Monday, August 26, 2013

Agency Lessons: Fan Fiction

This is one of those hot button topics that writers love to jump on, pick a side and argue over. To that end, this post is not about the merits of fan fiction. What this post is really about is publishing fan fiction. Potentially, just as hot button, but we'll see.

With the publication of novels stemming from well known fan fiction pieces such as E.L. James's 50 Shades of Grey (Twilight) and Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments (Harry Potter), there's lots of buzz on the topic. Then Amazon went and announced an opportunity for writers to publish fan fiction on their new site, Kindle Worlds.

I've started seeing lots of questions about the options to publish fan fiction and the trend has recently moved into my query box. So where is the line when it comes to publishing fan fiction?

First, anything that has moved into the public domain is safe. This is why books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies can take so heavily from the original. With the copyright expired, there have been numerous adaptations, including spinoff stories following Mr. Darcy, their children and even a musical. Go figure.

So what if a copyright hasn't expired? Certainly, Twilight and Harry Potter still have copyrights firmly intact. Unfortunately, there is no magic percentage that makes it safe to lean on a copyrighted story. Like most legal issues, there is a big swatch of grey area that leaves a lot of questions. Often writers have to use their best judgement and publishers have to weigh certain risks against potential profits.

However, some areas are quite clear. You can't take the world and characters from someone else and simply build on what they've created. A story about Harry and Ron getting into trouble as 30-somethings is fine for fun, but you can't publish it for profit. In the same vein, a story that only changes a character's name and leaves everything else intact is a big no-no. Your story about Larry the boy wizard who must learn all about the magical community while fighting off an evil wizard with the help of his palls Don and Hominy isn't going to fly (pun intended).

Ideas and Themes aren't copyrightable. This is why we can have countless stories about vampires, angels, teen eating disorders and broken marriages. Events are copyrighted. It's probably a good idea to rethink that scene about a kid being seen flying a Ford Anglia over London.

So where does an author draw the line? Personally, I'd advise drawing it at the edge of your toes. By that, I mean, as close to your own creation as possible. As writers, most of us read extensively. It's foolish to think that we aren't inspired and influenced by the works of authors that came before us. Just know that if you allow that inspiration to flow into duplication, you risk legal action.

At the end of the day, I suggest thinking carefully about putting the shoe on the other foot. How much would be okay for another writer to borrow from your work? The Golden Rule will never steer you wrong.

Let me say here that I'm not a lawyer and I don't write about them. Please don't take this as legal advice, but merely my take on the issue as an agent. For more information about copyright you can check out this page on Fair Use and this government site.


  1. Great post, Sarah. Personally, I'd rather create my own stories than work off an existing one. Though...I have taken myths and reworked them with new twists to base my work on.

  2. Drawing the line at the end of our toes - great advice. Where do you think the difference is between stealing ideas (consciously or subconsciously) or simply following a trend? (Like dystopians and love triangles in YA right now.)

    1. Most of these trends are themes so they aren't copyrightable. Take love triangles for example. In Twilight, we have a love triangle involving a werewolf and a vampire. If someone else writes a story where a human girl is caught in a love triangle between a faerie and a wizard, this could be derivative, but isn't a stolen idea all on its own. After all, Twilight hardly invented the love triangle. It depends on how the rest of the plot line is handled. If it's a clumsy girl in a new town, she falls in insta-love with the 200 year old faerie but finds herself in a hard position because another faerie wants to kill her, now we have an issue.


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