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:
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.
Now, 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.