The commercialisation of fan fiction
One of the big buzzes in publishing this week was Amazon.com’s announcement that it was bringing Kindle Worlds to the masses. If you missed it, Kindle Worlds is Amazon’s new initiative to ‘enable any writer to create fan fiction based on a range of original stories and characters and earn royalties for doing so’.
The initial set of works open to commercial exploitation of fanfiction are the Gossip Girl series, by Cecily von Ziegesar; Pretty Little Liars, by Sara Shepard; and Vampire Diaries, by L.J. Smith, all of which are held by Alloy Entertainment, a division of Warner Bros. Television Group. More licenses for existing works are expected to be announced soon.
Writers of fan fiction under Alloy’s licenced worlds, provided certain criteria are met, would earn royalties on the sale of the Kindle Worlds fan fiction, as would, obviously, the original author/licence holder, with Amazon naturally getting its cut.
On the face of it, the scheme doesn’t seem a bad idea. It allows a kind of Shared World arena, and the holders of the original licence (which may be an author, or may be a publishing house that owns the copyright) get paid for the use of their intellectual property (IP) while new writers also get paid for their creative efforts.
In some ways, although they are referring to it as fan fiction, it doesn’t feel dissimilar to people who write novelisations or books in the Star Wars, Star Trek or Doctor Who franchises (for example).
Why then did I have such mixed feelings about the announcement? Especially as I have a background in writing fan fiction myself – 30-odd years ago, writing Blake’s 7 and Star Trek fiction is where I learned a lot of the basics of character, plot, dialogue, and sentence and story structure, in a supportive environment where I got constructive feedback.
Part of the unease I felt is answered right there.
Obviously not all fan fiction is good (actually, not all professionally published fiction is good either) – but it’s a labour of love, part of the community of love and appreciation that fans share about their favourite shows. As academics like Henry Jenkins points out, the copyright of broadcast texts may belong to particular individuals or companies, but those who love those texts feel like they own them too, in a way. Not commercially, clearly, but there is commitment, passion and engagement with those texts, and fan fiction, fan art, filking, craft and so on are, I feel, legitimate expressions of creative response to texts people find personally or culturally meaningful.
So, does everything we do for love – to participate in a community of like-minded aficionados – does it all really have to be turned into a money making venture for it to be legitimised? Isn’t it legitimate enough as a creative expression of engagement with both culture and community? And isn’t it slightly discomfiting that a big corporation saw an arena out of which it could be making money and promptly jumped in to plant a flag and claim dominion?
But I was uneasy for other reasons too, coming from the other end of that creative spectrum. As a writer of original fiction these days, I also began to wonder how such an agreement would interact with the original creator’s rights. Would these new stories be expected to be accepted as canon? Fan fiction has no such standing now, but with contracts, royalties and money changing hands, will owners of IP be able maintain creative control? Should they? Who will monitor the quality of forays into worlds they may have spent years building? Can a fan written work render significant changes to backstory or future story? To what effect?
The latter is a particularly interesting question to me, with my new Kitty and Cadaver online multimedia project. As part of the project, I’ve included a creative commons licence to encourage creative response to the material: a licence that essentially says ‘you can come and play in the sandpit, as long as you’re not trying to make money out of it’. (The aim is that I’ll keep an eye out for potential partnerships where both the original licence holder – me – and the new artist will come to mutually fair commercial arrangements.)
So far, so speculative. The idea has some merit, and there are points that might be considered uncomfortable but will certainly be for individual IP holders and budding writers to assess.
Some more worrying detail came to hand, however, via John Birmingham’s post on Attendly, citing concerns about quality control. Now, I know there are some terrific fan fiction writers out there – and some of them will learn their craft, get restless with writing in other people’s worlds and start creating their own. Some people are less skilled but will enjoy noodling around their favourite universes through fan fiction and art, and that’s cool too. But this question feeds into my concerns about not only quality but how these works affect canon – the original creator’s original conception of the world they’ve created.
Birmingham’s blog, Cheeseburger Gothic, has a more recent post now too, talking about the rights set-ups for those potential fan writers. A major concern there is that the Amazon contract for these works include a clause which also gives Amazon rights to any original characters or ideas that appear in the authorised fan stories. Effectively, if you create a neat new character or situation and it turns out to be a huge hit with the reading public (or even if it doesn’t), the contract gives Amazon the right to exploit that idea without the original creator getting any further payment.
Given that many fan writers actually develop original characters or scenarios which they may later peel off into brand new, original fictions (and thereby launching their careers in the non-fannish arena), this is a clause that writers will have to think very seriously about. Birmingham quotes John Scalzi saying the approach is like providing a free ideas mine to the key licence holders (in this case, primarily Alloy Entertainment).
It’s not necessarily a deal breaker, but it’s one of those times where writers are reminded that they really need to look closely at contracts, wherever they come from, to be sure that they are getting the best deal. Being paid for playing in someone else’s sandpit is a grand idea, but it’s worth making sure that the sandpit owners don’t end up with the right to take away your bucket, spade, sunglasses and Factor 15 sunblock while you’re at it.
The Kindle Worlds idea has merit, but there are serious issues for both IP holders and fan writers to consider, in terms of how it may impact their intellectual property in the long term. For all my concerns as a creator of IP, my inclination, having come from a fan fiction start, is to be concerned for the rights of fan writers who come up with original ideas and may lose the right to use them under this contract.
It could be that the traditional fan fiction path – starting with fan fiction, developing your craft and then moving naturally into creating your own original worlds – will still be the best choice for writers taking this route.
- John Birmingham’s posts:
- Attendly: Kindle Worlds and the Problem of Quality Control
- Cheeseburger Gothic: Kindle Worlds update
- John Scalzi: Amazon’s Kindle Worlds Instant Thoughts
- Wired Magazine: ‘Kindle Worlds’ Lets Authors Publish Fan Fiction — At Dubious Cost
Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.