Well, that was interesting…
There’s a small chance, O Readers of my blog, that I’ll lose a pretty good editing gig because I expressed my views against fan fiction that has been written without the permission of the original author. (A writer had a small conniption fit after seeing my comment online that I will not edit fanfic; this writer has in the past written authorized derivative works, and she apparently didn’t realize that fan fiction and licensed movie tie-in or whatever are altogether different things.)
So let me point out something very important, before any of you have a conniption fit, too: Fan fiction is a form of derivative work, but not all derivative works are fan fiction. When I say, “I don’t like fan fiction, and most of the time, I think it’s unethical if not outright illegal,” I’m not saying I’m against movies based on novels or comic books, for example. (For cryin’ out loud, kids, the Percy Jackson novels and movies are not “Greek mythology fanfic.” *rolls eyes* Get a clue, would you?)
No, really, I don’t see it as a damn compliment to the original author if someone says, “You’re one of my favorite authors ever, and I like your stories so much that I’m going to steal from you and claim your characters and your world as my own and do whatever I want with them.” Claiming that such theft is intended as praise is a cop-out. According to copyright law, it is stealing.
Claiming, “Once the story is out there, it doesn’t belong to the author — it belongs to the audience,” is also a cop-out. Do whatever the hell you want to do in your own head, but even “publishing” without money involved is illegal unless you have express permission from whomever owns the copyright.
Myth #3: A book is not “published” for copyright purposes if you give it away for free.
False. Under the Copyright Act, “publication” means “the distribution of copies . . . of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending,” or “offering to distribute copies of the work to a group “for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display.” (17 U.S.C. Section 101)
The Copyright Act does not require that the author make any money (or profits) on sales before a work is considered “published.”
Saying, “I’m not selling my fanfics, I just put them on my blog [or wherever],” doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to publish them. Putting it on your blog (or Wattpad, etc.) counts as public display; you put your fanfic out there for the public to read, so you’ve published it. Mere lack of a public statement from the author saying not to publish fan fiction of their work doesn’t mean you have permission, either. You don’t have permission unless you HAVE permission.
I’ve blogged about this topic before, and if you follow this link, you can read a list of examples of things that are not fan fiction, just to give you some idea of how “inspired by” and derivative works are not the same thing as stealing someone else’s intellectual property, and should not be used to “justify” such theft.
(*considers discussing screenplays and “giant stompy robots” in the context of legitimate derivative works, but thinks better of it and says nothing*)
Unless otherwise specified by contract (as may or may not occur with legitimate derivative works), the owner of the original work also owns all derivative works. Fan fiction is a form of derivative work, although not all derivative work is fan fiction — but do feel free to comment here on my blog that it is, if you enjoy being publicly derided — which means that if you publish fan fiction, the owner of the original owns your stories, too, and has the legal right to say what is done with them. Maybe they’ll just tell you to stop publishing fanfic of their work, but maybe they’ll decide to take your stories, claim ’em as their own, and sell ’em… Don’t like it so much when the shoe is on the other foot, do you? 😛
Another argument in favor of fan fiction is, “Fan fiction lets the writer practice writing without having to make up their own characters and world and stuff.” So what? Stealing someone’s car would let you practice driving without having to get your own vehicle or borrow from someone willing to lend theirs, but I’m fairly sure that wouldn’t hold up in court as justification for car theft. And who says you have to publish (publish: verb meaning to make public) everything you write? Go ahead and have fun making up and writing down stories about characters from your favorite movie or television series or novel, but don’t put those stories on an internet forum… or, worse yet, on Amazon or Smashwords. You don’t own those fictional people just because you like them. You don’t own those imaginary places just because you want to spend more time there after the stories are over.
If your reason for writing fan fiction is just to practice writing, go ahead and fill your personal notebooks (or computer files) with it. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. Just don’t put it on public display if it still contains things that don’t belong to you.