Just came across this post on Making Light (it’s almost two years old, sorry) that has a really interesting point to make about about fanfic and how it relates to ‘legitimate’ fiction. The discussion that follows in the comments is fascinating, ranging from issues of copyright and trademark, aesthetic and moral problems with fanfic, and numerous attempts to define exactly what counts as fanfic, anyway.
For those not in the know, fanfic, or fanfiction, is fiction written by fans (duh) of an original work, like a book or TV show, that uses the same setting and/or characters (there’s a better description in this article). It has a huge presence on the internet, and has sparked quite a bit of debate on whether it enhances or denigrates the original work. It’s all very unauthorised, and occupies a fairly dodgy legal area; most works are published online, and not written for money. The general consensus seems to be that as long as fanfic writers don’t make any money from their work, copyright holders are happy to ignore it.
A lot of what I’ve always found most interesting about fanfic is in the Making Light discussion; legal and ethical ramifications aside, fanfic colletively asks ‘but what would happen if…’, and that seems to me just another way of exploring a narrative. If you’ve ever seen a film and re-written the ending in your head (let’s face it, who hasn’t?), that’s like fanfic. Maybe you don’t write down your alternate ending and stick it up on your blog, but some people do. Some people engage with a work so much that they want to explore what the characters would do if placed in a situation outside the creator’s narrative, or if interacting with characters from another novel or show (called a crossover). Yes, there’s terribly-written fanfic out there, but there are terribly-written books out there, too. While intellectual property and copyright are extremely important issues, and authors have every right to defend their ownership, if your fans want to engage with your work that much, doing something that doesn’t exactly affect you that much, that’s pretty harmless, right?
Authors’ reactions vary: JK Rowling is flattered, though she asks that the more explicit stories be kept away from young fans, and Joss Whedon is all for it (Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are two of the biggest fanfic-generating creations around). Anne Rice is against; fantasy writer Robin Hobb wrote an anti-fandom piece, found here with fan rebuttal; Anne McCaffrey sent a cease and desist notice to a fansite. Some of the negative reactions are quite old now; I think most authors are happier to turn a blind eye.