There was a piece on Time magazine’s website about a month ago that I found to be fascinating reading. The full piece, titled, “The Boy Who Lived Forever” is at http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,2081784,00.html and begins by talking about the Harry Potter books and how, even though J.K. Rowling has no plans to write any more Potter books, they will endure for a particularly long time because she has given her blessing to any and all who wish to play in her universe and create fan fiction (AKA ‘fan fic’). Similarly, Stephenie Meyer has given Twilight fans permission to write stories about Team Edward and Team Jacob and Team Whatever-else-you-feel-like-writing-in-the-Twilight-universe.
This is in stark contrast to the positions of people like Orson Scott Card (“I will sue, because if I do NOT act vigorously to protect my copyright, I will lose that copyright…”), Ann Rice (“I do not allow fan fiction. The characters are copyrighted. It upsets me terribly to even think about fan fiction with my characters.”), George R.R. Martin (“My characters are my children… I don’t want people making off with them, thank you. Even people who say they love my children.”) and Ursula K. Le Guin,( “To me, it’s not sharing but an invasion, literally—strangers coming in and taking over the country I live in, my heartland.”)
I can understand the “My characters are my children” argument, as well as the “Strangers coming in and taking over the country I live in” argument. Works of fiction can be very personal. And while the author of the Time piece counters that argument with the notion that “A writer’s characters are his or her children, but even children have to grow up eventually and do things their parents wouldn’t approve of,” I’ll counter his counter-argument by saying that a)people have children for very different reasons from the reasons why they write books; b)there aren’t hundreds of thousands of people who want to take over the lives of my children, and those who want to make them have sex with farm animals (and other even odder stuff that happens in fan fiction) get sent to jail; and c) having children comes with an expectation that those children are going to go out into the world one day—in fact, it’s a parent’s job to teach children how to function in the world and care for themselves. There is no such expectation when an author writes a novel. To extend that metaphor, the novel goes out into the world as a whole and has to stand on its own two feet, but expecting that from your novel’s characters is like expecting your heart and lungs to go out on their own and leave the safety of the rest of the body.
Having said all that, and fully understanding why authors might be justifiably uncomfortable with other people “using” their “children,” I still find myself falling into the category of authors who would be more likely to approve of fan fiction based on my work than not. Admittedly, no one is clamoring to use any of my characters at this point, so for me this is purely an intellectual exercise. But it seems to me that from a business/marketing standpoint, Rowling and Meyers got it right. By allowing others to play with their character and their worlds, they essentially got a fan-built viral marketing campaign supporting their books. For free.
Were some things done—some horrible, terrible, atrocious things—to Edward and Harry in the process? Of that I have no doubt. But here’s the thing: Harry Potter is not J.K. Rowling’s son, or even a living, breathing human being. He’s a literary construct. And if .14% of the fan-fic out there would have turned Rowling’s stomach (assuming she saw it at all) the other 99.86% significantly helped improve her market share. At the very least, it helped a few people find her books that might not have been aware of them otherwise. At the most, it drove sales faster and farther than she ever could have on her own. It was certainly a factor in the series becoming the cultural phenomenon that it is.
Does that make Card wrong in saying, “…if I do NOT act vigorously to protect my copyright, I will lose that copyright”? Maybe not in a technical/legal sense, but I think he’s missing the forest for the trees. As popular as his Ender books are (they’re even being taught today in schools), I think they would be even more popular if he had allowed others to play in that universe. And look at Rice. As popular as her books had been at one time, they don’t hold anywhere near the fascination they once did. Admittedly, nothing lasts forever, but if allowing fan fic might have given her vampire novels another ten years worth of legs, wouldn’t it have been worth it? Those books might have lasted long enough to catch the current vampire wave and enjoyed a significant resurgence of sales.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me: Sales and marketing is not the end all and be all of every conversation. Of course it isn’t. But coming back to the “my characters are my children argument,” I have two real, flesh-and-blood children, and I’d love nothing more than to see those two children succeed and thrive in the world— I want that for them in many forms: financially and otherwise. For all the time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears, we put into our books, why would we want any less success there? Financially and otherwise.
That’s where I stand anyway. What do you think?
BTW, once you’ve answered that question, I strongly encourage you to go and read the original article in full (if you haven’t already). It covers a lot more than just the positions on this subject of famous authors; it also looks into the history of fan fiction and talks about a great deal of things of interest to sci-fi and fantasy fans, which is the single biggest source of, and market for, fan fiction out there.
***P.S. Faith raised an important point below in the comments section that made me realize I should have defined what exactly fan fic is and is not. In a nutshell, fan fic is written by people for free, to be read by people for free. Anything else very quickly turns the corner and ventures into the treacherous waters of piracy, where people make money off the intellectual property of others. Those practicing and profiting from piracy should be keel-hauled in the nude beneath the belly of the HMS Titanic (before she sank in iceberg-fill seas or after, either one is fine with me).