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
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.