Fan-fiction hit the main stream news media this week as it was announced that Vintage, an imprint of
50 Shades of Grey - cover
Random House, bought the rights to publish the ‘50 Shades‘ trilogy by E. L. James. Why is this news, you might well ask? Because the trilogy started life as an ‘Alternate Universe’ (AU) fanfic based upon the Twilight trilogy by Stephenie Meyer and more significantly, the print publication rights were purchased for a reported seven figures — something that was virtually unthinkable — until now.
While I have been fascinated by fan communities for nearly 20 years now, fanfic is still something of a recent obsession for me. As an online community scholar, fanfic communities interest me, but so do the stories they write and the way fan writers approach story gaps, ‘Mary-Sue’ characters, alternative-universe scenarios and even complete seasonal re-writes for popular TV shows.
And yes, I admit that I not only explore fanfic from a professional standpoint, but also a personal one. What can I say? Anyone who knows me or has read my blog for any amount of time should already realize that I have certain fandoms that I am strongly affiliated with, so it should come as no surprise that I read fanfic. As to whether or not I have dabbled in writing any — that secret will go to my grave with me.
As a form of fan communication, fanfic is just the natural extension of the frequently played ‘game’ seen on fan discussion forums — “What if.”
- What if she hadn’t turned him down at the end?
- What if X died instead of Y?
- What if the monster didn’t catch them in the forest but when they were still in the house?
- What if she didn’t meet that vampire then, but met the other one earlier?
And on and on….
Yet, my interest in 50 Shades of Grey extends past all of these things due to some rather significant community and ethical implications — namely whether it is acceptable to make money from fanfic and if it is possible for authors to ‘plagiarize’ their own work.
Writing Fanfic for Fun and Profit?
Fanfic writers and communities have always had a somewhat tenuous relationship with the creators of the works upon which their fanfic is based. Some creators, like Joss Whedon, actively encourage fanfic, acknowledging the way in which writing and sharing such works helps to build/solidify fan communities. Still other creators, while they may dislike fanfic (such as J.K. Rowling’s dislike of Harry Potter oriented ‘slash’ fanfic), see that eradicating it would be next to impossible. And yet others like Anne Rice, Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb and Robin McKinley (just to name a few) actively discourage fanfic and will go after websites that archive fanfic based upon any of their works.
Really though, everyone knows that fanfic is just that – written by fans for other fans. It is not done with malicious intent toward the original creators. Nor is it done for profit. In fact, most of the fanfic writers I know write it for themselves and share it because they figure if they enjoy it, others might to.
The vast majority of fanfic falls into this category — it is written and shared purely for fun as a creative outlet for ‘obsessed’ fans (although some would argue that they aren’t ‘obsessed’, we won’t get into that particular argument here and now).
But, this is what sets E.L. James and her 50 Shades trilogy apart.
The original fanfic was fine and played by ‘the rules’ — that is to say, it was written as a labor of love and shared because others might enjoy it. When she realized how popular it was, James sought a way to profit from her work — ‘tweaking’ it to remove the character names that belonged to Myers and selling the book online. At that point she broke what is considered by many to be the cardinal rule of fanfic writing — THOU SHALT NOT MAKE A PROFIT OFF THE CHARACTERS/PLOTS OF OTHERS!
Originally published by The Writer’s Coffee Shop
, the trilogy sold over 250,000 copies and hit the New York Times
e-book bestseller list. The first book in the series reached #1 on March 22, 2012, while the second and third hit #15 and #21 respectively — a respectable showing for something that started life as a Twilight
When the Vintage deal was announced, observers in publishing circles were not just surprised, but concerned. There are now some who are afraid that this (rather lucrative) deal will set a negative precedent, with more publishing houses snapping up thinly veiled, fanfic-oriented, ‘lady porn’ (as it has been dubbed by some).
Following hot on the heels of the Vintage print deal, both Vintage and James certified that the work was ‘wholly original’ fiction, and substantially different to the Masters of the Universe fanfic from which James’ trilogy ‘evolved’. Yet when a blogger at dearauthor.com ran both Masters of the Universe and 50 Shades of Grey through Turnitin.com (a popular plagiarism spotting software used in schools and universities), there was an eighty-nine percent similarity rate.
In an article by the Washington Post, Vintage is quoted as saying:
“It is widely known that E.L James began to capture a following as a writer shortly after she posted her second fan fiction story,” Vintage said in a statement. “She subsequently took that story and re-wrote the work, with new characters and situations. That was the beginning of the ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy. The great majority of readers, including fan fiction aficionados, have found ‘Fifty Shades’ deeply immersive and incredibly satisfying.”
Come on people! 89%!
At any university I have taught at or have friends at, that level of similarity would warrant instant failure and expulsion from a Journalism or English faculty, as well as possible expulsion from the university as a whole. Yet, both Vintage and James maintain that this qualifies as ‘wholly original’ and ‘significantly different’? In what alternate universe?!
Which brings us to the second issue in this whole mess…
Are There Acceptable Shades of Grey in Plagiarism and Publishing?
As a university professor, I am frequently asked by students, “How much do I have to change something before I can claim it as my own?” Sadly, all I can tell them is that it is a judgment call, but as a general rule I suggest that if more than 10 words out of 20 are the same and in the same place as the original, they should cite the original source.
This makes sense for students, but where is the line for plagiarism in publishing? Again, there are two issues at play here: (1) is it ethical/legal/plagiarism to make a profit on a story written using character descriptions or plot elements originally created by someone else and (2) can an author plagiarize their own work?
James’ characters in Masters of the Universe were clearly based on Meyer’s characters in Twilight, from their names down to the character descriptions. The novel itself is set in an alternate university and when she ‘tweaked’ the novel before selling it online, she changed the names — but very little of the character descriptions. So the question is, how much did she have to change in order to legally (and ethically) make a profit when the basis for the characters themselves was not changed, although their usage and universe was?
While I am not a legal expert by any means, when it comes to using characters in literature and fanfic, I tend to think that ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ The characters we see in modern literature are merely archetypes that have been used in literature since man first decided “I should write down that really nifty story that Urg told by the campfire the other night.” Harry Potter is just a protagonist weakling who through adversity becomes the hero he was destined to be. Voldemort is a classic villain archetype.
And this extends to plot ideas as well. Let’s face it, you can’t copyright “star-crossed lovers” as a plot device — it has been used time and time again throughout the ages.
That said, I think James’ is guilty of ‘pseudo-plagiarism’ in her work. Although she changed the names, the character descriptions are essentially the same as Meyer’s characters. According to current legal precedent (and remember I am not a legal-eagle, this is my reading of the law, which may not be accurate) in order for this to count as plagiarism, the characters described in James’ work would have to be clearly recognizable as Meyer’s characters — and deciding whether they are ‘clearly recognizable’ is the issue.
For fans of Meyer’s work, the characters seen in James’ work might be recognizable, however people who have never read Meyer’s work would not see them as such. Hence the problem.
As for the last issue, whether it is possible for an author to plagiarize their own work — in this case I would say the answer is a resounding YES!
An eighty-nine percent similarity rate to her original fanfic work, is far too significant to make the claim for ‘wholly original’ or ‘substantially different’. All she did was change the names – this is quite simply a case of ‘a rose by any other name’. Merely changing the names found in something James publicly put forth originally as fanfic based on the work of Meyers, does not change the fact that is still is fanfic (and as noted earlier, should never have been sold for a profit). The question now becomes whether taking the same thinly disguised fanfic and later changing the character descriptions in minor ways, but not changing the plot, places, etc…in any major way, gives her the ability to claim it is a ‘wholly original’ creation.
Quite frankly, she can’t make that claim — at least not ethically. Yet, both James and Vintage are claiming this, while there is clear evidence to the contrary.
Someone is lying — and me — I tend to think it isn’t Turnitin. So I ask you, what would motivate James and Vintage to make a claim that is clearly false? The novel sold 250,000 copies online. Original print copies were sold for $25 and sold out at an astonishing rate (according to several bookshops I’ve spoken with) — you do the math.
It is almost enough to make me reconsider trying my hand at fanfic — selling even 75,000 digital copies would add nicely to my ‘Disney Travel Fund’.
Mild mannered Assistant Professor of Communication by day; geek culture maven, gamer, medieval re-enactor, fanfic author and sci-fi/fantasy freak by night. Who needs sleep, right?! She has an enduring obsession with Spike from 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer', as well as being crazy for 'Firefly', 'Eureka' and the Goblin King. In addition to raising GeekGurl2.0, she has a loving (and infinitely tolerant) hubby who patiently listens to random rantings about the need for 'more fangy vampires' and the fact that 'only the Goblin King should sparkle'. When not torturing students (or her hubby) she can be found blogging at http://geekgirlmanifesto.blogspot.com/