On Fanfic

I hold two positions that at first seem completely contradictory: I am a firm advocate of intellectual property laws yet at the same time I am an ardent reader and writer of fan fiction.  Part of the protection of copyrights extends to what is called "derivative works", in essence anything based off the original, perhaps involving the same setting, characters, etc.  By trying to define a strict line between fanfic and inspiration, I think we are robbing ourselves of an enriching world of new and decidedly original stories, however based off an existing work they may be.

I admit that my position does not apply to all situations by any means.  The specific fanfic writing community I hold in mind at this writing is, as can be guessed, the large number of people writing anime fanfics based on various series, but I believe this argument should apply to most of the online collective of fanfic writers who show a definite dedication to their series of choice, who try to explore their ideas on the series, who are only trying to share their passions.

Consider what I see as the primary reason derivative works are the exclusive right of the copyright owner to produce: so-called "ripoffs" could possibly become a competitor for revenue from the work.  Addressing this, it's quite clear that most online fanfic authors are not trying to make money from their stories.  In fact, most of us state in our disclaimers that we make derive no profit; I mean, really, most people are not going to pay for this stuff anyway.  Maybe some authors get a few cents from banner ads and clicks, but that can hardly be much more than supporting their posting works online in the first place.

There is also another direction from which we can approach this argument: fair use.  Benedict.com provides a simple but thorough test for how well a work fits under the definition fair use, which is admittedly open to interpretation.  This covers four sections: the purpose of use, the copyrighted work itself, the amount of copyrighted material used, and the "damage" done by the copying.

The purpose of fanfic is pretty clear and usually stated in the disclaimers: they're meant to entertain.  Speaking for myself, I write because I have the ideas, and if I was prosecuted for it, I would simply stop sharing my works online; I would continue to write fanfic in private, and probably distribute it among my friends as well.  This ties back into my argument that action taken against such fanfic writers only deprives us of creative works, and I don't think it actually helps the copyright holders much.

The second factor is harder to judge.  This concerns how much the original work "deserves" the copyright.  I would go against my position here and against some of my actions in other times to say that I think the creators deserve their copyrights quite a bit.  They've worked hard to produce lovely stories, settings, and characters, and they shouldn't have that taken from them.  However, I believe the fanfic writers are similarly creating lovely stories and perhaps new settings and characters as well.  Both deserve to be heard.

The amount of copyrighted material used in fanfics varies widely, obviously.  Fanfics can be an expansion within existing storylines or a completely new series based only roughly off the original (I would put my own fanfics toward the latter category).  But the fact remains that there is original material in fanfics, however minimal.

The last factor is the primary focus of this entire rant: how much damage does a fanfic do to the original work?  My answer is: very little, if any at all.  I really doubt anyone is going to lose money because there are fanfics out there to compete for a fan's attention.  Sure, maybe one in a thousand people will say, "Hey, I hate the way Lain ended, and I like this fanfic writer's interpretation better."  But most fanfics are by nature hard if not impossible to read without knowing the original series first anyway, and that guarantees revenue to the original author.  Then there is the argument that fanfic is "free advertising".

Another thing I want to point out in the argument as it specifically applies to the anime fan community is that we're dealing with completely different media here.  Maybe if mangaka and animators suddenly decide to publish novelizations of their series, we can question the legality of people putting up episode summaries and the like.  But it's kind of hard for text and images to directly compete for someone's attention.  Mind that I am strictly limiting this argument to fan fiction, writings, and not doujinshi and fanart, merely because I would never consider producing such things myself.  Of course, this argument can't apply to fanfics based on literary works -- in particular I know the online community of Tolkien fans is usually pretty harsh on fanfics.

So what are the benefits of letting fanfic writers loose?  I think it goes above and beyond simple discussion of series to illustrate people's individual interpretations [and I believe I read somewhere that interpretations can also sometimes be copyrighted, but I can't find a reliable citation].  We are introduced to new facets of characters others might have seen that we hadn't, we see new possibilities in the storyline, we are given a completely new dimension to the whole series.  I think this is a valuable contribution that deserves to exist in spite, or perhaps, in another way of looking at it, because of, the protection afforded by copyrights.

- September 10, 2000