is guilty of copyright infringement within the United States. I can't speak for other country's copyright laws, as I have a hard enough time keeping up with my own. United States copyright allows for derivative works to exist, but there's a very fine limit for derivative works (works that are based on other works) to be able to make money. In the writing world, those limits are exceedingly strict, and fanfiction never fulfills them. Any money (or goods) a fanfiction author makes from their fanfiction is legally viewed as belonging to the original author, at least in part. This includes 'gifts' from fanfiction fans. Differing authors have differing amounts of care about fanfiction, and are more or less likely to sue for their fair share if a fanfiction author becomes known for profiting from their fanfiction. But keep in mind that an author's agent, editor, and publishing house may all also push for a lawsuit. They also put in a lot of elbow grease on the original work, and aren't going to want to give the monetary value of that work away to someone they don't know. That's the legalities of fanfiction.

Now, why would anyone want to write fanfiction if they are planning or hoping on a career in fictional writing? Well, I see several reasons.

First, some people just need to start out working with writing mechanics. How do I write description? How do I write dialogue? Simple, basic things that must be mastered. For some people, using an existing world, concept, and characters means that they can concentrate on those mechanics without having to juggle all of the balls they eventually need to keep in the air in order to be professionally published.

Second, communities like provide an ever expanding cheerleading squad for fanfiction authors. Many people in the initial stages of learning any craft find positive feedback to be helpful and motivating. Some fanfiction readers are better than others at giving constructive critiques, but that's not what the author is usually looking for at this point, but merely acceptance of and liking of their writing. Some critique is welcome, but not necessarily sought. In my experience, about the time a writer is starting to look for heavy duty critique, they're graduating out of fanfiction writing. Or at least no longer putting a large degree of emphasis on it.

Ms. Gold also pointed out that simply changing the name of a character, where they're from, and other informational aspects of a character does not make them your own. You can not take a fanfiction story, change a few surface details, and then sell it as an original work. If you're making this mistake, there are a few things you have fundamentally misunderstood about writing, particularly about characterization. I'll cover that in an upcoming post. Also, by posting to a site like and admitting openly and publicly that your work is fanfiction, you can not copyright that work, and therefore cannot publish it in professional or semi-professional avenues. In order to reuse that fanfiction work, you have to utterly transform the work into something inherently different from the fanfiction piece AND the work the fanfiction was based on.

For me, fanfiction is amateur work. I say this as someone who has dabbled in fanfiction. I moved on after a time, because I was more interested in writing the stories in my head rather being constrained by the foundations of someone else's work. You could say I graduated to journeyman level work (or I'm at least attempting to, depending on where your markers for journeyman and master are). But even the best fanfiction is amateur on some level. The author has not created something that is completely their own. They're still copying a master. Just as in the art world, there's something to be learned by copying someone else's work. You learn their style, their techniques, their voice, their quirks. The next step is to take these lessons, internalize them, and make them your own. Fanfiction is work that hasn't taken that next step. Again, I'll post my ideas for doing this in the future.


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