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In Defense of Fanfiction,
or, There's Nothing New Under the Sun
(including this rant, by the way. . .)

by Melusina




William Shakespeare, John Dryden, John Gardner, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Philip Jose Farmer, Jean Rhys, Joan Aiken, Laurie King, and many, many more. What do these writers have in common? They've all written fanfiction. Rather than coming up with entirely new characters and situations, they based stories, poems, plays, and novels on material written by other people. The question isn't why would someone write fanfiction, but how can you avoid writing fanfiction?

Even "original" stories draw heavily on archetypes that are as old as humanity. You can call the character by a different name, you can change the setting, but to a greater or lesser degree, all literature is dependent upon what has gone before. The litcrit name for this is "intertextuality" - the ways in which texts respond to and "converse" with one another through direct quotation or reference, homage, borrowed plot elements or character traits, etc. It's impossible to avoid, and more importantly, who would want to? A large part of what makes reading (and TV and movie watching) enjoyable is the way texts relate to other things we've read or seen.

Traditionally, fanfiction based on works in the public domain (Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte, Homer, Arthurian Romance, etc.) has been seen as a worthwhile way to cast a new light on an old text - almost literary criticism in the guise of fiction; at the very least, unobjectionable, and, if done well, clever and ingenious. No one questions whether it was immoral or unethical of Jean Rhys to write a novel based on Jane Eyre.

Fanfiction based on copyrighted works is a murkier area. It is possible that it is a violation of copyright laws, although this is dubious - many copyright experts believe that fanfiction falls under the fair use clause. To my knowledge, no fanfiction writers have ever been successfully prosecuted for copyright violations (although there have been some out of court settlements, due to fanfic writers not having the cash to fight a lengthy legal battle).

Should fanfiction be illegal? In my opinion no. The purpose of copyright law is to protect the copyright holder from monetary loss - outright piracy (reproducing copies of the copyrighted work without paying the copyright holder) and plagiarism (using substantial portions of the author's ideas and words and claiming them as your own). If anything, fanfiction builds interest in the work it's derived from, resulting in monetary gain for the copyright holders. Recognizing this, some copyright holders have started encouraging fanfiction based on their work. No one is reading Harry Potter fic instead of buying J. K. Rowling's novels; they're doing it in addition to, because they love the world she's created and they want to continue living and dreaming in it.

Is fanfiction immoral, a kind of character assassination or literary vampirism that bleeds meaning or significance from the original work? No. Again, if anything, it builds interest in the original work, and it adds depth and meaning. Intertextuality, remember? Once a story has been written, additional stories written about the characters and situations cannot diminish it, they can only expand it and add nuances. (And, for those about to go into some paean to Authorial Intent, remember all readers draw conclusions and ideas from the text that the author didn't intend - this is what reading is. The moment you allow someone else to read your work, you've lost control.)

Copyright protection currently is the lifetime of the author, plus seventy years. After that it's in the public domain. What is it about this magical timeline that suddenly makes it ok to use that work as source material? Why is it permissible to write stories based on Jane Austen's novels, but not Anne Rice's? Why is a novel about Beatrice and Benedick's married life perfectly acceptable, but a fanfic story about Buffy and Spike's relationship after the end of the series immoral and unethical?

Our culture currently fetishizes originality to a huge degree. In other time periods and cultures being the first (and only) person to tell a story was not valued; it was the old, well-known stories that had the most cultural currency. Myth, legend, folktale - burnished and refined through years of retelling and the additions and subtractions of many voices, each giving it a subtly different spin. Pop culture: novels, TV shows, and movies, is our new mythos. It shouldn't be a surprise that writers are inescapably drawn to play in this sandbox.


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