My Statement on Fan fiction & fanworks

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My Statement on Fan Fiction & Fanworks
by Cecilia Tan

A slew of authors lately are speaking out against fanfic.

Everyone is entitled to their feelings, of course. I wouldn’t try to impose my feelings about fanfic on other writers any more than I would try to impose my polyamorous, kinky lifestyle on a monogamous vanilla couple. (Even though I feel certain they are missing out, and even though they may feel my very existence may undermine all the values they hold dear.*)

As you might gather from my tone, I am not one of those who is against fan fiction. I am wholeheartedly for fan fiction and other ways fans can engage their imaginations with the stories I tell. Isn’t that the whole point of writing fiction? To create a world inside the reader’s head, instead of just keeping it here in my own head?

This debate in the blogosphere is hitting at a very timely moment for me, as I recently stumbled across some actual fan fiction “in the wild” based on my Magic University universe and characters.

Some years ago I attended a panel on fanfiction and fanworks on which several lawyers sat. The audience was mostly fans, but I asked the lawyers the question, what can writers do if they want to encourage, rather than discourage, their fans, and what should a writer do if she discovers people writing fanfiction in her universe?

The advice I was given at the time was it’s okay to let people do it. You will not lose your copyright or anything crazy like that. (Some authors labor under the mistaken impression that if they don’t defend against “infringement” they’ll lose the copyright. That’s wrong.) But, they told me, to be safe from future lawsuits *against* me by my own fans, I should definitely not read it. And if I do read it, disavow all knowledge.

Hearing that made me sad. I’ve been a professional writer now for more than twenty years. (Holy double digits Batman!) Just a few years ago when my fiction writing career was less busy than it is now, I started writing Harry Potter fanfic for fun. I likened it to a professional ballet dancer going out to a disco or dance club. What, I’m not allowed to have FUN with my talents, just because I use them in my paying job, too?

In fact, I’d say writing fanfic made me a better writer. Fanfic kept me “in shape” for writing at a time when I was burned out otherwise; it gave me an instant community of feedback and validation; and it gave me the freedom and the room to experiment with fiction styles and genres I hadn’t played with before. I learned to write romance that way. I experimented with the nuances of the unreliable narrator and the difference between reminiscent past tense and “past present.” And so on. Could I have experimented with all those things in my own fiction? Yes and no. That would have been like experimenting in the kitchen of a restaurant while paying customers are waiting to eat, whereas writing fanfiction was more like having a dinner party of good friends over, and serving them up what I created, and knowing full well they’d tell me if it was any good or not.

The elephant in the room for many authors who are against fanfic, of course, is that so much of it is erotic. One of the prime urges that drives fans to write fic (though by no means the ONLY one) is to fill in the sex and eroticism we feel is missing from the canon. For an author who doesn’t like people playing with their dolls, this must be especially squickful.

Thank goodness I’m not one of them. Spurring people’s erotic imaginations is my whole purpose in LIFE, in fact. That’s one of the major things I was put on Earth to do!

So, one, I’m not against fanfic because it would be hypocritical of me to have gotten so much fun out of writing it myself and then to turn around and deny that joy to others, and two, I feel it would only be an extension of my life’s mission to spur more people to fantasize so supporting it is win-win.

What I did this week in support of that stance is I joined the Organization for Transformative Works. You can do so for just a $10 suggested donation (or give more). I had previously supported the organization under my fannish name, but I re-joined, this time under my professional name. Here’s what I told them on my application:

“A fandom-friendly lawyer I spoke to a few years ago who warned me … that I must disavow reading [fanfic in my universe]. This breaks my heart [and] I’m writing to ask — is that still the advice you would give today? And if it is, I want to support the OTW, because if any organization is going to be at the forefront of changing that state of affairs, I bet the OTW is it.”

To my delight, the OTW’s legal chair, Rebecca Tushnet, wrote back to say that maybe it would be OK for me to read it after all. I’m going to quote (with her permission) from what she said, rather than try to paraphrase:

“Basically, the reason for the advice you got is this: It is in theory possible that you would read the story, later go on to write something similar, and face a claim by the fan that you copied her work.

“There are many reasons to discount this risk, the least of them that the case law is all in the first author’s favor: if someone makes an unauthorized derivative work—like a fanwork—no court is going to be receptive to a claim that a later authorized work by the first author infringes the fanwork. And in any case, copyright protects expression, not ideas, so even if you wrote something with the same basic idea as the fanwork that wouldn’t be infringement.
 
“But not being able to win doesn’t erase the possibility that someone could threaten to sue, so that’s why this reason is the least persuasive answer to this fear. The more persuasive answer is actually that very same difference between winning and threatening: it doesn’t take a fanwork to generate a threat! If you read your fan mail, you might encounter a fan’s ideas about what should happen with the characters, expressed not as a story but as discussion.

“Some authors ask their fans to use Creative Commons licenses on their fanworks to make clear that the fanworks don’t pose any threat of interference with the original authors. I think this is legally unnecessary (and might not work, since a CC license requires attribution and the real fear is that the fan would claim that a new work takes from the fanwork without acknowledgment, exceeding the scope of the license). Still, the signalling effect might be somewhat helpful in practice.”

Thanks, Rebecca!

So, without further ado, here’s my actual statement in support of fanworks created in my universe:

I, Cecilia Tan, tell stories and publish my works because I want to spur the imaginations of my readers. I view non-commercial fanworks as a natural extension of that inspiration. The only thing I can’t support is anything that would damage my livelihood or reputation, hence keep the stuff non-commercial and label it as non-commercial fanfiction when disseminating/posting it. If you break any local laws where you are to either read my works or write about them, please don’t tell me. I may or may not read or comment on fanworks out there. Sometimes my time is limited, sometimes a comment would turn out to be a spoiler for another reader, and so on, but don’t mistake my silence for ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ I support the creation of non-commercial fanworks and fanfiction as a valid fannish activity, right up there with costuming, filking, and text-based play-by-post role playing.

Having said that, it’s probably only a matter of time before someone utterly blows my mind by writing a Harry Potter/Magic University crossover fic… or even filk ( insert ominous music here). But at least you all know where I stand!


Cecilia Tan is the founder and editorial director of Circlet Press. Her recent books include The Tower and the Tears, Mind Games, and White Flames.

*Referring here to a particular couple, not to all vanilla monogamous folks. I know plenty of vanilla monogamous heterosexual couples who aren’t the least bit threatened by my lifestyle, gay marriage, or other variations from their own choices.

32 Comments

  1. Comment by Grey Walker:

    Interesting! And helpful, too. Thank you.

  2. Comment by Peg Duthie:

    Love this. (Member of OTW under my real name as well.) Thanks especially for sharing Rebecca’s answer to your question re: reading derivative versions of one’s own work.

  3. Comment by kathleen bradean:

    As a writer, I would be thrilled to know that I created a world that so captivated people that they were inspired to write fanfic. Writers don’t have time or space to fill in the back stories for every character, no matter how compelling. How very cool that someone would connect to a secondary character and take the time to fill in the rest! So if anyone out there wants to write fanfic based on anything I wrote – please do! And tell me about it. I may not comment, but you’ll have paid me a compliment that I’ll hold in a special place in my heart.

    • Comment by ctan:

      You should have heard the squee when I stumbled across the piece I linked to. Which is really really GOOD, well written, hot, and the reader clearly picked up a LOT Of the clues I put in about where the story could go. I plan to tell the writer that after book 3 comes out!

  4. Comment by James Buchanan:

    I would fall over dead to know that any of my worlds inspired fanfic. I guess that’s the perspective of “us that’s done it” vs. “those who’ve never dabbled.” It’s an utter love of either the character or setting that inspires the fic. And yeah, I would not want to be UNABLE to read it (sometimes it’s better not to, just because you don’t want to be pushed into the “well, that’s interesting” comment, but still, I’d like to know it was there.

    Can I crib your statement?

    • Comment by ctan:

      Hi James! Yes, you can crib my statement if that’s what you’d like to say about your own work, too! Or attribute if you want to quote.

      Charles Stross had a very amusing statement on fanfic himself recently which I loved. His whole post is here: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/05/faq-fanfic.html but the summary says it best: “In summary: I am not a precious sparkly unicorn who is obsessed with the purity of his characters — rather, I am a glittery and avaricious dragon who is jealous of his steaming pile of gold. If you do not steal the dragon’s gold, the dragon will leave you alone. Offer to bring the dragon more gold and the dragon will be your friend.”

  5. Comment by HBKurtzwilde:

    Hear hear! The next round’s on me!

  6. Comment by Havoc:

    If you ever go to any cons as a guest, and I’m attending that con, I will be so totally cheering you on. :)

    • Comment by ctan:

      I don’t go to as many cons as I used to, but I still do get to some! Mostly in the northeast USA though — too expensive to get to most others. Wiscon in Madison, WI and Readercon in Burlington, MA are the next two I have on the schedule (well, including CON.txt, which I’m going to as a fan more than writer!). Say hi if you see me!

  7. Comment by jumpuphigh:

    “I wouldn’t try to impose my feelings about fanfic on other writers any more than I would try to impose my polyamorous, kinky lifestyle on a monogamous vanilla couple. (Even though I feel certain they are missing out, and even though they are certain my very existence may undermine all the values they hold dear.)”

    You might want to rethink what you said here since it sounds like you are saying that if someone is in a monogamous, vanilla relationship, they are bigoted against other forms of relationships. Since I found this article to be well-written and open-minded, I would hate for you to be misinterpreted here. I have many monogamous, vanilla couple friends and I can say for certain that they do not feel that “my very existence may undermine all the values they hold dear”. In fact, I find that their relationship values aren’t necessarily that different than mine. They are just expressed in different ways and that is the beauty of diversity.

    • Comment by ctan:

      You’re totally right — just like not every author who feels squeamish about fanfic goes on rants calling fic writers stalkers and rapists, either. I will ponder how to make the parallel…

      • Comment by jumpuphigh:

        Thank you for replying and clarifying above. I will admit that I’ve never read any of your work but was sent here by a friend as part of an ongoing conversation regarding fanfic/law/copywrite/etc. I really appreciated this post and based on it, your classy interactions in the comments thread AND the fanfic that you recced, I am heading over to a bookstore to pick up something from the Magic University universe. So, if you are ever asked, you can say that you have gotten at least one reader via fanfic. :D

  8. Comment by Heather Gladney:

    I’m with those who say that it is totally flattering and awesome when people want to play in the sandbox universe you built, and play with your dolls, and tell funny stories that you wouldn’t, yourself, have thought of. Very big thanks for checking on this with *gasp* real attorneys in the field. I will be *delighted* to link to your post and point people to come read it and come see why they should buy your books!!

    • Comment by ctan:

      There’s so much misinformation going on out there, too, it’s amazing. Some very smart and successful authors are proving they don’t actually know what their rights are, nor what they should actually do to protect those rights, and many are just having knee jerk emotional reactions without the real facts. I always feel better when I have facts, although as lawyers also tell me “facts” and the law don’t always get along. ;-) But I do feel strongly in support of fanfic, and I’m pleased there are at least some lawyers who agree with me I’m not harming myself or my right by doing so.

  9. Comment by D.:

    First off, thank you for a wonderful, well-written post about the subject, and for the pointer to OTW, which I really ought to go look at next. I’ve been reading a lot of posts on the subject of to allow fic or not, and this is hands down my favorite (quite probably because it echoes so much of what I want to say if I ever publish a book, and has the lawyerly advice to back it all up, which is tres awesome and thank you for writing about that).

    And um. Thanks for the link to “In Your Eyes” and I’m going to go sit over there and blush for a while now (because yes, that would be mine). *shy smile* And I’m also going to continue to wait for book 3 and try to convince everyone I know to read the series… it’s working, slowly, one person at a time!

    • Comment by ctan:

      Squeeee!!!!! There are SO many comments I’ve gone to leave over for you at Archive of Their Own and I have deleted every one, because just writing “OMG amazing” felt lame, but anything more detailed I worried I would spoil you for book three. (Which I sent to my editor last night, by the way. So it will be out in ebook form probably by the end of June? They move pretty fast at Ravenous Romance.)

      Let me just say that it was intensely gratifying that my first ever fanfic was so well written, so beautifully turned, and the characters so lovingly portrayed!! I think you’ve thought about them nearly as much as I have!

      Love love love.

      • Comment by D.:

        I’m DYING to read it, because I have, very seriously, been speculating about what’s going on. See, I told a friend to read the books (I knew she’d love them, and I was right, she did) and while she was reading, I re-read them so I could chatter with her while she read (not spoiling her was so SO hard but I managed and it was great knowing what she was seeing while we were talking). Then I finished, and woke up the next morning and the fic sort of spilled out of my fingers in a couple hours of furious typing. But I’m SO wanting to know what happens, and I can’t WAIT. And um, I’m stuck on capslock in a serious way and trying so hard not to sound like a stalker. But your characters and world are so wonderful, they’ve just dragged me in and I can’t help but be fascinated and keep passing them along to get new people to love them.

        And I’m so glad you liked the piece. I’m sitting here grinning. Seriously. BEAMing.

        Thank you so much for creating these people and their world. You have me caught up in them completely.

  10. Comment by Helens:

    I really loved seeing this post. There’s very little as awesome as an author you respect coming down on your side of the issue of the day. *g* I’m also pleased to see the responses from the OTW on the author’s requirements for defending copyright vs. being able to support and encourage fanfic! Thanks for getting that question out there, because it’s a big one, and one I’m sure many authors are puzzling over.

    Also, thanks for your footnote on the vanilla-het-monogamous-couple metaphor; I’m not vanilla or het, but my marriage is straight and monogamous, and any relationship that involves people who like, respect, and care for each other is one that upholds my values big-time!

    • Comment by ctan:

      You’re welcome! A previous commenter pointed out I made it sound like I expected all people who don’t live my lifestyle to condemn me, and that certainly isn’t the case!

  11. Comment by TCBlue:

    Add me to the ‘I’d be thrilled if someone wanted to fan fic me’ column. Though someone did once fan fic a fan fi I wrote. LOL

    Honestly, I think it’s the biggest compliment anyone could give, that they would want to show how much they not only liked something I wrote but that it made them THINK and spurred their imagination. I mean, isn’t that what we’re trying to do, as writers/authors? Entertain but also inspire and interest and have readers thinking? And if what they think is ‘what if…’ then that’s even better.

    Now, granted, nobody’s likely to ever fan fic my contemporary m/m stories, but if I ever get around to finishing the urban fantasy or the postapocolyptic futuristic story and someone ficced one of them, I’d be entirely over the moon.

    Out of curiosity, do you think the fact that so many ‘published authors’ these days (myself included) came from fandoms and fan fic writing has any effect on the willingness or lack thereof to be ficced? Because it seems like it to me. *shrugs*

    ~Tis

    • Comment by ctan:

      It’s funny, I think in some ways writing fan fic and then “going pro” is not at all a new thing. In fact it may be getting back to sf/fantasy writing’s roots. Once upon a time the community of people who were into science fiction and fantasy included both readers and writers and there wasn’t that sharp a division between them (see the history of the World Science Fiction Convention) — then came a couple of decades where people felt they had to somehow disavow ever having been a fan once they “made it” as a pro. And now we’re coming back around to realizing that its counterproductive and silly to disavow anything of the sort. EVERYONE who writes sf/fantasy started out as a reader before they became a writer. That’s a no brainer.

      Now that we have the social media there’s even more interaction between community members fans, writers, artists, readers, aspiring authors, bestelling authors, midlist writers, etc etc etc… all rubbing shoulders again. And when a fanfic writer moves into pro writing nowadays the publisher WANTS that person’s followers and fans to keep following them, even if they decide the actual fic ought to be taken down.

      I think most of us who have gotten so much enjoyment out of writing fanfic would feel like the world’s biggest hypocrites if we didn’t let others do it, though, don’t you think?

  12. Comment by Aoife:

    Oh, you’re brilliant! And this–

    “Isn’t that the whole point of writing fiction? To create a world inside the reader’s head, instead of just keeping it here in my own head?”

    What a good way of putting it. :)

    • Comment by ctan:

      Thank you! Cat Valente also put it really nicely in her post on the subject in her LJ: http://yuki-onna.livejournal.com/582169.html — in which she points out

      “…we create books together, in the space between my words and your heart. I put those people [characters] into the world, into the sphere of collective imagination. How can I possibly begrduge others playing with them? The whole point of publishing them was for others to love them.”

  13. Comment by Ldydark1:

    I read this with interest.

    When I was a little girl,
    up to my teenage years,
    I would write fanfiction
    on the latest cute tv
    stars. I had no idea
    that it was ‘fanfiction.’

    Since I discovered H/D
    fanfiction, I am amazed
    at the creativity and
    the vast fanfiction sites
    for a large reading
    audience.

    Thank you for posting your
    entry. I am always interested
    with the legal aspects of
    fanfiction. I took my lsat
    tests, and almost went into
    law.

    Thanks again for posting
    very interesting information.

  14. Comment by Katrina:

    Hi I am so happy that you’re not against fanfiction, Ms Tan! I’m also chinese and wish to get published. I write elf fanfiction about Prince Nuada and Drizzt. this is the link to my new story.

    I have some short stories that I want to submit. Where are the guidelines?

    • Comment by Cecilia Tan:

      In the navigation tabs at the top of the website, where it says “Writers Guidelines” (http://www.circlet.com/?page_id=11) — Please note that we do not publish fanfic, only original works, and that we don’t take general submissions, but only stories aimed at our specific anthologies being read for at a given time. at the moment five anthologies are open, including Up for Grabs 2, Elementary Erotica, Like a Veil, Only In The City, and Picture This. Click the “call for submissions” tag to see the list of all the individual anthologies being worked on.

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