Fanfiction: Why Plagiarize is a Verb

A good friend of mine, Janet, wrote to me this morning about a situation involving her companion Bruce Heard involving fanfiction. Now both Bruce and Janet are longtime friends of mine, ever since the old days when we all orbited or work at TSR, Inc. and made D&D games together. Bruce had worked on a project. Bruce was putting on his battle gear and ready to storm Australia.

The reason, it seemed, was a self-published author by the name of Tracy Alley. If you are morbidly curious I suppose you can look up her Facebook page (263 current likes) but I will not be providing links here to her or her writings — I just don’t want to give her any support.

The problem is that she has produced a series of novels all based on the TSR setting of Mystara. The Wikipedia entry for the setting notes that “Although it has officially been dropped from production by its creators, many fans continue to develop and evolve this fantasy setting jointly, continuing its original theme of group development.” That’s a lovely and noble-sounding sentiment however I hope I do not shock you when I say that someone writing that in the Wikipedia does not make it either legal, just or right.

It seems that this fanfiction author produced her novels using place names and locations that were identical to those of Mystara on a map. When this was pointed out to her she took offense. After escalating exchanges across the Pacific internet, this was part of her response: “It is true that I told Bruce Heard that I had not previously heard of The World of Mystara and I stand by that – I have not heard or it nor ever role-played in that world. I am familiar with other D&D fantasy worlds, such as the Sword Coast, but not the World of Mystara. When I mentioned certain place names that I did use in my work they relate to very old memories of D&D campaigns played as a teenager – some names tend to stick in the mind.” (From her Facebook post of  earlier today.)

Unfortunately for Alley, the internet has a very long reach and a longer memory. As noted by Tim Brannan on his blog, the maps and place names in the book were not just ‘like’ Mystara but evidently a careful tracing of the original map. Even the nuances of the bays and coastlines were copied.

For everone’s benefit, let’s review:

Plagiarize

Verb (1.) plagiarize – take without referencing from someone else’s writing or speech; of intellectual property

  • plagiarize, lift
  • crime, criminal offence, criminal offense, law-breaking, offense, offence – (criminal law) an act punishable by law; usually considered an evil act; “a long record of crimes”
  • crib – take unauthorized (intellectual material)
  • steal – take without the owner’s consent; “Someone stole my wallet on the train”; “This author plagarized entire paragraphs from my dissertation”

But what about fanfiction (or FanFic as it is often called)? This is a natural outgrowth of the reading experience. As I have so often said, the writer and the reader are partners in creating the experience or performance of the book. The author provides the text but it is the active contribution of the reader’s imagination that interprets that text into a unique experience of sight, sound and especially meaning. Readers often fall in love and are inspired by these vision of the world in which they have actively participating in creating. It is a natural extension of that creation that drives writers to want to create more in the world they love — whether they originated that world or not. Thus fanfiction becomes an outlet for those who are inspired by the creations of others. This is natural and good.

Fanfiction: Loving is not the same thing as owning

The problem comes when people who fall in love with something come to believe that gives them ownership over it. This is a bad thing in personal relationships … and it is a bad thing when it comes to copyright and Intellectual Properties. You can certainly write all the fanfic you like for your own amusement or sharing with your friends as a creative expression … the problem comes when you think you OWN it and can then PROFIT by it … either in money or in fan base.

Dragonlance and TRHNow, I love Dragonlance and I’ll tell you right now that I have an entire new trilogy in mind to write in the Dragonlance world. I’ve spoken to Margaret about it and I think she would love to write it with me. We think it would be a big seller. We love the idea but we can do nothing about it: that’s because Dragonlance was all done under Work-for-hire agreements which stipulate that even though we created it — it is owned entirely by the company. I CREATED Dragonlance and cannot write in that world and SELL it without the owners permission.

I suppose we could write it ‘just for fun’ but I have a mortgage and bills to pay with my words. I fantasized yesterday about writing ‘Drake Javelin: P.I.’ a hard hitting fantasy detective in a red beard who is seduced by a rum-runner named Catherine ‘Kitty’ O’Hara while his beautiful operative Lorelei Thallasi infiltrated the Tak-Khis gang that was threatening to take over all of San Corrine, California. However, I cannot afford to write 500 thousand word novels ‘for free’ since that IS my day job. And anyone who is writing and selling books stolen from my Intellectual Properties is taking food off of MY table.

Plagiarize is a verb; that means it is an action not an accident. It is something you do or which is done to you. It is a choice and the wrong one.

Fan Fiction writers need to accept this painful truth: Loving something is not the same thing as owning it.

10 thoughts on “Fanfiction: Why Plagiarize is a Verb

  1. Obviously the woman’s a hack, but I don’t clearly understand how her profiting from the Mystara setting actually negatively impacts the IP holders.

    • An IP is one of the few things in the world with a title. Under the law it is treated the same as your car or your house — which also, by the way, have a title. Maintaining the value of an IP is also like maintaining the value of a car or a house. You want to keep that asset in good repair to maintain it’s value. You might lease your home or your car to someone else for money (essentially equivalent to licensing someone to use your IP) but you would be wise to put conditions in the lease saying that the person using your home or car would maintain its value under your guidance. If not, then there would be substantial penalties so that you could recover the value lost in your titled property.

      Now, imagine someone sees your car or your house and really, really likes it … but thinks that your car would be better painted pink rather than white or your house would be better if you demolished the carriage house and put in a convenience store behind it instead. They come without your permission and spray paint your car, take a sledge hammer to your carriage house and start framing up a 7-11. The value of your car or house plummets because someone without permission or the right to do so has damaged your property — and devalued the title.

      With me so far? Now there’s nothing wrong with standing on the curb and talking about pink cars or the coolness of having a slushy machine in your backyard. The point is that when you ask someone to PAY for it — trade value for value — then you are selling the title to something you don’t own and, in the process, devaluing the title itself.

      It’s cheap, it’s fraud and it damages the value of a property which they do not own. That’s essentially vandalism for profit.

      • That makes sense in a case where the fraud is presented as somehow part of the original property – if I wrote a knock-off Dragonlance book and claimed it was official, I can easily see how that would reflect badly on the property as a whole. But in this case, Alley disavows any connection to Mystara, and even pretends she’s never heard of it. How does her book devalue the title? People who’ve never heard of Mystara would be none the wiser, and to those familiar with it, it should be evident that Alley’s book is a ripoff, right? I’m having trouble thinking of a way she’s harming the IP holders, that wouldn’t apply equally to fanfiction.

        • I’ll just make it simple. The difference is in the money: between a hiker and a claim-jumper. whether you understand it or not, it is theft under every copyright law known. It is robbing the owner of the property of their work and fencing it as their own. And it does harm the original IP. It is wrong and reprehensible. Being either naive or foolish is no excuse for being ethically bankrupt.

          For a more detailed explaination, please write a fanfiction book entitled ‘Fifty-seven Shades of Han Solo’, publish it on Amazon’s Createspace and await detailed clarification from either Lukas Film or Walt Disney legal departments.

        • That’s not “making it simple”, that’s refusing to answer the question and resorting to didactic statements. Which is fine, of course – you’re under no obligation to cater to the whims and queries of random strangers on the internet. But the question was never whether plagiarism is wrong, or illegal. I simply wished to know, in this specific instance, in what way the IP holders were being harmed. If you’re not interested in answering me, don’t. There’s no need to moralise at me.

          • Fair enough. For me this is an ethical and morals issue. You have inspired me to write an article on this very subject since, it seems, I need to communicate more clearly on this issue. I’ll let you know here when it is up.

  2. I will pay you $10 right now to start on Drake Javelin: P.I

  3. Tracy,

    Thank you for putting your voice to the chorus here.

    I am not sure why this is so hard for people to understand that this sort of thing is not just wrong, it’s dishonest, unethical and creatively lazy.

    Well she is now tainted by this. It doesn’t matter if her books were good or not, she will always be viewed as a thief and a liar.

    Tim

  4. Intellectual property is a salable commodity. Companies can and often do, sell the rights for other people to use for their benefit.

    If a company that owns intellectual property sells the rights to use it to one person and then fails to enforce its rights when another person takes it freely, the person that paid for it is, to use the vernacular, a “chump.”

    In the case of a mostly retired IP, like Mystara, this still applies. Just because the holder of the rights (WotC) doesn’t use it anymore doesn’t mean that they could not sell it if someone was interested in using it for advertising, books, or a computer game.

    By failing to enforce their copyright, it means that there is absolutely no reason for someone to pay money for its use.

  5. Oh, and I’d be happy to front the printing on any book you want to have printed, Tracy. I think its safe to assume I won’t have to worry about anything you write not having rights.

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