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Someone Is Angry On the Internet

My position on so-called "fan fiction" is pretty well known. I'm against it, for a variety of reasons that I've stated previously more than once. I won't repeat 'em here.

My position is not unique. It is not universal either, I realize. Some writers actually encourage fan fiction (I know some of them, have heard their arguments), others don't seem to care one way or another (I know many of those). Many writers have no idea that it exists, no concept of what it is (in part because of the confusing term "fan fiction," which subject I will return to later), and have given the subject no thought. So there's a wide range of opinion on this matter, even among writers.

There are lots of us who oppose fan fiction, though. One such is my friend Diana Gabaldon, author of the mega-bestselling OUTLANDER series... and the occasional terrific short story and novella, some of which Gardner Dozois and I have been privileged to publish in our anthologies. Diana recently outlined her own feelings about fan fiction -- especially fan fiction involving her own world and characters -- in a series of posts on her blog:


Subsequent to Diana's first post, all hell broke loose. (As it seems to do more and more often on this "interweb" thingie). A thousand comments on her first two blog posts on the subject. It's all there, for those who want to check out the "debate." Which soon, alas, became heated, as hundreds of... what's the correct term here? fanficcers? fan fictioneers? fans of fanfic? defenders of fanfic?... arrived from all over the internet to take issue with Diana. A good number of them seemed to open their posts with variations on 'I don't know who you are and I've never read your books and I've never visited this blog before, but I've come by specially to lambast you.'


I have a colorful metaphor in mind to describe what this reminds me of, but I won't use it. Metaphors seemed to spark much of the outrage here. Writers have a natural prediliction for the colorful phrase, the striking comparison, but in political discussions -- and this is, at base, a political discussion -- that can lead to hyperbole, which can lead to anger.

So let me try to eschew all that and remain calm.

I am not going to rehash the arguments for and against "fan fiction." If you want to read those, go to Diana's blog. In between the shouting and the abuse and the endless restatement of the same three or four points by several hundred different posters, there's actually some fairly cogent posts on both sides, arguing the pros and cons of the issue.

I would like to say a couple of things that I don't think anyone else covered, however (and yes, I read all thousand-plus comments, though admittedly I skimmed some that just seemed to be more of the same).

As I said, my reasons for opposing fan fiction have been stated in the past. They are more-or-less the same reasons as those cited by Diana Gabaldon, and pretty much the same reasons that would given by any writer who shares our viewpoint on the matter. So I won't repeat them here. But I'll add a few thoughts.

One of the things I mislike about fan fiction is its NAME. Truth is, I wrote fan fiction myself. That was how I began, when I was a kid in high school writing for the dittoed comic fanzines of the early 1960s. In those days, however, the term did not mean "fiction set in someone else's universe using someone else's characters." It simply meant "stories written by fans for fans, amateur fiction published in fanzines." Comic fandom was in its infancy then, and most of us who started it were kids... some of whom did make the mistake of publishing amateur fan-written stories about Batman or the Fantastic Four in their 'zines. National (what we called DC back then) and Marvel shut those down pretty quickly.

The rest of us knew better. Including me. I was a fan, an amateur, writing stories out of love just like today's fan fictioneers... but it never dawned on me to write about the JLA or the Fantastic Four or Spider-Man, much as I loved them. I invented my own characters, and wrote about those. Garizan, the Mechanical Warrior. Manta Ray. The White Raider. When Howard Keltner, one of the editors and publishers of STAR-STUDDED COMICS, the leading fanzine of its day, invited me to write about two of his creations, Powerman and Dr. Weird, I leapt at the chance... but only with Howard's express invitation and permission.

So that's the sort of fan fiction I wrote. How and when the term began to be used for what is called fan fiction today, I don't know. I wish there was another term for that, though I confess I cannot think of one that isn't either cumbersome, vague, or prejorative. But it does bother me that people hear I wrote fan fiction, and take that to mean I wrote stories about characters taken from the work of other writers without their consent.

Consent, for me, is the heart of this issue. If a writer wants to allow or even encourage others to use their worlds and characters, that's fine. Their call. If a writer would prefer not to allow that... well, I think their wishes should be respected.

Myself, I think the writers who allow fan fiction are making a mistake. I am not saying here that the people who write fan fiction are evil or immoral or untrustworthy. The vast majority of them are honest and sincere and passionate about whatever work they chose to base their fictions on, and have only the best of intentions for the original author. But (1) there are always a few, in any group, who are perhaps less wonderful, and (2) this door, once opened, can be very difficult to close again.

Most of us laboring in the genres of science fiction and fantasy (but perhaps not Diana Gabaldon, who comes from outside SF and thus may not be familiar with the case I am about to cite) had a lesson in the dangers of permitting fan fiction a couple of decades back, courtesy of Marion Zimmer Bradley. MZB had been an author who not only allowed fan fiction based on her Darkover series, but actively encouraged it... even read and critiqued the stories of her fans. All was happiness and joy, until one day she encountered in one such fan story an idea similar to one she was using in her current Darkover novel-in-progress. MZB wrote to the fan, explained the situation, even offered a token payment and an acknowledgement in the book. The fan replied that she wanted full co-authorship of said book, and half the money, or she would sue. MZB scrapped the novel instead, rather than risk a lawsuit. She also stopped encouraging and reading fan fiction, and wrote an account of this incident for the SFWA FORUM to warn other writers of the potential pitfalls of same.

That was twenty years ago or thereabouts, but that episode had a profound effect on me and, I suspect, on many other SF and fantasy writers of my generation.

Okay, it was one incident a long time ago, you may say. Fair enough. Let me bring up a couple other writers, then. Contemporaries of an earlier age, each of whom was known by a set of initials: ERB and HPL. ERB created Tarzan and John Carter of Mars. HPL created Cthulhu and his Mythos. ERB, and later his estate, was extremely protective of his creations. Try to use Tarzan, or even an ape man who was suspiciously similar to Tarzan, without his/ their permission, and their lawyers would famously descend on you like a ton of bricks. HPL was the complete opposite. The Cthulhu Mythos soon turned into one of our genres first shared worlds. HPL encouraged writer friends like Robert Bloch and Clark Ashton Smith to borrow elements from his Cuthulhu Mythos, and to add elements as well, which HPL himself would borrow in turn. And in time, other writers who were NOT friends of HPL also began to write Cthulhu Mythos stories, which continues to this day.

Fair enough. Two writers, two different decisions.

Thing is, ERB died a millionaire many times over, living on a gigantic ranch in a town that was named Tarzana after his creation. HPL lived and died in genteel poverty, and some biographers have suggested that poor diet brought on by poverty may have hastened his death. HPL was a far more beloved figure amongst other writers, but love will only get you so far. Sometimes it's nice to be able to have a steak too. The Burroughs estate was paid handsomely for every Tarzan movie ever made, and collected plenty on the PRINCESS OF MARS movie I worked on during my Hollywood years, and no doubt is still collecting on the one currently in development... though the book is in the public domain by now. Did the Lovecraft estate make a penny off THE DUNWICH HORROR movie, the HERBERT WEST, REANIMATOR movie, the recent DAGON movie, the internet version of CALL OF CTHULHU? I don't know. I rather doubt it. If they did, I'll betcha it was just chump change. Meanwhile, new writers go right on mining the Cthulhu mythos, writing new stories and novels.

Cthulhu, like John Carter, is in the public domain by now, I know. But it wouldn't matter. Because HPL let so many others play in his sandbox, he essentially lost control of his own creations. That's what I mean by (2), above. The fan fiction door, once opened, is hard to close again.

A writer's creations are his livelihood. Those copyrights are ultimately all that separates an ERB from a HPL. Is it any wonder that most writers are so protective of them?

Those of us, like Diana Galabdon and myself, who prefer not to allow fan fictioners to use our worlds and characters are not doing it just to be mean. We are doing it to protect ourselves and our creations.

Furthermore, we HAVE to do it. That's something no one addressed, in those thousand comments about Diana's blog. There was a lot of talk about copyright, and whether or not fan fiction was illegal, whether it was fair use (it is NOT fair use, by the way, not as I understand the term, and I have a certain familiarity with what is and isn't fair use thanks to my own experiences with THE ARMAGEDDON RAG), but no one mentioned one crucial aspect of copyright law -- a copyright MUST BE DEFENDED. If someone infringes on your copyright, and you are aware of the infringement, and you do not defend your copyright, the law assumes that you have abandoned it. Once you have done that, anyone can do whatever the hell they want with your stuff. If I let Peter and Paul and Nancy publish their Ice & Fire fanfics, and say nothing, then I have no ground to stand on when Bill B. Hack and Ripoff Publishing decide they will publish an Ice & Fire novel and make some bucks. Peter and Paul and Nancy may be the nicest people in the world, motivated only by sincere love of my world and characters, but Bill B. Hack and Ripoff don't give a damn. They just want the bucks.

Once you open that door, you can't control who might come in.

No one would ever do that, I hear someone muttering in the back. Hoo hah. The history of publishing is full of such cases. Even the famously and fiercely litigious ERB estate was famously victimized back in the 60s, when someone forget to timely renew the copyright on a Tarzan book, and a bottom rung comic company noticed and promptly started up a completely unauthorized (and unpaid for) Tarzan comic.

Those are some of the reasons writers like me will not permit fanfic, but before I close, let me put aside the legal and financial aspects of all this for a moment, and talk about more personal ones. Here, I think, Diana Gabaldon absolutely hit the nail on the head in the latest of her blog posts on the subject. And here, she and I agree completely. Many years ago, I won a Nebula for a story called "Portraits of His Children," which was all about a writer's relationship with the characters he creates. I don't have any actual children, myself (Diana does). My characters are my children, I have been heard to say. I don't want people making off with them, thank you. Even people who say they love my children. I'm sure that's true, I don't doubt the sincerity of the affection, but still...

I have sometimes allowed other writers to play with my children. In Wild Cards, for instance, which is a shared world. Lohengrin, Hoodoo Mama, Popinjay, the Turtle, and all my other WC creations have been written by other writers, and I have written their characters. But I submit, this is NOT at all the same thing. A shared world is a tightly controlled environment. In the case of Wild Cards, it's controlled by me. I decide who gets to borrow my creations, and I review their stories, and approve or disapproval what is done with them. "No, Popinjay would say it this way," I say, or "Sorry, the Turtle would never do that," or, more importantly (this has never come up in Wild Cards, but it did in some other shared worlds), "No, absolutely not, your character may not rape my character, I don't give a fuck how powerful you think it would be."

And that's Wild Cards. A world and characters created to be shared. It's not at all the same with Ice & Fire. No one gets to abuse the people of Westeros but me.


I have gone on longer than I intended, but I think this is important stuff. "Fan fiction" -- or whatever you want to call it -- has been around for a long time, but never like now. The internet has changed everything. Whereas before the fanfic might be published in obscure fanzines with a circulation of a hundred, now tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, can read these... well, let's just call them "unauthorized derivative works." (Except in cases where the writer has authorized 'em, which I suppose would be "authorized derivative works.") More than ever, we need some boundaries here.

I salute Diana Gabaldon for opening the debate.

And now I step back, and await the onslaught.

(But a word of warning. I'm not nearly as nice a person as Diana is, and this Not A Blog is screened and monitored by my assistant Ty. Diana was willing to let everything go in her comments section. I'm not. So -- my roof, my rules. Disagree, if you want. Disagree vigorously. Argue your points. But no name-calling, no abuse, no threats. And you can spare me the "I have never read any of your books, but now I'm not going to, and I'm going to tell all my friends not to read your books either" posts as well. Fine, you just want to read books by authors who support fan fiction, go ahead, do that, there are a number of very fine writers in that group, we don't need to hear about it here. No derailing the discussion, please. Let's talk about the issue, not tone. I'd love to see some rational discourse here, thanks).

(And yes, the title of this post is a reference to the classic xkcd cartoon that can be seen here: http://xkcd.com/386/)



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May. 8th, 2010 12:33 pm (UTC)
it's so black and white
it really is. the creater of content should always get to decide how it is and isn't used. bill watterson didn't want other people to control calvin and hobbes. luckily, they never did. you do't want other people using your characters. and they certainly shouldn't.

i think it's unbelievably selfish and self-righteous that people ever think they should have any input into how someone else;s creative property is treated. they don't. you want control? make something up yourself.

beyond that, i'll never understand why anyone would spend the time and effort to crat a story while cheating and using someone else's hard work and effort as a foundation (at least so brazenly). do it your own way and do your own hard work.
May. 8th, 2010 12:36 pm (UTC)
Eh, I don't understand why people can't just let it go. You like fanfic, great. You meet someone else who doesn't like fanfic? Okay, that's their prerogative. Why do you have to argue with them? It's not a condemnation of your love of fanfic. An author you like doesn't like fanfic, don't write fanfic for that author. I don't understand what the big deal is. This isn't like politics where in the end, we need a consensus to get legislation passed. This is easily an issue where one side can go their way and the other side can go theirs.
May. 8th, 2010 12:40 pm (UTC)
Furthermore, we HAVE to do it. That's something no one addressed, in those thousand comments about Diana's blog. There was a lot of talk about copyright, and whether or not fan fiction was illegal, whether it was fair use (it is NOT fair use, by the way, not as I understand the term, and I have a certain familiarity with what is and isn't fair use thanks to my own experiences with THE ARMAGEDDON RAG), but no one mentioned one crucial aspect of copyright law -- a copyright MUST BE DEFENDED. If someone infringes on your copyright, and you are aware of the infringement, and you do not defend your copyright, the law assumes that you have abandoned it.

I don't know if someone else addressed this (I'm not reading through all the comments to find out, sorry), but you are mistaken. Well, more accurately, you are confused.

You are confusing Trademarks and Copyrights.

Copyrights are not lost by not defending them. For the entire term of the copyright (differs by country, typically for your entire life plus several decades), you retain the copyright unless you explicitly give them to someone else.

Trademarks, however, are weakened by failing to defend known infringements. The text of A Game of Thrones is covered by copyright and you will own that copyright for the entire term of copyright or until you transfer that copyright to someone else. The Coke logo or the Bat Symbol, however, are covered by trademarks and, if they are not defended, the trademark holder will find it increasingly difficult to defend infringement which is why things like the Bat Symbol are so aggressively defended - they're required to defend any known infringement or they will effectively lose their trademark.

Trademarks and Copyrights are NOT the same thing. They are different in many, many, many ways. I believe, based on what you've said, that you are confusing the two. I would suggest, rather than talking to a friend (who may similarly be confused, since most people do confuse the two intellectual property laws), you should talk to an IP lawyer (I would imagine you know one, if not several, given your line of work) and have them clearly describe the differences.

Copyrights are not weakened by not defending them. Trademarks are.

(By way of a quick explanation, from http://www.copyright.gov:

"How is a copyright different from ... a trademark?
Copyright protects original works of authorship, while a ... trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs identifying the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguishing them from those of others."

The ellipses remove information about patents which aren't relevant to this in any way.)
May. 8th, 2010 12:41 pm (UTC)
before reading your post I'd never read a single piece of
fan fiction.
Soon after I began ploughing through all the comments, I opened a tab & had a look at some.
I don't get it. It's tosh!
It baffles me what's going through these people's minds when they're writing it.
I'll stick to the real thing, thanks.
Can't wait for ADWD.
May. 8th, 2010 12:46 pm (UTC)
I'm curious how you feel about people using your world for role-playing purposes. I don't mean seeking publication at all--Internet or otherwise just a group of people getting together and playing a game in your world.

And on the same subject, would you allow a gaming company through a license agreement to publish your world for gamers (I don't know if you have or not as I've only been reading your Not a Blog for just a few months)?
May. 8th, 2010 12:50 pm (UTC)
How long should Copyright Last?
George, I agree 100% with you that fan fiction is a slippery slope and creators have to aggressively show ownership of their creation to prevent it from falling into the public domain.

But I completely disagree with some of the comments about maintaining the copyright for years and years after the authors death. (IE "Death of Sauron" comments)

Today copyright can be maintained 70+ years after the creators death. I think this is a major disservice to society as a whole. Its dis-hearting to think about how many old books/movies/albums are under-utilized or go unread/watched/heard because the current copyright holders are difficult to find or overcharge for the rights. The purpose of copyright is to incentivise the creator to create, but it too often seems to enrich some future owner, far removed from the original creator. To me, this feels "Paris Hiltonesque", i.e. someone born into wealth who lives an extravegent lifestyle based on other people's toils without ever adding value to society. Only worse, because this future copyright holder is deriving their profits by restricting the flow of information/knowledge/culture to society at large.

A few years (or maybe even weeks) of work turn into a guarantee of exclusivity that goes well into the afterlife of the creator. Where is the social value in that? How does our current system encourage learning or dissemination of culture/knowledge?

Personally, I think copyright should extend the life of the creator + ~10yrs. But at some point we need to call enough, enough and let the work become public domain.

Also, in case you are interested, Economist had an opinion piece last month that sums the problems with our current system very well:


PS I love your books and can't wait for DWD. I'll be very sad if my grandchildren/great-grandchildren won't be able to enjoy your books due to restrictive copyrights that make them impossible to find long after we are both gone.
May. 8th, 2010 01:05 pm (UTC)
Two points I want to bring up:

First, you told us the story about MZB who was unable to calm down the upstart fan and eventually had to scrap her novel / idea.
Now I would like to know how this instance differs from you inventing new characters in the Marvel world which could have been - by chance - creations the authors would have come up with as well. And then they would have had to explain it to you and hope that YOU don't suspect them of ripping off your idea of the Mechanical Warrior. So, you have been there as well, it appears to me.
In my eyes this whole issue is a problem of laws alone. If it's even possible for such an ******* to make claims concerning MZB's created world then something is wrong. There would have to be a law that makes sure that you can have all the fun you want with a Marvel, Outlander or whatever world but the entire intellectual property belongs to the author and the author alone. So whatever cool idea you have that the author may not have had in his series you're never gonna see a penny for it - even if the author writes exactly the same thing in his book. This would protect a) the author in examples like with MZB and the fan and b) well-meaning fans who just want to write and enrich and feel good in the world they love. There could of course be authors then who solely ripp off ideas from a vast selection of "fan fic" and get rich with it - but in that case (IMHO) it would be the problem of the fans to realize he / she is an a**hole and stop writing in that world.

My second point is more of principle nature: For me, forbidding "fan fiction" would be like telling children they're not allowed to "play Harry Potter" and impersonate e.g. Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. That's what we did when we were younger and of course we would have our own interpretations of the characters (to a certain extent) and of course not everything in our play-world would happen exactly as in the novels. We would fight other creatures and may have whole different adventures to survive. Fan fiction is only this euphoria put into writing and I would find it quite sad if "grown up children" were not allowed to indulge in it.
I can see your point that your characters are like children to you and you don't want somebody to take off with them as well, but I can also understand peoples desire to imagine their favorite characters in all kinds of situation which are not included in the book and write that down to pay tribute to their fascination of this/these character(s). I would somehow find it limiting to the imagination if this was forbidden.
I guess one has to concentrate on the thought that as soon as a character is featured in a "fan fic" it's not the original character anymore, it is not the Arya Stark from your original novels, it is a clone in a parallel universe that can never ever be the original Arya and thus one has to completely distance oneself from that thought (that's only my approach with which a basic positive attitude towards "derivative works" is still possible, even as an author).

Ok, those are my two cents. Hope it comes across as constructive as it was meant.

May. 8th, 2010 06:45 pm (UTC)
I never "invented new characters in the Marvel universe."

The only time I've ever written in the Marvel universe was for an X-Men benefit issue for the Ethiopian famine.

As a kid, I invented new characters in my own universes... and wrote certain characters in the Star-Studded universe, with the permission of the creators (Howard Keltner, chiefly).
May. 8th, 2010 01:13 pm (UTC)
I hate fanfic;it's just lazy.
May. 8th, 2010 01:14 pm (UTC)
I have just read your post and think it is wonderful.
As a reader, I have not interest in reading works by people supposedly writing in the style/world, or whatever, of another author whose work I like or admire. I do not see the point in reading such stories. They are not by the original author, whose work I want to read.

A long winded way of saying, "Well said!"
May. 8th, 2010 01:19 pm (UTC)
A couple of thoughts:

1. This is another clash over what I could only just call "Entitlement". There's been a lot of those recently. The internet just makes it more so, with our ready access to all this free information. Free not in the manner that everyone has access to them and it cannot be hidden; that stems from the real point: That you don't have to pay for it. Someone pays though, obviously.

2. I think related to the above in a certain manner is the media moving to be more and more inter-textual, something I've touched lightly upon in a blog post about comedies. Comedies, specifically sitcoms rely more and more on "insider jokes". We tend to look at it as a "geek thing", but it holds true all over, with insider football knowledge or whatever being the foundations of jokes.
May. 8th, 2010 01:34 pm (UTC)
I agree.

But that's not enough, is it?

Fanfiction, to me, is at its best a form of worship for an author; it shows just how much a piece of work has impacted the lives of the fanficcer...but at the same time, there's just something wrong with it. My friends have sent me choice lines from Harry Potter fanfictions, which are hilarious - but disturbing. The characters are primarily the authors, and here are a bunch of fans, making the characters their own, making them do strange, out of character things. I just don't like it; if I were to get my story/book/thing published, I don't think I'd like the thought of fans taking hold of my characters and making them have a tea-party with Jack the Ripper. No, no, no. If I've spent all that time molding and shaping a character to my specifications, I would flip if someone just took that and twisted it around. It doesn't matter who you are, you will never write the characters the way they were meant to be - only their creator fully understands them, and it should be left that way.

...plus in my honest opinion, they generally aren't too pleasant to read, not when compared to the original work, no matter how close they get to the character.
May. 8th, 2010 01:42 pm (UTC)
This is an excellent post on a very touchy subject!

I first encountered fic in the early seventies in Trek fandom, and I've read and written it in various TV-based fandoms ever since. I remember being appalled at the whole MZB debacle, but always felt that her biggest mistake was in reading the fic; I think J.K Rowling has the right approach - write it, within the very specific limits she has set up, but never, ever try to show it to her.

Personally, however, I've always found book-based fic to be a very odd concept. If you're not satisfied with what a writer has created in his/her books, move on to another book or writer. It's not as though there's a shortage of things to read out there. ;)
May. 8th, 2010 02:07 pm (UTC)
Your World = Your Ownership
Your argument makes sense to me. Sounds pretty obvious! With the author's permission ~ fine. Without ~ NO
May. 8th, 2010 02:22 pm (UTC)
Is it all about money?
I get the distinct impression not just from this post but from a lot of your posts that money is a big factor in most of your "opinions". I can respect that, but why not just come out and say it?
Something like " I like money! a lot."
I can respect your opinions about fan fic though, but one thing I didn't see anyone else post, was public domain. You put something out there, your taking the risk, You can cry and complain and site examples all you want but once you publish something, publish-sounds like a variation of public, but your the writer not me, your inviting these fanficers to do there thing.
Honestly Mr. Martin, I don't think you have anything to worry about. Write your stories, you are amazingly talented, publish them, watch the money trucks show up to your house.
I don't care if 1000 people publish stories based in your world, they will never be as good as yours.
delete at your liesure.
May. 8th, 2010 06:07 pm (UTC)
Re: Is it all about money?
"Public domain" has a very specific legal meaning.

Simply publishing a story does not put it in the public domain.
May. 8th, 2010 02:49 pm (UTC)
Thanks a lot for explaining your position. While I personally disagree, I completely respect it, and I do believe that you have every right - ethically at least, since the legal issues are still up for debate - to set the rules regarding your own creations.

I think one important point that kept coming up in those comments, however, was this: if, as you have done, an author makes a point of saying that he/she doesn't want fanfiction written about their characters or worlds, people will respect that. The major archives will enforce it, and the fic writers will keep their stories private. I believe your name came up several times when commenters were looking for examples of authors who had stances against fanfiction, and none of them were angry with you at all. (There will always be a few unreasonable nutcases, unfortunately, like in the MZB case, but to my knowledge even most pro-fanfiction authors now have a policy of never reading any of it as a precaution against them.)

It seemed to me, amidst all the debate about legality and ethics, that people were angry because of the tone of Ms. Gabaldon's original post. They felt personally mocked and vilified for what had been to them an expression of love and appreciation. So rather than the opening of discussion, or even just an official statement against fanfiction, the post seemed to be a direct confrontation. Thus the drama.
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George R.R. Martin
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