Fan fiction is material created by fans of a piece of work rather than the owners or creators. Movies, television shows and books all have fans that have spun off their own stories, drawings, movies and more. The fans take characters created by another on new adventures, some within canonical fictional universe, some decidedly not. Very few of them are given permission to take leave in this way.
Now those who have been reading each month may be scratching their heads here saying, “Wait a minute. Fan fiction sounds an awful lot like a derivative work, and didn’t earlier posts say something about copyright holders being able to control who makes such derivative works?” Why yes, earlier posts did say just that. Thanks for noticing. So what gives? Does fan fiction not count as derivative works? Are all of these infringing?
The answer is generally, yeah, they are infringing. Unless the fan received permission to create the work, it is likely infringing if the original work is copyrighted. As we discussed previously, if the work is in the public domain, you can create derivatives at will. That means if you want to write some fan fiction based on Dr. Jekyll, go bananas. But if you turn to Dr. Who, you are likely infringing some copyrights and trademarks.
Now you’re asking, “If it is infringing, then why is there so much? Don’t they get in trouble?” Some of them do get in trouble, others are encouraged. It all depends on the copyright holder. Joss Whedon, for example, loves fan fiction. According lots of quote sites, but no discernable source, Mr. Whedon said, “There’s a time and place for everything, and I believe it’s called ‘fan fiction’.” One reason they are often so accommodating is that the fans creating such material are often superfans. They are the ones buying the gear and calling the networks to keep the show on the air. You want those people with you not against you.
Others are a bit more circumspect and even publish rules as to what fans can do. Many more, like JK Rowling are OK until certain story lines get a little out of hand. Still more hate it claiming only they can take their characters on an adventure or bring others into their world.
As a copyright owner you get to choose how and when to enforce your rights. As a fan, you may want to research the viewpoints of your universe’s creator before hitting publish.
Want to learn more about copyrights and trademarks? Join me at the our Strong Foundations: Intellectual Property Basics presentations.