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Fanfiction and Copyright issues


By Xiaofan Cai


Do you ever get to the end of a book, film or television series and feel unsatisfied by the ending? I feel this way often – that the end, isn’t truly an end. I always imagine that the characters in these works continue their story or come to a whole new world and start new adventures. The grand wedding is not the end of the story of the prince and princess; afterwards they have to face the ups and downs of life. After Harry Potter defeated Voldemort, the next generation of wizards will continue the story of the magic world.

Then, one day, I stumbled into the world of “fanfiction”, which opened the door to a new world for me. In fanfiction, nothing is impossible. The popular protagonists we meet in novels continue their existing plot or are presented in new plot lines. Because of the endless creativity of fanfiction, I began to read them at online fanfiction sites, like Fanfiction.net and Archive of Our Own(AO3). I really enjoy the plot that I imagined become new stories on my screen; I also love to communicate with other fans who like the same works as me. However, when I saw Walt Disney company suing individuals or companies that unauthorized use of Disney characters, a question popped into my thoughts: does fanfiction really infringe Copyright law? This is where it all began for my research.

Fan cultures vary from country to country. In addition, attitudes of original authors are closely related to the existence of fanfictions. According to my previous understanding, original authors from Japan seldom express their displeasure about fanfiction writing. Moreover, fan work has become a huge commercial industry in Japan. However, in the Western context, many copyright holders were frustrated with and angry about fan-fiction works–some even sued fan writers for infringing their copyright.

Laws support copyright works differently. As a popular cultural center in the world, the United States has a large number of fan authors who display and share their works on the internet. However, the legal definition of Copyright infringement in the U.S.A of original works brings some potential risks to such flourishing culture. For instance, if a fan writer uses the background, main characters and part of plots from a novel without authorization, then the fan’s work could constitute Copyright infringement. The problem is, though, a large number of fanfiction works have such “borrowings”, as these works, are based on pre-existing worldview.

Do fanfictions absolutely infringe the copyright? The answer is “no”. In the copyright-related laws in the United States, if the work conforms to the standard of “fair use”, then it is legal. From the research, I found that whether the court determines a work infringing the copyright, or in line with the fair use, is a very complicated process. Laws are far from perfect. There are already some companies in the publishing business area that have made positive attempts, but there is still no universal solution.

Where will fanfictions go to? As a fanfiction reader, I am still supporting the creations of fan writers because of their enthusiasm to the original works. At the same time, I am waiting for a clear guidance which will lead the creation of tens of thousands of people to a legal and bright direction.