Fan Fiction

It is a truth universally acknowledged that good writers borrow, and that great writers steal. But have a look at some of the fan fiction sites where classic literature and modern TV scripts are rewritten every day—and try to describe what’s going on. At, for example, where the author of Pride and Prejudice is continuously revised in stories like this, called

Something in the Rain: In the wine country of California, Lizzy Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy come into conflict as she advocates for workers and he owns a large vineyard. Or this retake of Star Trek, The Original Series: in which Captain Kirk wants to know what it’s like to kiss and cuddle with Spock in Zero Gravity. Fan fiction is bigger than a cottage industry, approaching the breath and depth of a folk culture. On Open Source: The art, the fun, the sexual politics and the law of it all.

Naomi Novik

Fantasy writer and fan fiction writer. Did graduate work in computer science at Columbia University. Her livejournal: Naomi Novik.

[by ISDN in NYC]

Francesca Coppa

Associate professor of English at Muhlenberg College in PA with an interest in theater and sexuality; fan fiction writer.

[by ISDN in NYC]

Lee Goldberg

TV writer and producer, e.g. Monk; writes novels based on TV shows, e.g. Diagnosis Murder

blogger, A Writer’s Life

[by phone from Los Angeles, CA]

Rebecca Tushnet

Professor, Georgetown University School of Law

blogger, Rebecca Tushnet’s blog

[by phone from Washington, DC]

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  • Erica

    Hey guys – You all know I am into fanfiction and have tons of stuff I can tell you about it and/or ppl to connect you to, right? I don’t have time to list it all out right now but I’ll come back later or email Brendan or something. But I definitely want to help out on this. There’s lots of folks locally and non who you really oughta talk to.

  • Katherine

    Sounds great, Erica. The deadline is fast approaching, but we can try to follow up on any suggestions on Monday morning. One thing we’re looking for: someone who isn’t “undercover” who would be willing to tell us about the characters & stories they write. But all thoughts would be very welcome.

  • There’s also a huge amount of friction between fanfic writers and the people who actually create–and, in many cases, own–the characters and situations they appropriate. The Internet has done more than allow these people to come together; it’s also allowed them to distribute derivative works of original fiction without regard for the wishes of the copyright holders.

    The STAR TREK creators understand that pursuing legal action against STAR TREK fanfic writers would be detrimental to business.

    One place where fanfic regularly comes up is Lee Goldberg’s blog: . In the subject headers on the left is a FANFIC link. That will take you to the conversations (and battles) there.

  • Katherine

    noteon, this is great. David actually happened upon Lee Goldberg’s blog this afternoon, but this is exactly the kind of suggestion that’s really helpful — keep it up!

  • If you haven’t already, you might also look into Anne Rice’s history with fanfic.

    As a novelist, I personally don’t have a problem with the writing of fanfic–or, at least, not an ethical problem, though I don’t think it deserves much respect as a creative endeavor, since the major building blocks were already created by somebody else from scratch–but its distribution is another thing entirely, a distinction that’s often lost in the heat of argument.

    To me, the web distribution of fanfic is a fundamental affront to the concept of intellectual property, since the ability to deny usage is, in essence, the definition of intellectual property ownership. The “who does it hurt” argument is beside the point–which is that somebody else made it, so the decision to allow or deny usage should be theirs. It’s romantic to think of fanfic as folk writing–which, indeed, it is–but very silly and self-serving to cut the person who actually created the original out of the decision-making process. Internet fanfic does for fiction what MP3 files did for music: allow consumers to screw the artist directly, without a middleman.

    And if that’s not more than you wanted to know…

  • I’d love to hear the angle about “are we allowed to do this?” explored more. Seems like George Lucas has a reputation for being hard on the fanfic community, and the idea about needing permission to create in one of these worlds (the opening question of “does he own it, or do we?”) is only going to get more important. (And is something I’m keen to hear explored in more depth.)

    Eagerly awaiting this show,


  • You might want to get a quick opinion from Lawrence Lessig, a lawyer who has written about digital property rights stuff.

    His view is very much in line with the “Creative Commons” approach: borrowings, adaptations, and “remixes” should be legal in a non-commercial context.

    You might also want to be sure get some representation of Noteon’s perspective — people who are hurt by this, or are philosophically opposed to all borrowing.

  • No misrepresentation, please. I’m opposed to distribution, not writing. And I’m opposed to borrowing without permission.

    I’m also opposed, as a human being, not a novelist, to the sense of entitlement that allows fanfic writer/distributors to sincerely believe they’re the injured parties when a copyright holder objects to unauthorized usage.

    The Creative Commons is a great idea, as long as it’s possible to opt out. Works by people who choose not to participate in it should be left alone.

    For me, the real point is the one under the usual debates about rights and usages; these things only become the focus of argument because they’re the most tangible and easily batted around. But didn’t any of these people learn that it’s not nice to use other people’s things without asking first?

    And if the answer is no, does anyone really think the right thing to do is go ahead and use it anyway?

    Successful characters are the result of somebody’s hard work. They’re inventions; the result of conscious effort and considerable trial, error, and experience. They’re not natural resources, just floating free in the air. Using them without permission shows their creators great disrespect.

  • Noteon,

    I wouldn’t say that fan fiction writers are the “true” victims. The way the law now stands, what they’re doing when they work with and distribute other people’s intellectual property is clearly infringement. And you’re right that Creative Commons only solves some problems, some of the time.

    But I do think novelists and fan fiction writers would both benefit if there could be some kind of simple, consensual arrangement by which fan fiction writers could license characters or other kinds of literary inventions for their non-commercial usage.

    In his book Free Culture, Lessig suggests something along these lines, though his main focus is on audio and televisual media. He argues that the current structure of licensing is so byzantine and complex that it stifles creativity. There should be a simple system by which someone who samples a rap song should be able to pay a low-ish fee to a central licensing authority, who in turn pays the artist. Currently a lot of that work happens in a kind of gray area.

    If we adopt this with fan fiction, FF writers should be able to pay a straightforward, one-time fee for the right to distribute material that makes use of a published writer’s intellectual property.

    It would work best if it weren’t something a writer could opt out of. In the short run, some writers might be unhappy about losing control of their inventions (though arguably, this happens anyways when they publish their works). But there would be less complaint if/when the checks were to start coming in.

    Just an idea…

  • But I do think novelists and fan fiction writers would both benefit if there could be some kind of simple, consensual arrangement by which fan fiction writers could license characters or other kinds of literary inventions for their non-commercial usage.

    There is.

    Write and ask permission.

    It’s really that simple.

    The reason fanfic writers don’t do it (I assume) isn’t that it’s complicated–because it’s simply not. My assumption is that they don’t do it because they already know what the answer will be.

    It would work best if it weren’t something a writer could opt out of.

    For whom?

    Just as background: I’ve been releasing my original music for free on the Internet since the early days of I post poetry and the occasional bit of short fiction at my blog. I believe in sharing some of what I make with no expectation of payment.

    However, I also believe that should be my choice. I’m the one who made it; I should be able to decide how it’s used. If I choose to let it out into the world with no strings, great. If I choose not to, I can’t think of any entity whose opinions or desires should, in any sense anyone could consider fair, supersede mine.

    Music and video are not the same animal, for a variety of reason, including complexity of copyright and the collaborative nature of the media. However, in music, the ways to use it do exist. They’re a little complex, but so is the software musicians use every day. It would be nice if both were simpler; but for now, they’re not. And as I see it, relative complexity is not a particulary good excuse for taking stuff that’s not yours. Learn how to do it. It’s still way easier than writing something original.

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  • Chris Williams

    I’d like to address the constitutional question: In the US, Congress has the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” So, does fan fiction promote the progress of “useful Arts,” or impede it? That to me is a more important question than who owns it. (Fun tangential questions: Does Star Trek qualify as a useful art? Or does Star Trek itself inhibit the progress of *science* by promoting psuedo-science?)

    I’d love to hear Larry Lessig and noteon debate this on the air! noteon emphasizes the “exclusive rights” part of the equation, while Lessig has focused on the “promoting progress” side. I’m on Lessig’s side, to be sure– I disagree that it’s as simple as writing and asking permission, for example. What happens when the creator is dead? Who grants permission then? Lessig fought that battle in Eldred and lost at the Supreme Court. And what happens to the notion that the creator gets to decide, when a musician signs a recording contract with a label? Fiona Apple finished a new album over two years ago, but Sony Music has refused to release it. Does Fiona own it, or does Sony? There’s a bootleg on the internet and I’ve listened to it and it’s great. Who did I harm by downloading it? Fiona, or Sony? Or nobody?

  • Abby

    noteon–what if someone wrote satirical fan fiction, cause satire is clearly protected (i.e. it’s a complete defense to a claim of copyright infringement) under the 1st amendment?

  • sp113


    1.) Does anyone know if the show indeed airs on WUML at 7PM as it states on the station list? (I have heard it at 9AM….does it run again at 7PM?)

    2.) Is Chris doing one show a week as a ‘local’ show for Massachusetts and the Merrimack Valley?

    I’d appreciate an answer.


  • It would be a shame for the show to devolve into the predictable argument about whether or not fanwriters have the right to engage in what Henry Jenkins has famously called “textual poaching.” As a teacher of poetry (and a poet), I adhere to the theory that once a poem is published, its author can’t (and shouldn’t) control how it’s interpreted or read. If it’s legitimate for a reader to derive her/his own sense of meaning from a Shakespeare sonnet, independent of what Shakespeare may have intended the sonnet to say, then surely it’s legitimate for readers of assorted pop-culture texts — from fantasy novels in print, to cop dramas on TV — to do the same. Is writing something (a poem, essay, story, novel, script) in dialogue with something else a valid form of “reading”? To suggest so blurs the line between author and reader, and I think that’s one of the interesting questions at the heart of this conversation.

    Writing new works in response to old ones is as old as storytelling, and strikes me as a legitimate way for people to engage with the stories that move them. Judaism is rife with people taking our core stories in new directions, writing from the viewpoint of minor characters, and seeking to tie up textual loopholes — we call this kind of exegetical storytelling “midrash.” And just as midrash doesn’t diminish Torah, I would argue that fanfiction doesn’t diminish the works from which it arises, either. I can understand being offended by those who might try to pass their derivative works off as the originals from which they are derived, but as long as responsive, fanwritten, or midrashic work is clearly labeled as such, I don’t see it as problematic.

  • zanbird

    I caught your show by accident on Seattle’s KUOW- as a fan fiction writer for a soap opera I was interested in hearing the ‘debate’. I am a 45 yr old female and have been writing fan fic for about 2 yrs now- I have been writing for 2 sets of couples on the soap Guiding Light. I got into it by reading the fan fic of others on fan message boards but it took at least 2 yrs for me to get the nerve to try it myself. I don’t pretend to be any great writer- it’s just to have fun, be creative, and be a part of a ‘fandom’ community- and yeah ok I get some ego strokes as well by the responses of my readers. In fact reading the responses on the sites where i post the stories are half the fun of it all. I used to do ‘creative writing’ as a teen so I am just rediscovering that part of myself again. ( Also relearning basic spelling and grammer that one forgets after many yrs out of school or composing). With my current story I have been learning the “art” of writing “cliffhangers” and some Farce related techinques.

    I do agree with the two woman on the show that the main reasons I do fan fic is because I love/indentify with certain characters. In soaps some characters can get ” backburned” in the show so fan fic is a way to keep them ‘alive’ for the fans. Also soaps tend to go through head writers and producers frequently and characters get axed, changed, or left out of the main storylines. There is also now the “FCC” factor for soaps as love scenes are being fewer and often less graphic than before the Janet Jackson ‘unbareing’ at the Superbowl. While i don’t write X rated material I do write R to NC17 scenes for the characters.

    I have read fan fic where it mirrors the tv show version, the same characters placed in different time eras, what happens after they leave the show, and what I call “missing scenes”- scenes that happened off camera or Should have happened. Now yes there is some average to less than average fan fic out there but occasionlly the ‘fan’ writer is a Better storyteller than the professional ones. Fan fic writers have no deadlines, networks/producers/actors to please, and often have a better grasp on the characters and their history than the tv writers usually because We Are more Emotionally attached. For me it’ just fun, a way to be “a part of a community”, and a chance to be creative.

  • Jae

    I’m Jae, aka The First Caller aka “What about Harry Potter Paedophilia fanfic?” I am dumbstruck at the back-pedaling and causustry of Novik et al….. more side steps than an Arthur Murray dance studio there….

    I’m not sure you know exactly who you hosted when you hosted Naomi Novik. Perhaps you wonder at why she would not read any of the fanfiction she’s written.

    Naomi Novik

    aka Shalott

    aka Mistress Renet

    Mistress Renet thought that Peter having sex with Jesus in heaven was a perfect example of a fanfic for exploring all the unexplored places in Narnia that we’re certain CS Llewis wanted explored. Thats what she told “The Fandom Jammers” in any respect

    Now go here for the famous fic

    and go here to see who owns the web site its on

    She also owns “Intimations” – her personal site. She writes Harry Potter pornography and Vids (Stealing movie clips and setting them to music as supposed art form)

    specifically for NC-17

    oooh NON CON HP Porn – so MUCH of that in JKR’s universe you know.

    This is what a soon to be published author writes in her “spare” time? What WOULD her publisher say? Fanfic, while harmless in some venues, is frequently an outlet for adult women to write about children having sex. I don’t understand the fascination. Perhaps it’s just symptomatic of a generation who has never grown up despite growing old.

    Fandom Jammers has been looking at this phenomena for some time. More PhDs and JDs et al…all writing chold porn in various permutations including paedophilia and incest.

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  • zanbird

    Ok I am willing to listen- explain why my comment was ‘stupidity’?

    And i was talking more from my 35 yrs of watching daytime soaps when i made the comment about having a better grasp of the characters-soap producers and writers come and go almost yrly-some obliously don’t bother to read up on a characters or the show’s history. In the last couple of yrs General Hospital has been notorious at “rewriting history” to suit their current “plot” ideas. Some of these characters have been around or 10 yrs or more-surely the person who has spent 10 yrs watching a character 5 days a week Just Might “know” more about that character than the person ‘just hired’ to write for them.

    The actor who portrays one of the characters I am currently writing for frequently visits the site I post my fan at-now i can’t say if he reads any of the fics there but we have Never heard any compliants from him either.

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  • zanbird

    here is the link to the site where my current fic in progress is posted-

  • zanbird

    The characters i am currently writing about were Each created by a different writer- yrs part-I will bet you Neither one of the writers who ‘created’ the characters are still on the show and have been gone from the show for yrs. Let’s assume that both the orginal writers are no longer with the show- but these characters are Still being written for by Others- What rights do the original writers have over what is being written for them Now? In my case Guiding Light is owned by Proctor and Gamble- I would assume the characters then are Owned by them and Not the writers of the show- past or present.

    And for goodness sake I am only having fun- i am not making money nor am I writing stories that would damage the characters in any way. I have Never Claimed that i was some great writer-in fact i know i am not but my readers/friends enjoy it.

    I have no interest in Slash or underaged sexuality in fan fic-that to me is a Gray area and i can see where people could be offended by it.

    But Romantic stories between two soap opera characters? Give me a break.

  • I’m saving my post-show comments until the MP3 is available for those who missed the show itself to hear, but I have posted a reaction to some of the post-show comments here in my livejournal:

  • Sorry I didn’t get to help more – we’re crazed here these couple weeks. But since I see you had Naomi, Francesca, and Rebecca, and they were three people I was going to highly recommend to you, you didn’t need my help. Anything I could’ve told you, they could too, and better :). I look forward to hearing the MP3.

    I hadn’t realized the process from on-deck to show went so fast. I’ll have to start following this blog a lot more regularly :).

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