Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

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/)



May. 8th, 2010 02:17 am (UTC)
The thing is, Lovecraft allowed people to write about and make money off of his creations. The understanding current would-be fanfic authors have is that if they attempt to actually cash in on their fiction, not only will they get the shit sued out of them, but they'll ruin it for hundreds or thousands of people who are in the same fandom as them.

Of course, there are people who blithely ignore this. Stephenie Meyer recently had a run-in with a Twilight fanfic author going by Lady Sybilla that was attempting to legitimately publish her story.

The thing is, Sybilla was probably bullheaded enough to do it regardless of Meyer's permissive attitude towards fanfic.

Plus, before Meyer could get to her, fandom at large (and the fiction-writer portion of the blogosphere) had exploded like a volcano. The fiction writers mostly laughed and went "Look at her, isn't her cluelessness adorable?", and the fans freaked out because the backlash from Sybs' attempt to profit off the story would probably spell the end of the Twilight fandom. (Oh god, I sound like a Twilight fan. I'm not! I'm really not! This is just the best, most recent example I could think of where one idiot gets screamed down by people who just want to play in Twilight's sparkly, stalkeriffic world D:)

By and large, fanfic authors aren't immoral, uncreative, screeching hydras that attempt to line their pockets with authors' hard-earned money. They're just people who like to play in somebody else's sandbox, for whatever reason that may be.

Also, if you run a quick Google search for any popular book or book series, television series, movie (live action or animated, but especially animated), or video game, you'll more than likely run across a few fansites for them. Their shows still run, the authors/writers still permit it, and they still get treated in court like they haven't surrendered their copyright, even though in some cases, the fandom has been around for decades and spans tens of thousands of individual members.

At this point, the evidence necessary to support the notion that copyright is null and void the moment you permit not-for-profit, commercially-unpublished fiction doesn't exist.

Now aren't you sorry you didn't just leave your post at "They're my babies, no touchie my babies in their nono places. By the way, all of them is a nono place"? Then you wouldn't have to read this. Technically, you don't anyway, but I'm going to pretend you did.

By the way, thanks for using that icon -- I now know that modified typewriters can be fucking creepy. No, really. Thanks.
May. 8th, 2010 02:26 am (UTC)
I wish I had a link to the cousinjean wank of....oh, when was that? That pretty evenly demonstrates how fandom polices itself in regards to people profiting on fanworks.
May. 8th, 2010 02:45 am (UTC)
May. 8th, 2010 03:31 am (UTC)
At this point, the evidence necessary to support the notion that copyright is null and void the moment you permit not-for-profit, commercially-unpublished fiction doesn't exist.

I don't think you'll find a reputable copyright lawyer in the country who agrees with that point of view. Certainly I haven't, and I've attended countless seminars, lectures and workshops for authors, publishers and editors where this very point was raised and argued at length.

The thing is, while the law doesn't ever explicitly state that, there are similar rules in trademark and patent law that a court might very well decide serve as a guideline or precedent in copyright law. The argument has never been actually tested in court, but legal scholars believe that there's a decent possibility -- enough precedent and the right kind of reasoning -- it might work. Thusly, everyone is scared spitless that it might go the wrong way when it gets tested (whichever the wrong way for that person happens to be). Nobody wants their copyright to be able to be genericized like aspirin or kerosene (both former trademarks, now in the public domain), but at the same time nobody wants to have to run around spending billions of dollars swatting every fanfic writer on the internet with a pre-emptive lawsuit.

That's why so many authors have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy towards fanfic, on the advice of their agents and lawyers. If they don't know about it, they can't be expected to defend their copyright against it should it ever come to that particular legal test.

Is that Chicken Little sky-is-falling paranoia? Maybe. But think about it this way: If that argument ever goes to court, which side will Disney come down on, and which side of that fight do you want to be on, and which side will likely (based on historical precedent) win?
May. 8th, 2010 04:08 am (UTC)
Not really interested in fanfiction. Like most writing, most of it's bad, and it's not even edited half the time to boot.

That said, I see an author who believes he has the right to prevent others from writing about his characters (assuming no plagiarism or commercial gain) as a baker who thinks he can sue a neighbor for smelling his bread. I'm not going to flame or swear at you, but I think your opinions (and over-extensions to "intellectual property" rights that exist because of opinions like yours) have damaged our society irrevocably. It is not only the culture we have lost but the setbacks in intellectual advancement (laws encouraging patent trolls) have lost us countless medical knowledge and innumerable other advances.

There are many reputable copyright lawyers with views you might consider absolutely nutty. I'm not a lawyer by trade, but I can't say I trust those individuals who happen to be speaking at seminars, lectures, or workshops for authors and publishers - because I have never seen such a view mentioned or considered by the copyright lawyers I trust. Quite frankly, there are a large number of utterly ridiculous legal viewpoints which could theoretically pass muster if the Supreme Court incorrectly justified them. When it comes to copyright, the author has the right to license her work as she wishes under what terms she wishes to who she wishes. Otherwise, the whole concept of open source software would be impossible - and the largest companies in the world are banking on it.

Note the allowances made by George Lucas for Star Wars fan works. I cannot really see this as a legitimate concern.
May. 8th, 2010 10:47 am (UTC)
The standard response to your argument is that the intellectual property rights that you so decry are what allows large-scale commercial development. Altruism isn't going to get a new drug through the monstrously expensive FDA testing procedure, and it won't bring the same kind of innovative new manufacturing techniques to market.

Now, you can argue that basements full of idealistic lesser-funded inventors and people freely ripping each other off will form a more creative and intellectually fecund environment than the current large scale commercial labs, but at that point you'd both be engaging in speculation and hypotheticals.

I cannot really see this as a legitimate concern.

The overwhelming majority of the traditional book publishing industry disagrees, and has disagreed for at least the last three generations. As I value protecting my livelihood above being the canary in the coal mine of societal change, I'm going to take the safer stance.
May. 8th, 2010 03:10 pm (UTC)
They can disagree all they want, but fandoms have been around for just as long as these publishers and copyright holders. And it seems to me that the only thing that's really threatening them is that most people are now too stupid to enjoy reading.
May. 8th, 2010 06:50 pm (UTC)
The standard response to your argument is that the intellectual property rights that you so decry are what allows large-scale commercial development. Altruism isn't going to get a new drug through the monstrously expensive FDA testing procedure, and it won't bring the same kind of innovative new manufacturing techniques to market.

The standard response to this argument is that, originally, copyrights (and, I believe, patents, though I know less about these) were of significantly shorter duration, but every time The Mouse might go into public domain, Disney lobbies to get laws changed and the terms extended, thus perverting the original intent of giving an author a limited monopoly to exploit.

Also, the laws are there to promote innovation; this doesn't necessarily directly equate to protecting the author's profits.

And, finally, using the drug industry as an example of how patents promote innovation is, frankly, ridiculous. Their 'innovation' primarily consists of tacking on an atom which won't change the way that the drug actually works or what it does but makes a new drug that we can market as being new and better while charging fistfuls of money for when the prior drug's going to lose its patent exclusivity, and thus its price exclusivity.
May. 8th, 2010 04:53 am (UTC)
this argument essentially seems to be that there is a line of reasoning which almost everyone knows to be wrong, but everyone is afraid that if they don't pretend that it is true, someone might try to use it in court and it will be proved right. In short, people are afraid of a lie about copyright. It remains a lie. There is an onus to defend your trademark, but no such onus for copyright - and a good thing, too, because the nature of creativity is that while specific details of your creation might be unique, broadly similar ideas and creations will come up again and again.
May. 8th, 2010 10:39 am (UTC)
An untested legal theory is not the same thing as a lie. Also, US copyright law doesn't cover "broadly similar ideas and creations". It's very specific on that point.
May. 8th, 2010 12:54 pm (UTC)
Your probably true - though stating an untested legal theory as if it is the actual status quo is untruthful if the speaker knows the difference. But point taken, and that certainly didn't apply to the post I was replying to.

And yes, US copyright law (or almost any copyright law AFAIK - copyright covers the expression of an idea, not the idea itself, under Berne Convention etc) doesn't cover broadly similar ideas and creations, and numerous lawyers over the years have tried extremely hard to sneak their way around that by various tactics, such as exaggerated lists of similarities, etc - take the Rowling vs Jacobs case . Rowling won that one, but people will keep trying, and inevitably someone will succeed (even if not in the right, by intimidation or blind luck)


George R.R. Martin
George R. R. Martin

Latest Month

April 2018


Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Lilia Ahner