Why I’m Going to Post My Buffy Fan Fic Online

I’ve made no secret of my love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and recently I’ve even admitted to writing fan fic. Kind of a lot, in fact. And I was getting a little bummed out that I couldn’t post it online, because I felt it might be illegal and/or unethical and/or improper for an author hoping to be published himself.

But I’ve done some research, and you know what? I think I’m going to do it. And I’m going to write a whole post about why, on the dubious assumption that you care, because that’s just the kind of person I am.

The debate on this topic has been long and often heated, but my goal here isn’t to rehash old arguments. My goal is to clarify – to myself, as well as others – what my own position is.

Let’s look at the possible objections.

Isn’t posting fan fic illegal?

(Disclaimer: I am not now, nor will I ever be, a lawyer. This answer is based on my own personal research. Disclaimer #2: We’re talking about U.S. law here. I can’t speak for any other nation.)

The short answer: as far as I can tell, the legality of fan fic is unclear.

The long answer:

Fan fiction definitely uses material copyrighted by someone else, but that isn’t necessarily copyright infringement. You aren’t infringing as long as your work is “fair use.” And what is fair use?

Unfortunately, the law doesn’t give a clear definition. What it gives are four “factors” to consider. The more factors are in your favor, the more likely the court is to decide your work is fair use. The factors are:

  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  • The nature of the copyrighted work
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work

I plan to post my stuff online for free, so I wouldn’t think it’s “of a commercial nature.” As for the “purpose and character of the use,” are my stories transformative or derivative? I would think they’re both, but I have no idea what a court would say.

How much of the Buffy canon am I using in my story, “in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole” (i.e. the whole canon)? Depends what you mean by “use,” but I would think not very much. The vast majority of episodes aren’t even mentioned.

Finally, what is “the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of” Buffy? Negligible.

So, a number of points in my favor. Whether that’s enough, I really don’t know. Maybe we’ll find out!

Aren’t you stealing money from the original author/creator?

If I am, I must be doing it wrong, because I don’t see my bank account going up.

But aren’t you siphoning potential sales from the original author?

You mean, are people going to watch/read less official Buffy because they’re too busy reading my stuff? I think you vastly overrate my influence here. In reality, fan fiction keeps people more interested in the source material, not less.

Won’t the author get angry or upset?

Depends on the author. J.K. Rowling is cool with Harry Potter fan fic. Neil Gaiman and John Scalzi appreciate fan-written works as well. Orson Scott Card said, “Every piece of fan fiction is an ad for my book. What kind of idiot would I be to want that to disappear?”

On the other hand, some authors – even some authors I respect, like George R. R. Martin – have made it clear that they want no fan stories about their characters. Such authors give a variety of reasons for this, including:

  • If I don’t defend my copyright, I could lose it. (As far as I can tell, this is inaccurate. It appears to be true of trademarks, but that’s a separate issue.)
  • I dislike seeing my characters mishandled and abused by others. (It’s legitimate to feel this way, and in such cases I might decide to respect the author’s wishes out of kindness, but that says nothing about what fans have the right to do.)
  • Fan fiction is lazy. (Writing fan fiction about a story takes more effort than merely reading a story, but authors never seem to complain when you read their stuff. Weird, huh?)
  • I’m losing money on this. (99.999% of the time, it’s posted free online, so nobody’s losing money. If a fan really is trying to make a buck on your copyrighted stuff, by all means, go after them.)
  • Fan fiction will tarnish the good name of me or my work. (I have never confused fan work with official work, nor heard of anyone who has. But if this is really the concern, a simple disclaimer at the top – “This is a work of fan fiction, etc.” – should clear it up.)

Why don’t you just write a story in your own original universe?

This is like seeing someone eat chocolate ice cream and asking, “Why don’t you just eat vanilla?” The answer, of course, is “Because I felt like chocolate.”

I’ve written tons of non-fan fiction, and I enjoy it. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only legitimate way to write. Yes, fan fiction is easier in certain ways (worldbuilding largely done for you, for example), but that doesn’t make it wrong, and it doesn’t take away from the writing skills you still have to use.

Isn’t fan fiction inherently low-quality?

I’ll grant you that most fan fiction is low-quality, for the same reason that most of anything is low-quality. But the idea that badness is somehow inherent in the very idea of fan fiction itself?

Well, let’s see.

  • The critically acclaimed play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, is fan fiction of Hamlet.
  • Michael Chabon, who has won a Pulitzer Prize (among many other awards), wrote the novel The Final Solution, which is Sherlock Holmes fan fiction.
  • The novel March, by Geraldine Brooks, won the Pulitzer Prize as well. It is  fan fiction of Little Women.
  • Paradise Lost, by John Milton, is fan fiction of the Bible.
  • The Aeneid, by Virgil, is fan fiction of the Iliad.

I don’t know if you know this, but many people consider those last two books to be – and I quote – “pretty good.”

To be clear, I’m not joking about Paradise Lost being fan fiction of the Bible. Yes, it’s funny to think of it that way, and yes, it’s very different from most fan fic today (understatement of the year), but fan fiction is still literally, exactly what it is.

Remarkably enough, it appears you can, in fact, tell a good story with someone else’s characters.

Wouldn’t you, as an author, be upset if someone wrote fan fiction of your stories?

Are you kidding? That would be friggin’ amazing. I hope someday I’m good enough that other people write fan fic of my stuff.

See, I believe the mindset that views fan fic as “stealing” or “appropriating” is fundamentally misguided. Fans aren’t taking. They’re giving.

Do you know what a fan fic is? It’s a shrine. It’s someone saying, “I love your fictional world so much and I want to be in it so much that I wrote something that didn’t even exist just so I could spend a little more time there.”

The idea that any creator could be upset about this is, frankly, baffling to me. I understand that some are, and they’re entitled to their feelings. I just don’t get it, is all.

(Of course, I’m talking here about stuff posted for free, that acknowledges the source it’s working from. Someone making money off your ideas, or taking your words verbatim and calling them their own, is a different matter.)

Aren’t you embarrassed to post Buffy fan fic online?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the greatest TV shows ever made. If you don’t think so, you’re entitled to your opinion. And your opinion is wrong.

What does Joss Whedon (the creator of Buffy) think about all this?

There are a lot of Whedon quotes about fan fic, but this is my favorite:

I love it. I absolutely love it. I wish I had grown up in the era of fan fiction…I think it’s kind of a glorious thing to be able to be carrying the torch. That’s why I made these shows. I didn’t make them so that people would enjoy them and forget them; I made them so they would never be able to shake them. It’s the way I am as a fan. I create the shows that would make me do that.

Toronto Star interview, May 22, 2004

Finding out his attitude about this was the single biggest factor in my decision to go ahead and post my stuff. Fan fiction isn’t just something he tolerates. It’s part of the reason he made Buffy in the first place.

So. This was a really long post, but it was good for me to lay this all out, to organize my thoughts. Maybe next time I discuss this with someone, I’ll actually know what I’m talking about!

In the meantime, brace yourself for the Buffyness to come…

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10 responses to “Why I’m Going to Post My Buffy Fan Fic Online

  1. Commercial purposes are wider than direct profit: posting fiction for free could be construed as an advertisement for other work if there is a sufficient connection between the free work and sources of work-for-profit.

    In most cases this isn’t an issue, but it is something to bear in mind if you also sell your own stories somewhere.

  2. I think some authors dont like fan fiction because the plot twists in fan fiction could be better than the original or predicts what could happen. Game of thrones relies a lot on unpredictable twists so I could see why it could ruin stories that haven’t been completed and result in loss (though i don’t see how it would stop anyone from following the original)

    • I see what you’re saying, but fans are going to speculate on plot twists to come, regardless of whether they put their ideas in story form. So I think the effect is the same either way.

      And personally, even if I read a plot twist in fan fic before it “really” happened, I don’t think it would diminish my appreciation of seeing/reading it for real.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. I just saw an interview with Tom Stopped yesterday where he was complaining that people are so poorly educated nowadays that they no longer get all the Shakespeare references in his plays. 🙂

    Your literary illustrations are very much to the point, but think of movies and television. Lots of professional writers making a good living using characters and plots that they didn’t create. That’s a useful skill to develop.

  4. I’ve been thinking about this, and it could be that one reason Martin has a different attitude than Whedon and Rowling is that they’re done and he’s still in the middle of telling his story. If someone wanted to use my characters (unlikely, I know), that would be a factor in my reaction. If Tom Stoppard bases a play on Hamlet, as he has more than once, at least he has Hamlet’s whole story to work with, not just the first act.

    • Exactly my point about Martin!

    • Interesting point. I do think that in the particular case of Whedon and Martin, their reactions are so visceral that it wouldn’t matter. (And actually, at the time Whedon gave that quote, he was still actively writing new Buffy comic books.) But I see what you’re saying.

      I also think it could be a generational thing. It’s by no means a hard-and-fast rule, but it does seem that anti-fan-fic authors tend to be older, and pro-fan-fic authors tend to be younger. The difference may be between the attitudes of “This is a book that people will read” (old) vs. “This is a world that a community will embrace” (new).

      • I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s generational. I’m (::cough::) not as old as Martin, but I’m closer in age to him than I am to Whedon and Rowling, and my gut reaction is somewhat (though not strongly) negative.

        Also, Rowling and Martin are in a different position, since they are book writers and own their works. I would imagine that Buffy is owned by the network or production company or something — I doubt if Whedon could just go to a different network and start making new Buffy episodes if he felt like it (I could be wrong, but that’s my impression of how things work).

        Also, he’s wrong that he didn’t grow up in the era of fan fiction — he just grew up before the web. I knew people who wrote and distributed fan fiction when I was in high school and college (and, as I say, I’m ten years older than he is). There were zines, but there was also… damn it, I forget what they were called. Science fiction clubs would have publications, to which every member had to contribute at least a page every issue, then they were collated and sent out to the whole club and anybody else who was interested… (WIkipedia comes to the rescue: APAs :http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amateur_press_association). Anyway, Wikipedia has good articles about zines, Factsheet Five (which I’d forgotten about), and so on.

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