Fan Fiction, Ethics and Authors

Had a nifty discussion with Kingsgrave on her blog this morning. Apparently, Diana Gabaldon discovered that she had fans who were merrily writing fanfic and wasn't pleased about it one bit. The resulting discussion inspired me to jot a few things down. (I count myself lucky to have people in my life to inspire me in various ways. So, thank you, Kingsgrave.)

To be honest, my feelings on fanfic run more in the territory of "Keep your grubby paws off other people's shit. It's not yours. Buy or make your own. I don't give a tinker's damn how much you claim to love it. If you can't refrain from playing with other people's belongings, then show some respect. Ask permission to borrow it first. You would if it were a car. If you don't ask permission that means you've stolen it. Intentions don't come into it. See, if it were a car or a DVD player the police would pretty much agree with me on that front. So, don't get pissy about being asked to quit. And no, you don't get to bitch about how you're being asked to stop either." I don't read fanfic.* Personally, I don't care for it. Fanfic is about practicing the craft of writing. It's not an art form. It's practice with borrowed/stolen materials. Enjoy yourself. Sure. Learn, even better. But don't expect professional accolades for things created with stolen property. If that's what you want, it's time to take the training wheels off the damned bike. 

I ran a Tolkien based D&D campaign for those 16 years, and that was my writer's training ground. I took Tolkien's characters and twisted them into new and interesting shapes. I was a really good DM because I used D&D to train myself in story-telling and not in just how the rules worked. However, I never once told anyone it was my original shit. I always gave Tolkien credit. Not only that, because I wasn't the first to have done so with that D&D campaign, I also credited the DM who trained me.

All artists start with imitation. Even the classic artists learned by copying their teacher's paintings and styles. It's a good way to learn.

BTW, Holly Black's Roiben influenced the original short story OB&H. She planted the idea of an Irish fairy knight in my brain, but I took it elsewhere and my book -- as well as my character -- are completely different. Creativity is, to a degree taking what exists and combining it in new ways. Yes. This is the source of the issue in general. What is creativity and what is stealing? There's a line. Sometimes it's fuzzy, but it exists. It needs to. There's a difference between being influenced by people and stealing from them. And yes, me and my crazy over-pumped up sense of 'ethics' feels guilty about Holly's Roiben, but Holly knows. I told her. (Anyway, I'm an ex-Catholic. Catholics and guilt go together like stink on shit.)

I have trouble with the whole concept of fanfic, admittedly, because of a childhood experience.** Fanfic is a little dangerous. One only has to have a look at a few recent events to understand my position. First, there's the young German 'author' who took entire passages word for word out of another published writer's work and didn't ask permission let alone site the source. She claimed the work entirely for her own, won a literary award and then acted all surprised when she got busted. She said she was 'mixing' like Moby, only with literary works. Well, honey, Moby pays for that privilege, I promise you. The music industry has very strict rules about such things. You didn't follow any of the rules that Moby does. You openly plagiarized. The fact that you don't understand the difference makes it worse. Hand back the f-ing award, prove yourself a professional by writing something of your own and shut the hell up. Now, there's a lawsuit regarding a sequel to J.D. Salinger's A Catcher in the Rye. This sequel was written without permission by a different author. Why would anyone even think that was okay, let alone pursue their 'right' to do so in court? At what point do we admit this isn't right or fair? Are authors required by popularity alone to let people do whatever they want with their work?

This isn't just about money in my opinion. It's about the rights one has to one's own experience and expression of that experience. Art is about taking your deeply personal experiences and passions and putting it into something else. It's hard. It's downright freaking scary. But art is not art without that. It isn't as real or lasting. For example, Ann Rice's Interview with a Vampire. Anyone who has read about Rice knows she put her grief for her daughter into that book. That took guts. What took even more guts was putting that out into the world and taking whatever people were going to say about it. Think about it. It's terrifying. No wonder she got upset when people used her grief for fanfic. To be blunt, no one writes that well about a traumatic situation without having an experience to draw from. So, sure. She didn't handle the fanfic situation professionally and neither has Gabaldon. But honestly, both are people with feelings and flaws just like everyone else. People who claim to admire them should understand that. They should have compassion for the people they admire. Above all, they should have respect.

And when an author says no to fanfic anyone with ethics should listen to that 'no' regardless as to how it is worded.

* This includes the [Insert name of Classic Book] and [Insert name of mythological horror creature] formula books. Yes, I possess a sense of humor -- a pretty healthy one, last I checked. However, I've too much respect for classic literature to give money to someone who is clearly not doing anything original on their own without the help of said classics.

** When I was in 5th grade my little sister, who was in 2nd grade, stole one of my drawings and traced it without my knowledge. She entered the result in the school's yearly Rodeo art contest and placed. My sister hadn't evidenced a drawing talent before. I hadn't even seen her practice. So, I was uneasy and surprised but happy for her. My mom was crazy proud of having multiple daughters with creative talent. For the record, I'd been entering that same contest for years and had never won. Therefore, imagine my anger when I saw the picture that my own sister had used to win the art award I hadn't been able to win. I told my mother that my sister had cheated, had in fact stolen my art. Her response? Well, my little sister was young and didn't understand there might be a problem and I should take that into account. Gosh, I shouldn't be upset. I really should be flattered! It won, after all. Was my sister punished? Nope. Did anyone explain to her why I was mad? Nope. She got to stand in front of the school and get an award instead. I vowed not to do that to anyone. To her credit, as far as I know my sister never did that again.

See, I 've come to see fanfic not as writing practice, but ... as play. Not all fanficcers are trying to publish. Many just want to play with the stories they read, to interact with and explore them a little longer.

For someone who wants to publish, yes, the training wheels eventually have to come off. And making money off ficcing someone's work is not only uncool and slimy but maybe illegal. But for a hobby writer, or for someone who just enjoys playing pretend games based on the worlds they read about, I think it's fine. I'm inclined to let readers have fun, and not to get in the way of that. (Nothing throws cold water on one's interacting with a story like the author hovering over your shoulder, in any context.)

Though I'm torn on what to do if a writer publicly says "don't fic me." I'm inclined to say one should accept . But I think aside from actual clear cut legal issues, I'm mostly inclined to think writers should stay out of the way.
i can see the play angle, and don't have a problem with play. dabbling is fun. i'm all about fun, provided there are rules and folks don't do so at the expense of others and there's no harm done.

authors get to say yes or no. period. if you say it's okay with you then go you.
I don't see that there often is any harm done ... I do think it's respectful to listen to the author's wishes. I'm not sure it's required legally (this is a gray area right now), and I'm not sure it's in the author's best interest to try to stop fanfic either, but it's the respectful thing to do.

Tracing your art, of course, is plagiarism, not fanfic.
yes, it was outright plagiarism. i was merely explaining why the button existed for me in the first place. :)

i like your promotion point, btw. to be honest, i think that what is worrisome to me is the legal 'gray area.' that should be sorted and soon. i think that play should be allowed but it should have rules. the dangers are as i pointed to above. there's a distinction between being respectful and playing and a sense of entitlement.
There should be a rule about not making a profit for sure (which is entitlement if anything is). And maybe about how it's distributed, how it gets used.

Beyond that ... I don't know. I'd say not about content. I think there's actually a point where writers need to let go of entitlement and control too, strange as that sounds. I'm leaning toward thinking anything that doesn't hurt my ability to continue creating isn't something I get to lay down rules for.
i think we're actually on the same side of this argument by the look of it. we're using different language and i'm having the additional burden of struggling with the contents of my writer's anxiety closet(tm).

(no, mr. richards. i didn't say you could come out. [slams door shut and wedges it.])
Plagiarism and fanficcing aren't the same. With plagiarism there is some kind of monetary gain, school grades, or prestige goal involved. It is copying or making an illegal derivative work (like your sister's tracing) with intent to defraud and convince others the original material is yours. Fanficcing is like a game of pretend that is written down. Everyone knows the characters don't belong to the fanfic author. Hell even the scenarios and sometimes characterization is nothing remotely of the original.
That being said, I think people should listen to an author if they don't want their stuff messed with, but it's just going to go underground. I def. think fan ficcers shouldn't be making money with the stuff, but i don't see the harm of it in general. It can even promote the popularity of certain series. Japan is wildly successful with this. I remember being a litte kid and getting to be Han Solo when we played Star Wars characters in the school yard. No one would mistake a small 7 y.o. girl for being Harrison Ford. For the majority of fanfic, no one would mistake it for a piece authorized by the original creator.

And yes it sucks that your art was traced! I've had a friend tell me my ideas for computational chemistry suck and after i threw the schematics in the trash, she'd dig them up and use them for her own work.
I've had a friend tell me my ideas for computational chemistry suck and after i threw the schematics in the trash, she'd dig them up and use them for her own work.

yikes! that's horrible. i'm so sorry.

again, i have no problem with the play angle. enjoyment is a good thing. and rice and gabaldon didn't handle the situation in a professional manner. yes, there are unethical people who will continue to do so anyway. alas, people can be dicks all around.
I agree with Janni. I read and wrote movie and TV show fanfic for twenty years, since The Empire Strikes Back came out when I was in high school. I had a huge fanzine collection, went to Mediawest (a big media fanzine convention), and later ran online archives for fanfic. It was always for play, for the sense of fun and community. Like Janni said, for most people it's not writing practice, it's writing for fun, writing for its own sake.

I've never been big on reading fanfic for books, though, because for me that's always been something where only the original could satisfy. But I think it's awesome when people have written fanfic for my books, because I know how hard it is to get it right, and it's pure joy to me that somebody would go to that much trouble because they liked my work so much. I know some writers really dislike fanfic, but it's not an attitude that I have any understanding of at all.
So we were both writing bad Star Wars fanfic around the same time? :-) (Well, maybe yours was good. Mine, not so much ...)
I'll bet we were! :) I was a huge Han Solo fan, and still remember staking out the mailbox waiting for Facets or Flip of a Coin, and searching through old boxes of zines looking for the issues I'd missed.
I didn't even know that fanfic was a known thing at the time ... I wrote stories with a friend, convinced we were the only people in the Whole World who did such a strange thing! :-)
I was lucky, and stumbled on an ad for a Star Wars fanzine not long after ESB came out. That was a revelation. I knew there were other fans out there because of Starlog Magazine, but I didn't get to actually see any of them in person until I got to go to an early ArmadilloCon. I chose the college I went to just because it had an SF/F fan group and held an annual convention. :)

Edited at 2010-05-05 09:02 pm (UTC)
for the most part, i agree with janni too -- i think. but again, i also think if the author isn't okay with it, don't do it.

for my own work, well, i don't really see that happening to be serious about it. if it did, i'd have mixed feelings, and i'd have to work it out with the spooks in my writer's anxiety closet(tm). i'd like to hope i'd be professional about it, but i am a human being and i do make mistakes and i've run across the issue with my artwork more than once. (both times with people i thought i could trust.) twice more with my writing. (once someone told me point blank they were going to steal my character in front of an entire writer's workshop.) so, that makes it a little bit scarier for me.
I'm of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" group. If there's fan fic of something I've created out there - don't tell me. Then I have to acknowledge it and squash it. I would be professional about it, but I'd have to ask for it to stop on the "Hollywood" grounds of "I don't want to be influenced" bs.

I did fanfic up until about 2002 - when I went pro/original. Entirely tv/film fanfic. Until I met the actors - then it got squicky. That's when I stopped. It got weird after meeting actors and recognizing "real" stuff in the acting.
Such very interesting comments!

I wonder what the rules and boundaries are for idea or art "stealing" in cultures that are more "group think"-based than "individual accomplishment"-based. I know that Japan doesn't value copyrights as strongly as Europe does, for example. Where are their lines drawn? Patents? Profits?

For that matter, I'm not sure where our lines are drawn. We have such a strong history of literary allusion, how far down do you have to file off the serial numbers to be writing your own work -- while being a retelling of such and such piece -- and not just fiddling with stolen ideas? It's a meaty topic!
yep. meaty indeed. and one of the reasons why i picked it! plus, given my history, i thought it'd be a good place to explore my fears and thus, figure out things.

the group-think culture vs individual accomplishment-based culture thought is an interesting one, btw.
Fan art stealing is a huge no-no in Japan. It's a really weird thing by our culture's standards because fanart is technically a derivative work of someone else's.
How very interesting! That's a twist. Thanks, Kitsune. I'm not sure I would have guessed that.

I can almost wrap my brain around it. When the original artist does something for a manga or anime, it's clearly theirs (it carries its own legitimacy). If a fan does something, and someone copies it, the origin is less certain/provable?

Or did I get what you meant wrong?
As a fanfic writer I figure I should put my oar in although Janni and Marthawells have expressed most of what I wanted to say so much better than I could.

To reiterate, plagarism is always wrong and should never be condoned in any context. Taking someone else's work and claiming it as your own is simply wrong.

Fanfic, especially for media, I have never understood the brouhaha over. I see it as doing nothing but benefiting a series to have people creating stories and keeping the interest alive during the breaks. That said, the fanfic I put out in a public forum is from franchises who have openly encouraged it.

At the same time, I remeber how incensed I felt when a "sequel" to Gone with the Wind was published. Margaret Mitchell was asked many times to write one and she insisted the story was complete as she wrote it. Her estate allowed someone to write a sequel and all I can think is they ignored the author's express wishes for greed.

Where does a book like Wicked fall in the continuum? Hell, my favorite C.S. Lewis book (Til We Have Faces) is a blatantly stated reinterpretation of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. What is fair game and what is not? It's a hard line to draw.
true. and again, i'm for talking about it because i want to understand what is best for everyone here. and yes, i did think about the re-written myth end of things. i think myths are fair game.

i agree with you on the gone with the wind sequel and it adds weight to the j.d. salinger point.

frankly, i don't like wicked at all and don't think frank baum would be happy about it either. i put that work in the same box as the classic + monster series since gregory maguire doesn't seem -- as i recall -- to write anything much outside of riffs on other people's work. [shrug] but hey, that's my preferences at work really. if he were a writer i actually liked i might feel differently. heh.
What about Grendel by John Gardner? That's a work that's much more likely to appeal to a High Art aesthetic, and where the transformation of the original work is put to much better effect. Wicked is mostly a work which happens to be transformative of Oz while focusing on X, Y, and Z (mainly, telling a love story and playing a bit with politics), whereas in Grendel the transformation of Beowulf is much more central to the novel's overall project, IMHO. Possibly because Grendel is more of a deconstructive project to the core while Wicked just swaps out one fantasyish adventure narrative for another.

Or really anything from this list? (More items in the comments, too.)

A world where I'd have to give up Grendel and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is not really a world I'm interested in living in.
A world where I'd have to give up Grendel and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is not really a world I'm interested in living in. that is a very excellent point.
1) No seriously, google IP laws, it will be an education and then you'll stop ignorantly parroting those old "you wouldn't steal a car" tv spots.

2) Think about it. It's terrifying. No wonder she got upset when people used her grief for fanfic. To be blunt, no one writes that well about a traumatic situation without having an experience to draw from. So, sure. She didn't handle the fanfic situation professionally and neither has Gabaldon. But honestly, both are people with feelings and flaws just like everyone else. People who claim to admire them should understand that. They should have compassion for the people they admire. Above all, they should have respect.

Obviously I sympathize with anyone who's had to deal with painful experiences, and I do respect the right of authors to ask people not to write fic about their creations. But if you put your experiences into fiction then people are going to react to them in dozens of different ways. And it is your responsibility to choose if you want to open yourself up to those reactions. Leaving all fic-related issues aside, no one is going to avoid calling a character badly written because the author opened up a vein writing her. That's just straight-up not how media works.
1) i wasn't "ignorantly parroting tv spots." thanks -- just expressing how i feel. frankly, i don't remember seeing such a thing.

2) i wasn't excusing bad writing, only bad manners and bad ethics.
1) Then how you feel is an accidental parroting of tv spots, and still profoundly ignorant. If how you feel is that writing fic is the same as stealing a DVD player, then yeah, how you feel is either based on some really ill-founded assumptions that stand in direct contradiction to the entire history of and philosophy behind IP laws - or you have no assumptions, only feelings, and thus your feelings are just straight-up not connected to reality.

2) But what exactly constitutes "bad manners and bad ethics"? No one that I saw was arguing to be able to write fanfic when an author had expressly asked them not to; the arguments were largely around the incredibly offensive assumptions being made about fanfic. But to say that people shouldn't write fic to begin with because true art is very close to home seems profoundly ridiculous to me. Is it bad manners and bad ethics to criticize books? Speculate about their characters? What exactly are you objecting to, if not just the general tendency of people to react to media?

Because here's the truth: if you write something meant for public consumptions, people are going to react to it in ways you don't like. Throwing a temper tantrum not because people are going against your wishes about a particular kind of reaction, but because they dared to have that reaction to begin with, is foolish.
i understand that you are upset by this topic. (that's quite clear in your defensiveness.) it's also clear that you have a great deal invested in fanfic in general. i'm interested in your point of view because i haven't entirely made up my mind on the subject and brought it up because -- regardless of my immediate feelings and fears -- i want to know more before i truly make up my mind in the matter. therefore, if you want to calmly and respectfully discuss the topic as intended, i'm up for that. if not, i'd prefer to end this discussion here.
I'm sorry if my comment came off as harsh; I'm used to being blunt. However, I'm still not sure what you're trying to argue. I would love to discuss it with you, but first I would like to know what we're arguing about.
ah. now you're talking. a little respect on both sides, i think, would go a very long way. arguing in an emotional state doesn't get anyone anywhere but insulted, i've found.

let's start over, shall we?

do you write fanfic? if so, why? what is the value that you see in it?
You compared us to car thieves and plagiarists. "Defensiveness" is a fairly natural reaction, I would think. You also claim fanfic is not art, in much the way some claim rap and hip-hop isn't music.

If you really are interested in learning more about fanfic, metafandom is currently linking to all sorts of "why I fic" and "why Gabaldon has no clue" posts. Allow me to link to a few good ones:

I suggest you read up a little on the subject of fanfic before you continue. It might prevent you from making further generalisations about a community and culture you know little about.
i think i understand now why so few people bother attempting to talk about the subject. all people seem to want to do is be offended and rant.