50 Shades of Copyright Infringement

What is “fan fiction” exactly? According to the website, Urban Dictionary, it is: “A fandom tool, which allows fans of books, television shows, anime and the like to write about their favorite characters. Fan Fiction (shortened mostly to Fan Fics) is represented on many websites, the most dominant being Fanfiction.net and MediaMiner.org. In Fan Fiction, the writer can either create a story from where the series/episode/book left off (Cannon); create a new world for the same characters (Alternative Reality); or mix characters together from different fandoms (Crossover). Fan Fictions cover all genre, from romance, horror, comedy, to what is known as Hentai (Japanese word, for stories of a sexually mature nature). The fan fiction world is full of a mixture of unreadable, badly written, good and excellent fiction; much like the music industry and its varying degrees of music quality. Some Fan Fiction authors employ betas, to edit their work for them.

“It takes a big studio to make The Avengers, but it doesn’t necessarily take a big studio to write a piece of Avengers fan fiction,” says Georgetown University law professor and fan fiction advocate Rebecca Tushnet. “Big content companies largely recognize that fan activities are really good for them because they engage people.”

The growing popularity of fan fiction, a genre in which fans create their own stories featuring characters or settings from their favorite works of popular culture, raises thorny copyright issues. “Given how broad copyright is now, it’s now possible to say fan fiction is an infringing derivative work,” Tushnet explains. “In order to deal with that… we now talk about fair use, which allows people to make fair, limited uses of works without permission from the copyright owner.”

As a member of the Organization for Transformative Works, Tushnet works to defend fan fiction creators caught in the legal debate between protected intellectual property and fair use.

Nick Gillespie (Reason.TV) sat down with Tushnet to discuss copyright law, fan fiction, and why media companies should embrace fan-created works.