Even the title I just wrote gives me the willies a little bit. It suggests ‘the act of making money from fanfiction.’ What is fanfiction? Well, according to Dictionary.com it’s:
The key part there is “using existing characters and situations to develop new plots.” Now let’s get down to that little disclaimer some of you would recognize at the beginnings of so many online fics. It’s the “cover your ass” disclaimer. And an example of one would be “I don’t own _____. _____ is the property of _____, and are not my intellectual property. There is no financial gain made from this nor will any be sought. This is for entertainment purposes only.” Not all fanfic writers add that disclaimer, and it’s not *really* required, but it is something that has always been assumed in the online fiction world that you don’t make any money off the characters you’re writing about, because the characters belong to someone else.
Ok what about uber aka AU (alternate universe) fiction? According to Wikipedia, it is “the occurrence of canonical facts about the setting or characterization of a particular fictional universe being explored in a non-canonical way.” So basically, you are taking these characters and putting them into a new world that the writer created, with new circumstances and settings. Now this is where it gets tricky. How alternate can a universe be before you can justify making money from these fanfictions? The delineation of that line appears to be shifting after the publication of Fifty Shades of Gray. Now, I never read the Twilight books, but it is widely known that Fifty Shades started as an AU fanfic of Edward and Bella. Are the characters different enough from the original narrative to keep E.L. James from getting sued? Apparently, as I don’t recall her being sued.
In the world of lesbian fiction, fanfiction is rampant. This stems from the fact that LGBT people have been woefully under-represented in TV and film, so had to create their own world themselves. This is completely fine and understandable. It’s also how a lot of lesbian fiction writers got their start, practicing and honing their craft online before attempting to put their efforts into the world for a hopeful eventual profit. As expected, many lesfic publishing houses drew from their uber roots, which explains the vast number of tall, dark-haired brooding dames and their short blonde girlfriends in so many lesbian romances. Welcome to lesfic, Xena!
I honestly don’t have a problem paying for a book where I can not see the characters or settings from the TV show in the story. I imagine it as it’s presented to me, adding things in my own mind. For these types of stories, when someone tells me “you know, that started as fanfic,” I think “huh, well that’s not how I picture them, I never would have known if you hadn’t told me!” That is the sign of a book that has successfully separated itself from the show or characters they do not own.
So then where do we draw the line when publishing existing fanfiction as original works? Looking at today’s market, I’d say that line has virtually disappeared. I have read at least 5 books in the past year that were thinly veiled AU works of existing TV characters. One I read last year didn’t even bother changing the character’s name. Same mannerisms, same secondary characters, same personalities. They added new things for these people to experience, but it doesn’t change the fact that the author is making money from characters they did not create. That is legitimately illegal. And if the show creators felt like prosecuting authors, there are plenty of books out there right now that are so blatantly based off their shows it wouldn’t even be a question. They would win.
This is a problem. I don’t know if I’m getting more sensitive to it, or if there really are so many more instances of this happening in the last few years, but it upsets me. It’s not simply the act of charging people for something you offered them for free a few months ago; people can spend their money however they see fit. But it’s the blatant disregard of the disclaimer I have such a difficult time with. It’s using a character’s attributes and personalities that YOU did not create. That is plagiarism. Want the exact definition?
Read that very carefully. If you have published a novel, made money from that novel, using characters that are blatant representations of those from a TV show that you do not own, without permission or crediting the original script author/show creator, you are plagiarizing. It’s only a matter of time before someone decides enough is enough and sues you, and they are well within their rights for doing so. Publishers? Please stop actively allowing this to happen. If a writer shows promise, encourage them to create original work. Use their fanfiction as a portfolio instead of a quick easy way to make a buck from someone with an established online fanbase. It’s the right thing to do.