As promised, given the resurgence of Fanfic Outrage Angst O NOES FANFICCRS R EVIL DESTROYERS, with however a few bright lights of Fanfic isn't so bad, I'm once more writing my little essay on Fanfic. This will be, I think, my third major discussion of Fanfic, and as such will have something in common with those, but may have more new and exciting (or maybe boring, who knows) elements.
First of all, while most of you know all you want to about me already, a little summary for those who may end up coming here from somewhere else: I am a published SF/F author with Baen, with five books to my name. I am also a long-term fanfic writer who has written some rather highly regarded fics in their respective fandoms. I'm a (minor) Geek God who's been online since 1976, running RPGs since 1977, and into SF/F since about the time Star Trek first aired. So I come into this area with knowledge and experience on all sides.
The current spate of fanfic debates were triggered by a post by Diane Gabaldon (since removed, apparently!) which was pretty much uncompromisingly anti-fanfic. She later moderated her stance, but her basic commentary is still echoed by many authors and others throughout the Net. Basically, Fanfic has been charged with a number of sins, only one or two of which really have any basis in fact.
My position is basically that there is one -- and ONLY one -- real difference between fanfic and published fiction, aside from "someone got paid for the published stuff": published fiction's gone through the slush-pile filter. Any other difference has many counterexamples.
Fanfic's legality is a fuzzy area. The real problem in many cases isn't copyright law, which generally focuses on very specific presentation of an idea (to the point that you can rephrase what a book says and at least technically not be in copyright violation) but in trademark law, in which you can't use any trademark (technically) without appropriate credit. A lot of popular fanfic targets involve a lot of trademarked characters, names, etc. However, let's take for granted that fanfic is technically illegal, but in most cases it's the sort of illegal that doing 65mph in a 60 zone is illegal; no one, even the cops, really gives a crap, and probably never will. If you go overboard (like the couple of fanficcers who somehow deluded themselves into thinking they could publish their fics for MONEY without the permission of the original righsholders), then they'll notice, but that's like doing 120 in that 60 zone. Most fanficcers are cruising along at 65.
Now, as an author, I can understand the gut reaction some authors have to fanfic with their characters, especially having the characters do something that the author knows is wrong, wrong, WRONG! But that's just a personal aversion. Put bluntly, you don't have to read it. Who cares? As long as they're not publishing it for money, it's doing you no harm, may even -- despite its burning WRONG -- sell a few more copies of your own stuff by reference.
I've heard a few authors say it's "identity theft" -- taking the author's identity or their story/universe identity. This is just silly. Virtually none of the fanfic writers make any claim to BE the author. Unless they try to actually publish the stories for money, no one's going to seriously confuse the original with the fic. Moreover, if you're the author of the original work, you must be extremely insecure in your writing if you have ANY serious belief that the fanfic could somehow affect the perception of your work in the minds of more than a few. YOU (and ONLY YOU) know how to write YOUR stuff. No one can write Grand Central Arena but me. No one else could write a Jason Wood story well. They aren't me. Give three authors the exact same idea, they'll produce completely different stories. If you've got a unique authorial voice or universe, no fanfic writer can take that away from you. They might be masterly writers, but they still AREN'T YOU. Combine that with the fact that they can't actually publish their stuff, and you have nothing to fear from them.
Then there's the whole elitist argument, that the fic writers are wasting their time, should be spending their energy on something "original". The first point of course is... what's original? I'd like any author out there who thinks they've written an original novel to hold up their hands; I'll bet that I and my beta-reading group can find precedents for essentially ANY element or even entire story you care to put forth.
We are ALL fanficcers in many ways. We build on Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle, the Brothers Grimm, Melville, Dumas, Austen, Twain, the hundreds of writers that came before us. While many of us strike out in directions that at least aren't OVERTLY stealing from these worthies, others don't bother to hide it. How many Holmes novels, plays, movies have been made that AREN'T written by (or direct adaptations of something written by) Doyle? How many ways has Romeo and Juliet been interpreted?
Fanfic is inspired by any and all of the same impulses that drive "original" fiction writers. Charges that you can't learn from working with other people's stuff... are just completely wrong. Firstly, any person making such a blanket statement needs to learn and understand the expression "nine and sixty ways" as used in rec.arts.sf.composition; derived from "there are nine-and-sixty ways of constructing tribal lays... and every single one of them is RIGHT", it means that every author has their own way of writing, of learning how to write, of understanding what it means TO them to write. This extends to every single part of writing; some people write outlines, then first drafts, then refine through many more drafts. Others just sit down and write, and when they reach the end, they're done. Some people learn to write from reading other things, then writing their own unrelated stuff. Others learn by writing stuff very much related to what they like, and trying to figure out how it all works.
For some people, writing (for instance) a follow-on story to their favorite TV show which was cancelled would be a worthless exercise. For others, however, it is a perfect vehicle for learning about writing. I, personally, learned a HUGE amount about writing through the fanfiction I wrote with my fiancee, later wife, Kathleen, especially about handling characters. Anyone who claims it's "easier" to do might be well advised to talk to people who've written tie-in novels. Sure, SOME parts are easy. Some parts are MUCH harder, if you're trying to actually work with those characters instead of write a Plot-What-Plot sexual encounter. You're constrained by what has gone before. You can't just make up a character that you want, you have to actually follow someone else's rules. This is NOT EASY for a lot of writers -- and is a challenge that is a completely legitimate part of learning to write.
The lessons I learned in writing fanfic have been used in my own writing. I am a published author now, but I am quite certain I would not be had I not written something close to a million words of fanfiction with Kathy (and a couple million words of stuff, including really really BAD fanfic, before that).
It does make it rather ironic to me, though, when a vocal hater of fanfic is, himself or herself, a writer of tie-in novels. This is paid fanfic, no more or less, and in some ways could be considered MORE pathetic than the standard fic writer; at least the fic writer is doing it because they love the work, while the tie-in writer may only be doing it to get paid. The comparison with certain other activities would not reflect well on the paid tie-in writer.
And the boundaries between fanfic and "realfic" blur even more the closer you look. Good fanfiction (of which there is a lot -- you just have to sort through the 90% that sucks first, then through the 90% that's just acceptable, before you find the good -to-great) explores characters, may be parody or deconstruction of the original, may build upon and extend the original, may add to or try to bring a unified coherence to the original, and so on. Stephen Spielberg produced a marvelous movie some years back called "Young Sherlock Holmes" -- which was essentially a classic "what-if" fanfic production with the premise of "what if Watson and Holmes had met in a school originally, as young men?". Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a professional example of one of the most commonly reviled types of fanfiction, the super-crossover, in which you take a bunch of unconnected stories and try to combine the elements into one. Farmer's A Barnstormer in Oz commits (in my view) many of the sins of badfic, taking elements of the original, pretending to be part OF the original, but badly mangling it in the process.
Much modern fanfic does little different than this -- but is shouted at because the material isn't in the public domain, unlike, say, Shakespeare or the original 14 Oz books. I would have a slightly greater sympathy for this point if it weren't for the fact that the public domain has become a fossilized and mostly stagnant thing, due mostly to the terrible error of giving immortal companies the rights of mortal people, and thus the motivation to retain control of their stuff forever. Copyright was intended as a mechanism to encourage creative people to continue to create by ceding them a TEMPORARY control over the material so that they had an opportunity to directly profit by it, before it -- INEVITABLY -- became part of the public domain. The intervals were generally between 14 and 28 years. Were copyright law still operating as it was intended, not only would Mickey Mouse be in the public domain, so would everything up through 1982 -- the original Star Trek, Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back (with RotJ coming into the public domain next year), all the golden and silver age SF, and so on.
Still, even with that issue aside, the real point is that this is being done for the most part for individual entertainment and personal satisfaction. It's not taking money out of the pockets of the authors (and indeed may be slightly adding to it). Fanfic may not be to the author's taste, but then no one will actually FORCE you to read it. And as an author, you should be EXTREMELY cognizant of something else -- something terribly important.
Fanfic is perhaps one of the greatest signs of the success of your material.
I don't say this as a joke, nor lightly. Look at the basic facts of the situation. Writing stories -- even rather sucky stories -- takes EFFORT. It's a nontrivial thing to do. For people who don't write for a living, for people who haven't spent a lot of time writing outside of school, it can be a HERCULEAN effort. Yet many such people write fanfic. Many of them end up writing LOTS of fanfic.
Don't you see what this says? It says you have touched these people in some fashion, in a manner that is so intense, so powerful, that they are DRIVEN to write about it. Perhaps what they see in your stuff isn't what you want them to see, but in the name of sweet GOG, how few of us have that kind of effect on enough people to matter? This is a stronger and more powerful statement than even "I couldn't put the book down". It's a statement that essentially says, "even after I put the book down... it wouldn't put ME down."
FAN fic. These are your fans, or at least potentially your most powerful fans. Even people who HATE your stuff and try to rewrite it have been affected powerfully. They know your name, they know your work. Few people in the world will have that power over others, to inspire or touch or enrage or drive to tears someone to the point that they MUST write about it, expand upon it, make stories and pictures and dreams that revolve around your creation.
Try to remember that.