by Mackenzie Walton
It happens all the time. You’re watching a TV show—or seeing a movie, or reading a book, or doing any number of things—and it occurs to you that two characters have a lot of chemistry. You get to thinking about how the pair would get together, what obstacles they would face, the hot sex that would inevitably ensue, and before you know it, you’ve spun a scenario that you think is even better than what the writers have cooked up.
Less frequently, but still on a regular basis, someone is so moved by the brilliance of their angst-filled story about Riker and Crusher’s timeless love affair that they type it up and submit it to us for publication.
Um, please don’t do this.
Basically, what is being produced is called fanfiction. For those of you who may not know about it already, fanfiction is an unauthorized story written about licensed characters or settings. It’s been around for decades, originating largely in fanzines and then exploding into prominence once the Internet made sharing information so easy.
Despite its illegality, fanfiction is extremely common and opinions about it are divided. Some creators actively encourage fanfiction. After all, it shows that fans care about these characters. Others denounce any form of unauthorized work featuring their characters and actively try to keep it from being readily accessed in order to protect their copyright. Regardless, fanfiction writers are rarely threatened with legal action because their work is generally on a small scale and is not for profit.
Key words—not for profit.
Because that’s where things can get sticky. A story that is accepted by a publisher is (hopefully) going to make a profit. That’s the whole point. Readers buy it, the writers gets a portion of it, the publisher gets a piece of the pie, eventually a few pennies trickle down so the poor editors who are chained to their desks can buy a crust of bread for dinner. Everyone is happy.
But if it’s fanfiction? The actual owners of the concept get nothing. Believe it or not, people don’t like it very much when tons of people are making a mint off their idea, while they don’t make a cent.
So, at the very least, that’s not very nice. We like our authors and we certainly wouldn’t wish this kind of scenario on any of them. Even more threatening, however, is the fact that the owners of these characters—especially those owned by big corporations, like Time Warner or Disney—have lawyers. They might not bother to hassle a lowly fan writer who doesn’t have two dimes to rub together (Bill Gates probably isn’t holed up in his mansion writing Due South stories). They will, however, sue the pants off a publisher who is producing unauthorized work.
Moreover, in many cases, there are already legal venues for the publication of certain characters’ continued adventures. For example, Pocket Books produces authorized novels about Star Trek characters and themes, and other publishing houses have similar deals with other series. So if one is truly zealous about an idea, there are legitimate ways to pursue it. However, this road may be long and fruitless, and the writer may ultimately have to conform to the owner’s vision.
So, to sum up—we can’t publish these kinds of stories. It’s simply not worth the liability.
That being said, there are still some options to legally publish what some might consider fanfiction. Where works of fiction are concerned, copyrights generally last for the duration of the creator’s life, plus 50 or 70 years. This is why novels featuring characters such as Dracula are fairly common. There are also folkloric characters such as Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast that no one owns and are free to be reinvented by anyone. Copyright laws can sometimes be tricky, however, so you should research carefully before proceeding.
A more cautious approach might be to use these characters solely as a basis for your own stories. If you like the cockiness of Han Solo, surely you can translate that into a hero of your own creation. There can be intelligent teenagers other than Hermione Granger. There’s no reason why you can’t use your favorite characters as inspiration for a story that is fun, thoughtful, and most importantly, publishable.