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Can fanfiction be copyrighted

2024-04-13

Fanfiction, the venerable art of fans writing their own stories based on media they love, is a popular medium through which enthusiasts can express their creativity and imagination. But at the same time, it raises an intriguing question: can fanfiction be copyrighted? This question, seemingly simple but complex upon investigation, is deeply rooted in various aspects of copyright law, fair use, derivative works, transformative works, and the conflicts between intellectual property rights holders and their fans. To get a comprehensive understanding, let's delve deeper into these issues.

Understanding Copyright Law and Fanfiction

To understand the possibility of copyrighting fanfiction, we should clarify what copyright is at first. Copyright is a law that gives creators of original artistic or literary work exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, publicly perform, or create derivative works of their creation for a limited time. However, writing a story utilizing existing characters, settings, or themes deemed as derivative works, doesn't easily fit into this traditional framework.

Can fanfiction be copyrighted

Fanfiction is generally considered transformative, meaning it takes the original work and adds something new or substantial to it. While the law doesn't clearly outline what constitutes 'substantial enough', transformative works often fall under the umbrella of fair use - a legal doctrine that allows limited use of copyrighted material without acquiring permission from the copyright holder.

Fanfiction as Derivative Works

A key aspect of copyright law related to these literary concoctions is the concept of derivative works. Derivative works take an original piece (the "parent work") and modify or expand on it, creating something new. Many fanfictions would be considered derivative works because they use elements such as characters and settings from the parent work.

The rights to create derivative works lie within the scope of the original copyright holder. Without explicit permission, it is technically a crime to create derivative works. This brings to light why fanfiction is often treading on thin ice when it comes to copyright law. Yet it's important to note that copyright laws are not usually enforced in such cases, partially because it's infeasible to police the millions of fanfictions online, and it's also against the interests of copyright holders to alienate their fanbase.

The Fair Use Defense

Another significant aspect of copyright law related to fanfiction is the fair use defense. Fair use is a doctrine in US copyright law that allows limited use of copyrighted material for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. The existence of this law is why reviewers can quote from books, or teachers can photocopy a part of a book for class use without legal ramifications.

In the world of fanfiction, the fair use flag is often flown, especially when the fanfic is transformative and non-commercial. Factors that weigh in favor of fair use include: the fanfic's transformative nature (i.e., does it add new meaning or message to the original?), its non-profit nature, and its potential effect on the market for the original work. Generally, if a fanfic is transformative enough and doesn't replace the original work in the market, it's more likely to be considered fair use.

The Conflict Between Creators and Fans

The issue of copyright is not the only concern when it comes to fanfiction; often, the relationship between the original creators and their fans plays a significant role. Some creators are open to fans exploring their works while others prefer that fans not create derivative works without their permission. The reaction of the original creators significantly influences how fanfiction operates in the world of fiction.

For instance, authors like J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer have openly expressed their acceptance of fanfiction, seeing it as a testament to their fans' passion. In contrast, other creators such as George R.R. Martin and Anne Rice are known to disapprove of fanfiction, viewing it as copyright infringement and a lack of respect for the original work. This varied response from creators continues to fuel the debate over the legal and ethical aspects of fanfiction.

Commercialization and Fanfiction

A key point on the complex road to copyrighting fanfiction concerns commercialization. Most fanfiction writers pen their tales for passion, not for profit. This non-commercial aspect has been a significant factor keeping fanfiction in the safe zone when it comes to copyright infringement, and it sets the stage for fair use defense.

Yet, there are some instances where fanfiction has been transformed into commercial work, the most notable of which is "Fifty Shades of Grey". Originally a "Twilight" fanfiction, it was rewritten with original characters and published commercially, sparking a debate about the fine line between fanfiction and original work. However, such cases are relatively rare and typically require significant alteration and removal of copyrighted elements from the fanfiction.

Fanfiction Platforms and Intellectual Property

Websites such as FanFiction.net and Archive of Our Own (AO3) serve as prominent platforms where fanfiction authors can share their work. These platforms have policies regarding copyright infringements and they act as intermediaries between fanfic writers and intellectual property owners, often taking down works if copyright owners file complaints.

AO3, in particular, has been designed to protect fanfiction under the concept of transformative works. The Organization for Transformative Works, which runs AO3, provides legal advocacy to defend fanfiction from legal threats. They argue that as long as the work is transformative, it is a valid form of creative expression that falls under fair use. This makes AO3 a safe haven for fanfiction authors against potential copyright infringement disputes.

Conclusion - Can Fanfiction be Copyrighted?

In theory, copyrighting fanfiction might seem impossible due to its derivative nature. However, the reality is more nuanced as it hinges on the balance between the rights of original copyright holders and the rights of fans to engage in creative expressions using their beloved works as inspiration.

As we have explored, transformative nature, fair use, commercialization, and the stance of original creators are all key factors in this debate. Each fanfiction's degree of copyrightability would depend on various elements, making it a case-by-case basis. Thus, while fanfiction lies in a gray area of existing copyright law, it steers clear from legal actions under the umbrella of fair use, non-commerciality, and usually, the tacit approval of original creators.

FAQs

Q: Can I publish my fanfiction and sell it? A: Unless you have permission from the original content creator, typically it's not recommended. Commercializing fanfiction threatens its fair use defense and might place it directly in the line of copyright infringement.

Q: What is a transformative work? A: A transformative work significantly changes, or adds to, the original work in a way that creates something new. If your fanfiction introduces new themes, reinterprets the plot, or critiques the original material, it could be considered a transformative work.

Q: Can I get sued for writing fanfiction? A: While it's theoretically possible if the original content creator views it as a violation of their copyrights, it's extremely rare. Most fanfiction falls under fair use and many creators tolerate, or even encourage, fanfictions of their original work. It's also impractical for creators to sue every fanfiction writer, and doing so could alienate their fanbase. However, depending on the author and the nature of the fanfiction, legal risks can exist.

References

1. U.S. Copyright Office, "Frequently Asked Questions about Copyright", https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/index.html

2. Organization for Transformative Works, "What is a Transformative Work?", https://www.transformativeworks.org/transformative-use/

3. Jenkins, Henry. "Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide". NYU Press, 2006.

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