Fiction Writing Activity as Library Program, Fan Fiction, and Copyright

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I am in the stages of planning a library one-time-only event aimed at getting college students interested in writing their own works of fiction. There are no class credits involved. My premise is “Where do ideas come from?”

Some now-published authors first writing attempts were in writing fan fiction (fanfic). I may suggest that as a possibility while advising the students that they cannot legally make any money from such works. I was also planning on mentioning pastiche works, where they could have similar characters, situations, etc. Now I wonder if that is an improvement?

I recall a Sherlock Holmes inspired character called Solar Pons. The Solar Pons stories basically consisted of all the Holmes characters with different names, though mentioning Sherlock in the stories. These works were published by August Derleth and later by Basil Copper. [see the attached newspaper article from the 2015 issue of the independent]

I hoped to suggest either of these options as a way to spark some interest, but wonder I’d be opening a can of worms that is best kept shut.


For this question, the Law Office of Stephanie Adams, PLLC used a ringer--experienced publishing law and published author Sallie Randolph, who works in our office, advising authors on publishing contracts.  We asked Sallie for her take--as both a copyright attorney and an author--on this intriguing question. Here is her reply:

A library program aimed at sparking the interest of college students in writing fiction is a great idea!  Encouraging them to try their hands at fan fiction is good way to give them a jump start. Fan fiction writing can build skills related to such fiction elements as plot and character, and writing fan fiction is widely acknowledged as an effective way to build writing skills, but it is also highly controversial.

I share your concern about the legal risks involved with writing fan fiction. Most college students don’t understand enough about the nuances of copyright law to truly “get” the reasons why they probably shouldn’t share their work online. Absent the consent of the copyright owner, there is no right to create fan fiction. It’s that simple. But the reasons why are complex.

Under copyright law, a work that is “based on” another work is defined as a “derivative work.” The  right to create a derivative work is reserved by law to the author of the original work. In the process, a derivative work becomes an independently copyrightable new work. However, the right to write a derivative work requires permission of the original author. Fan fiction is a derivative work, and, therefore, if unauthorized, is infringing.

Writers who want to create fan fiction should do so with extreme caution. Swirling around in cyberspace are myriad justifications for copyright infringement. Many copyright myths also circulate in cyberspace. People may think it’s OK to post their fan fiction on the web because they’re generating  publicity for the original author, or because they don’t make money, or because  writing fanfic is paying a compliment to the author, or because the original work is out of print. There are dozens of excuses.

Copyright is literally the right to copy. Copyright infringement is what lawyers call a “strict liability tort.” If you copy without permission you are infringing. Assumptions, excuses, and myths are dangerous. Only the copyright owner has the right to decide what others can or cannot do with her work. Copyright owners have no obligation to explain their motives for granting or withholding permission. They have no obligation to even reply to permission requests. There is no such thing as default consent. The obligation to get permission falls squarely on the shoulders of the writer fan.

There are authors who don’t mind fan fiction, a few who actually encourage it, and many others who are solidly against it. Sometimes infringers get away with it because of what I call “author exhaustion.” Such authors are against fan fiction and other forms of infringement, but they’re tired of trying to assert their rights against the infringers. Trying to get infringing material taken down from YouTube, for example, has been compared to playing whack-a-mole.

We’ve all heard stories about how authors feel – about how Fifty Shades of Gray started out as fan fiction, or how a sequel to Catcher in the Rye resulted in the “fan” losing big time in a major lawsuit. The fan author is almost always the party at legal risk, and the misunderstood defense of fair use almost never applies to fan fiction. There was a rare case in which a retelling of Gone with the Wind from a black character’s point of view was held not to be infringing because of the important historical point that it made.

I have read online that J.K. Rowling reads and enjoys speculative fiction about Harry Potter and his fellow characters. I have also read that J.K. Rowling is highly protective of the Harry Potter brand and has threatened to sue fans for including Harry in their writing. I have seen her name on lists of authors who encourage fans to write about Harry and on other lists of authors who do not allow such use.

I know a number of authors who hate the idea of fan fic but have decided not to engage in this particular copyright war. I know of more than one author who have asked fans for plot suggestions from their readers, only to be threatened with lawsuits when they published a story vaguely similar to a reader suggestion. Well intentioned people can argue in circles about the legal and ethical risk. Fan fiction has become a volatile topic.

But what if the all that volatility and copyright debate can be avoided? Many  people seem to think that lawyers are impractical, and I acknowledge that we can often get distracted into theoretical debates. In this case, however, I am happy to offer a piece of  practical advice. It’s simple: focus your event on encouraging students to base their fan fiction on public domain works.

Literature of the past has often inspired new works. Classic stories could similarly spark the interests of the students attending your event. A famous example is West Side Story – a retelling of the Shakespeare classic Romeo and Juliet.  Kiss me Kate is based on Taming of the Shrew. Fairy tales (the original ones, not the Disney versions), fables, and folk tales are interesting to adapt. Bible stories are fair game. Even some of the Sherlock Holmes stories are now in the public domain. Classic novels such as Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, Little Women, Kidnapped, or Huckleberry Finn, are just a few examples of fanfiction possibilities. One word of caution: New fan fiction should be based on the original public domain work, not on another fan’s adaptation of that work.

Using public domain works to encourage fan fiction will let you meet the goal of your event by kicking that can of worms on down the road.

Many thanks to Sallie for lending us her insights and experience!


Copyright, Fan Fiction, Library Programming and Events, Public Domain