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Plagiarism, fan fiction, and intellectual property

Oct 14: Read the Jordan Castillo Price’s post on this blog.

Angela James sent this link on Twitter. Basically, someone took an Jordan Castillo Price’s original, published novel, posted it as an original fan fiction work, and was found out.  She defended herself by saying, “Plagiarism is a social construct, which has little meaning outside of specific contexts.”

Ridiculous.  I could make that social construct argument for many things, including possibly even money, but not plagiarism.

If there’s one thing people want, it’s credit for their ideas.

In a utopian society where none of us needed to work for our survival, most of us would still fight to the death for recognition of our ideas.  We create art to communicate with other people, but also to express our unique selves.  To validate our unique selves.  To create something that comes from within us — something we are proud of — and have someone essentially steal our identity… this is not about money, and not even about getting praised.  It’s about wanting to control what (we feel) is uniquely, intimately ours.

Some people (I had a note on Open Source people here, but it was in error) would argue that “ideas belong to everybody, no matter who creates them,” but I don’t believe that human nature will allow that.  At least, every time *I* have heard that expressed, something in me rebels.  After all, even before something gets made in the physical form, it’s an idea in someone’s mind.  Maybe I’m just a capitalist beyond reform and used to the commercialization of ideas, but there is just something right about a patent/copyright system to me (even with its many problems.)

Is idea monopolization right/good?

I don’t know if this “it’s mine!” impulse is beneficial or not.  I’m certainly not against fan fiction, but aren’t characters ideas?  If I were to write professionally, I wouldn’t mind if people wrote their own stories with my characters, even if people wrote horror-porn.  I don’t think I would even mind if they made money from it, as long as I got credit for the original work.

When I read authors’ “it’s mine” reactions to people using their world and characters, I think it’s pretty stupid.  “Characters exist in the minds of the readers,” I said to my friend Debbie.  “Trying to stamp out fan fiction is like trying to keep people from committing thought crimes.  It can’t be done.”

The difference between plagiarism and fan fiction?

Creating an original work with someone else’s characters is different from plagiarism.  It took me a little while, and a discussion with my philosophy major brother, to figure out what it was.  Speaking only for myself, the difference is this:

Plagiarism is 90-100% the ideas of the original creator.  Fanfiction (or sampling, remixing, etc) uses source material from someone else’s work, but is mostly the idea of the remixer. If I do a retelling of, say, Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid, the source material comes from HCA, but most of the ideas are mine, and I will feel like the story is mostly mine.  It is the same with fanfiction; in my own opinion, the fanfiction works are 90% the original ideas of the fanfiction author, not the original.

11 thoughts on “Plagiarism, fan fiction, and intellectual property

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jessica Rosen and I Eat Books. I Eat Books said: Plagiarism, fan fiction, and intellectual property | Adele Journal / http://bit.ly/etYfB […]

  2. As someone who used to work in open source, I can tell you that open source people are just as opposed to plagiarism. That’s why open source code is copyrighted with a license that sets up the requirements for its use.

  3. Fan fiction strikes me as more of an hommage, created because the fan admires
    the original writer and is, in some way, eager to show that admiration. Plagiarism on the other hand comes from an entirely different motivation. It’s a violation, a theft. And thus it demonstrates a complete lack of respect for the original creator.

  4. Thanks for your comment. Not being in the open source community, I think my concept of it is skewed, as I only hear about the most radical attitudes.

  5. Thanks for responding! Yeah, the lack of respect to the original creator is big. I think if the fan fiction writer had credited the original, this would be a completely different discussion.

  6. Open source has a very strong sense of copyright. It’s a way of allowing people to share with each other, and a way of protecting that sharing. Attribution and recognition is a big part of that.

  7. Hi Kat – Thanks so much for weighing in on this matter. I think your analysis really struck to the heart of the matter for me: that I’d been stripped away as the creator. The level of dismay I felt really blindsided me.

    In case anyone doesn’t read through all the links, I state repeatedly that I have no problem with fanfic/homage. This incident was my novella with the character names changed and a fanfic writer’s name on it. Her readers didn’t appreciate the plagiarism any more than I did. They took all the action to get her to remove the posts — though of course she still claims she wasn’t doing anything wrong; she wasn’t aware this type of “fusion” had gone out of vogue.

  8. Ralph – Thanks for the comment. Like I said, I’m not in the open source community, and I appreciate the insight.

    JCP – Thanks for coming by! If the plagiarist *had* credited you as the original creator, would you feel differently about this issue? I know it’s hard to say after it’s happened, but I’d really like to know. Thanks!

  9. If she had credited me by name — no, not really, because her “fusion” was a word-for-word copy of my novella with the names changed, and the tense changed from first person to third. Seeing her name on my work was more the “gah” moment for me when it became visceral. But the entirety of what she’d done, crediting herself for my work and my ideas, was upsetting.

    Here’s a second scenario you didn’t ask me about, but could have occurred: Later in her arguments, she asked if what she had done would be to re-tell my entire story in her own words, would that have been plagiarism? According to some court findings I looked at, yes. And according to the way I would have felt about it, yes! That action still would have been stealing my core creation, the plot, the structure, the character interactions and other elements that were my ideas. It still would have had the eerie “her name is on my idea!” feeling associated with it.

    And fanfic is different. I think nearly everyone viscerally understands how and why it’s different and if they claim not to, nothing I say here will change that.

  10. JCP – Thanks for discussing! Hm, yes, the second scenario is still lame. Anyone can rephrase something, but she’d still be using all the design work you put into it.

    I definitely think fan fiction is different in several ways. The writers are creating something original, like musicians who take a small sample of an existing recording but create something new from it. And, fan fiction operates outside the marketplace, but it has actually helped promote the original works, in some cases.

    I know some authors feel differently about fan fiction, though, and don’t tolerate any of it, no matter what the intent is of the ff writer.

  11. I think it is interesting that in music, US copyright law explicitly requires that you license your song at a predefined rate (I believe it is 8 cents per copy) to bands that want to cover your song on their album. But, at the same time, sampling the version you recorded and using it in a new song is not protected.

    If the same law applied to written works, then it seems like retelling an entire story in your own words would be permitted, in the same way that covering a song is permitted.

    In music, the law acknowledges that the original writer deserves compensation and credit for the value they contributed to the product. But it seems to indicate that ‘cover songs’ benefit society as a whole, and should therefore be automatically permitted, provided that proper compensation and attribution is provided.

    I think it is interesting that re-telling a song is allowed (no matter how close it sounds to the original recording), but re-telling a story is not.

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