My Reaction to John Scalzi's Reaction to Kindle Worlds

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, yesterday Amazon announced Kindle Worlds, otherwise know as authorized, paid fan fiction (sort of).

In response to one of my comments on that post, our own Joanna Cabot linked me to John Scalzi’s initial thoughts on the move. I have tons of respect for Scalzi, and I agreed with much of what he said, especially with his opinions of the contract terms (which kind of suck). I didn’t agree with quite everything, though.

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In response to a comment, Scalzi expressed a reasonable concern for how the move will affect fandom communities, and to his credit, he said he wasn’t familiar enough with the community to comment intelligently (which does beg the question of why he raised it).

Unfortunately, a number of future comments continued that thread, but I don’t think there’s much to worry about there. Fan communities are a resilient bunch. They’ve survived takedown notices, shipper wars (do not put a rabid Spike/Buffy fan in a room with an equally rabid Angel/Buffy fan) and bone-headed moves by show runners (Buffy “space sex“–no, I’m not kidding and the link isn’t work safe). Don’t even get me started on what early slash writers had to put up with, where being called a “sick pervert” was about as good as it got.

Fandom will survive.

More troubling, especially in the comments to Scalzi’s article, were the licensing terms:

Kindle Worlds is a creative community where Worlds grow with each new story. You will own the copyright to the original, copyrightable elements (such as characters, scenes, and events) that you create and include in your work, and the World Licensor will retain the copyright to all the original elements of the World. When you submit your story in a World, you are granting Amazon Publishing an exclusive license to the story and all the original elements you include in that story. This means that your story and all the new elements must stay within the applicable World.

I agree it’s troubling, but I think people are overreacting without taking the time to think it through. The prevailing opinion seems to be that if you publish a story through Kindle Worlds, you’ll be prohibited from using original characters or plot ideas in future non-fandom related works.

True to a point. If Masters of the Universe, the story Fifty Shades was based on, had been published through Kindle Worlds, I think we never would have seen Fifty Shades. From what I’ve read about it (having never read either Fifty Shades or the original fic), more than 80 percent of the fan fic was unchanged. I know of other instances where authors have subsequently published original stories heavily based on fan fics, and I think authors who are considering a move like that should think carefully before publishing through Kindle Worlds.

But it shouldn’t be a complete show stopper. Apologies for using myself as an example, but I recently reworked a fan fic into the third book in my Warlock Case Files series, and I think it shows how an author could potentially make both approaches work.

Here’s a rough synopsis on the fan fic, which was for the Forever Knight fandom:

Original character was a gender-swapped reincarnation of the ex-lover of a canon character. Reincarnated character was strongly drawn to the canon character who was a vampire and used his powers to hypnotize original character and discover who he really was. Meanwhile, a rogue vampire was killing people, and the canon characters had to find and stop him. Rogue vampire killed reincarnation. Sadness ensues.

Honest, the story was better than the summary, but those were the relevant plot points I used in my new story, which by the way is more than six times longer than the fan fic. Definitely not a Fifty Shades scenario. None of the plot points from the first story were strictly “original,” and I doubt anyone would even notice the connection unless I specifically pointed it out.

So again, fandom will survive. Even in this new paradigm, writers will be able to recycle old ideas and make them fresh. They’ll just have to be smart about it. But the good writers who become successful tend to be pretty smart, so I think it’ll all work out.

In the meantime, fan fic authors who want to make a few bucks off their creations will be able to do so.

Oh, and as for the concern that it’s a cheap way for a media franchise to get ideas? There’s little stopping them from doing it now, for free, by mining the better fan fiction archives.

7 Comments on My Reaction to John Scalzi's Reaction to Kindle Worlds

  1. This reaction is a brilliant example of moral relativism. Scalzi’s points should be acknowledged for the warning that they are: ripping off the works of fans by both Alloy Entertainment and Amazon in terms of future rights and usage. But maybe your point is that fan ficcers aren’t real writers and they should be glad for the occasional $14.95 for their work.

  2. Felix Torres // May 24, 2013 at 7:07 am //

    Over at Mobilereads, one of the regulars elegantly described Kindle Worlds as “Crowd-sourced licensed tie-ins”. That is, as a variant of work-for-hire contract writing.
    Main thing is, if the terms are acceptable to the writer and the owner of the IP, there really isn’t much there for anybody else to object to. Each project will succeed or fail based on how many see the terms as a fair balance of both sides’ interests.

  3. Juli Monroe // May 24, 2013 at 9:32 am //

    @MRW, As a long-time fan ficcer, you’ll never hear me claim they aren’t real writers. I rarely read authorized media tie-ins because I’ve found that good fan ficcers a) are often better writers and b) generally understand the characters better. There are notable exceptions, but in the main, I’d rather read something written be a fan who loves the show rather than a work-for-hire writer who did most of his research from the show guide.

    Oh, and yeah, I’ve read some positively horrible writing too, so it does run the spectrum.

    Not sure where you’re coming from on the “moral relativism” though. Could you specify descriptive, meta-ethical or normative?

    @Felix, I like the term, and I think that’s an excellent way to characterize it. However, I said I did agree with Scalzi that the contract terms have issues, and I’d advise any fan ficcer who considers a deal to look over the terms and give some thought to long-term plans (if any) they might have for the stories they submit. Just like any author of original works should carefully read their contracts and understand all the implications of what they are signing.

  4. Any fanfic writer who has even the remotest idea of becoming a professional writer should run screaming from this kind of fanfic agreement.

    All writers have specific themes, character types, and ideas that they repeat throughout their careers. They just can’t escape this because it’s part of who they are as people.

    These themes, character types, etc., will follow them from their fanfic into their professional writing so it would be very simple for one of these media companies to sue a writer who has become financially successful for copyright or trademark infringement. Even a very vague legal fishing expedition on their part, with their huge bankroll, will bankrupt a writer who cannot hope to have those kinds of funds.

    And as far as the fanfic community goes, I imagine a number will be p*ssed off by writers expecting to be paid for what they have always gotten for free so these stories will end up on the free Torrent and other pirate sites as fast as they go up for sale.

  5. @Juli Monroe,

    You have the bullhorn here. You need to help fan ficcers understand what they are getting into a lot more forcefully than you have (Marilynn Byerly makes a good point). I had no idea this legal Catch-22 was behind Kindle Worlds until Scalzi pointed it out.

    Before the web, before the misnomer “crowd-sourcing,” any writer anywhere was free to create fan stories on spec and submit to an entertainment company with none of the legal straitjackets and rights-giveaway that Amazon and Alloy ( and others) are imposing as a fait accompli. And be paid a few thou for one. Nothing could have stopped a fan ficcer from print-publishing an anthology of his or her rejected stories as a collection of stories the entertainment co failed to pick up: “The Ones That Got Away.” (OK…groan.) And all future rights would have been hammered out by publishing lawyers if the lucky ficcer got a nibble as a result.

    Work-for-hire isn’t an all rights deal as a matter of definition. Perhaps this is better understood if you look at the graphics world. An artist can create an editorial illustration for, say, The New Yorker, or the NYT, on a work-for-hire basis. (Editorials usually pay less; artists do them for the exposure and cachet.) That right does not give The New Yorker or the NYT the *automatic* right to use it as an anthology cover for a book of its decade of best illustrations without compensation, or use the illustration in mass advertising, or slap it on a t-shirt or other merchandise. Those rights are negotiated up front, of course…IF the artist knows he retains those rights as a matter of law.

    What I don’t like about what Amazon is doing is that it is taking advantage of writers’ ignorance. They’re rolling the dice because a winner might show up on their doorstep, and they are using the implied threat of relieving the hapless writer of legal repercussions by their designation of rights they will just take for themselves before they become an issue.

    Why don’t you follow up on this by contacting the National Writers Union in Manhattan and see what they have to say about it.

  6. Juli Monroe // May 24, 2013 at 4:35 pm //

    I think I have tackled this issue pretty head-on, and I’m still not convinced the rights issue is as big a deal as some folks are making it out to be. It’s extremely difficult to copyright a theme. Let’s face it. There are a limited number of basic themes. Here’s a site that makes a case for 1, 3, 7, 20 or 36.

    There are also a limited number of basic character archetypes, and every character falls into one (or more) of them. It’s going to be difficult for a publisher to go after an author later and say they signed away the rights to a theme or a particular character archetype. (Check out TV Tropes if you need further illustrations of this. And be prepared to spend a lot of time there. It’s an addictive site,)

    Yes, a fan ficcer should be extremely cautious of submitting a work containing an original character (at least a major one). But the vast majority of fan fic involves just canon characters, and honestly, there’s not much to sign away in that situation.

    @MRW, your statement that “Nothing could have stopped a fan ficcer from print-publishing an anthology of his or her rejected stories as a collection of stories the entertainment co failed to pick up: “The Ones That Got Away.” is wrong (unless I misunderstood you). The rejected stories would be unauthorized, and the writer couldn’t publish them (legally) without completely rewriting them into original stories. I think I made a pretty good case in my article how a fan fic can be rewritten into an original work without anyone twigging to it.

    And I’ll say it one more time. There’s *nothing* stopping media companies from mining the better fan fic communities for free ideas now. I assume every time I publish a fan fic that someone else could come by and use my idea and pay me nothing. Because of the sheer volume out there, I doubt anyone would find any of my stories, but they could, and I know of and am willing to take that risk.

    I’ve got one story I’d love to submit to a Kindle World style project. It’ll never happen because it’s in a pretty dead fandom (although it gets at least 100 hits a month, even 15 years later), but I’d be quite willing. There’s nothing in the story that would hurt me as a writer (now or in the future). If I watched Vampire Diaries, I’d be wiling to submit a story in that fandom, even though I have vampires in my original works. I know I’m good enough as a writer to keep my ideas in separate boxes.

    Could Amazon and Alloy rip off writers? Sure, they could. But I’ve seen some pretty convincing arguments over the years that the Big Six are ripping off writers pretty well too. I honestly believe the best way for writers to get their work out is to self-publish (although I’m aware of dangers down that route as well.) Any writers who don’t educate themselves are taking risks. Scalzi pointed out some risks. I said I agreed with much of what he said, but I wanted to make the point that there are ways to mitigate the risks and that Kindle Worlds could be an option for some authors. I still believe that, but I’m willing to change my opinion if/when new information comes out. Then I’ll write another post.

  7. Sure, themes, etc., aren’t covered by copyright, but what I’m saying is that the slightest thing, no matter how ridiculous, that one of these corporations can hook into for a lawsuit will be enough to financially destroy a writer and potentially hand over the copyright to anything they write to that corporation.

    As a professional writer, I sure as heck would not take that risk, and I’d be remiss not to warn any writer of the same risk.

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