As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, one of the earliest methods of “tele-reading” on the Internet was fan-written fiction, or fanfic. Fanfics were available electronically before most other books simply because they had to be, to be shared with other fans on the Internet. Already popular back when the Internet was inhabited by only a handful of college students, it positively explodedas the Internet grew. But it remains a bugaboo to a number of writers, and the most recent writer to poke the beehive is historical romance novelist Diana Gabaldon. Her original post starts out:
OK, my position on fan-fic is pretty clear: I think it’s immoral, I know it’s illegal, and it makes me want to barf whenever I’ve inadvertently encountered some of it involving my characters.And it goes on from there. (She does post a somewhat more moderate follow-up, however.) The post elicited mentions from Charlie Stross (who does a pretty good job explaining why he has no problem with people writing fanfic of his work, as long as he doesn’t have to read any of it and it doesn’t mess with his ability to earn a living) and John Scalzi (who has a similar policy). Scalzi also linked to Fandom Wank’s writeup about the commotion, and an open letter from Kate Nepveu to published writers who dislike fanfic that is well worth reading.
More fundamentally, if people are writing fanfic about your works, then their imagination has been sparked by your works; they have been moved by the same impulse to engage with a story that runs through all of human culture. People gossip about their favorite characters; become fascinated by unexplored characters, locations, histories, themes, implications; imagine what would happen next, or if, or instead; and critique every aspect of a work. Sometimes this takes the form of passing in-person conversations, sometimes of blog discussions, sometimes of scholarly works, and sometimes of stories. (Sometimes, even, of critically-acclaimed, award-winning, professionally-distributed stories.) I would be astonished to hear that your own writing never was influenced by this impulse—I say this not to suggest that you’ve been writing fanfic all along, but to point out the strength and universality of this impulse. (For an eloquent and lengthy discussion discovered just as I was about to hit “post,” see Jonathan Lethem’s “The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism” from a few years back.)
Nepveu also links to another LiveJournal poster, who points out that Gabaldon lives in an awfully glass house to be throwing stones.
Certainly, the issue of fanfic and intellectual property is a complicated one. Some professional authors allow fanfic, some insist on creative commons licensing for it, some are strongly against it, some—such as Mercedes Lackey—got their start writing fanfic, and still write it to this day along with their other pursuits. Making Light had a great discussion of it back in 2006, calling it a “force of nature”.
And it really is—or at least a force of human nature. We’ve had storytelling and retelling baked into our psyches since ancient times, when myths and legends were formed by storytellers building on what other storytellers had told before. It’s natural to us to want to make up our own stories about characters who profoundly affect us.
Of course, it may not be strictly legal—but then, the modern copyright system is a fairly recent development in terms of the span of human creativity. It’s not going to control the writer’s impulse. I’ve written plenty of fanfic myself.
I think fanfic will always be with us. The nature of the Internet is such that it can’t be eradicated—and any author who actually dares to sue over it, no matter how justified, will probably lose a significant portion of his fandom. (See also, Metallica vs. Napster.)
And authors, such as Gabaldon, who kick up a fuss about it will soon find themselves the center of Internet attention—not all of it good. By complaining about a pastime that so many fans enjoy, they risk arousing the ire of not just their own fanfic-writing fans, but fanfic-writers of anything.