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…