Public Domain Fan Fiction

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Public Domain Fan Fiction

Does the notion of public domain and fan fiction in the same title sound impossible? Well, it shouldn't. Before I explain how those two can fit together, I'd like to explain why I put together a web page on this topic. Writing and reading fan fiction can be an entertaining and enjoyable hobby. However, the current copyright situation can easily get in the way of the fun, especially until the laws are changed to better clarify just what qualifies as 'fair use'. With a growing interest in public domain works and copyleft style copyrighting, I couldn't help wondering if there might be a way to keep the pluses of fan fiction writing and add the benefits of public domain or Creative Commons style works. I came up with a plan, but it'll take the interest of other writers and readers to make it a reality.

If you'd like to get involved, I'm opening up the Wstorm mailing list (writers' brainstorming list) as a place for further discussion and sharing of information on this topic. Feel free to join and collaborate with other authors.

If you'd like to know more, read further.

Benefits of Fan Fiction

I went to an interesting workshop on writing and was very surprised to hear the author say that writing is very much a social experience. Nowhere do I find this more evident than in fan fiction. There's a feeling of community with fan fiction writing and reading. Authors can brainstorm with writers and readers and become inspired to imagine new and wonderful ideas for stories they may never have thought of on their own. Another thing I like about fan fiction is that you can more easily find people with similar interests or tastes. If I were perusing the Internet for an original work of fiction, I'd probably have no clue which authors out there I'd like. However, if I enjoy a certain style of writing in another medium (such as on TV) and I look for authors who enjoy that type of work as well. Odds are, if they're at all true to the original feeling and intent of that work, I'll like their stories too.

Fan fiction is also great for teacher the skills of writing to students. Certain universities are studying the benefits of it. Some writers are great at world-building or coming up with memorable new characters or new names that may make noteable additions to the language. However, may new writers are not. Fan fiction allows authors to derive from works so they don't have to start completely from scratch. It gives these authors a built in audience, one that is already predisposed to the subject material. Often writers are given the advice to read the kind of authors they want to be more like. However, reading works of amateurs can give authors examples of what not to do or what everyone else is doing and is too cliche. That doesn't mean fan fiction is all amateurish. There's a wide variety in the writing quality and many fan fiction authors have gone on to create professional works. Practicing fan fiction writing helps authors improve both their writing and editing skills and to learn their craft. It also teaches authors the publication process. Submitting and being accepted by a 'zine editor is the same process a writer has to go through to in order to submit to a professional publication.

Drawbacks of Fan Fiction

Rather than get into legal issues of fan fiction myself, I'll refer readers to http://www.chillingeffects.org/fanfic/. I do know some media creators/producers/writers have said they have no problem with fan fiction. While at a Pretender convention, the producers of that show were asked how they felt about it and they were okay with it. Some creators of works prefer that authors keep to certain standards (such as keeping it suitable for younger ages) and usually, in deference to the creators, fans are happy to oblige with those restraints. I firmly believe the intention of most fans is to further enjoy certain creative works. They even go so far as to help promote the original works, which should be a plus for the owners. However, while most people would consider fan fiction 'fair use', not too disimilar to talking about a show with coworkers at a job, it's still part of a grey area in the legal system.

Benefits of Public Domain and Copyleft Material

The nice thing about public domain and copylefted works is that they are a way around the legal grey areas. It's perfectly legal to reuse public domain material in your own works. Many popular commercial companies have been doing so for years. Materials using copyleft style copyrights such as the Creative Commons licensing which allows for derivative works also make it quite clear that you're legally allowed to draw from these works and be inspired by them.

There's an interesting reference related to the topic of deriving works and how it can improve creativity in the online book Free Culture available from http://www.free-culture.cc/. In the case mentioned, the author talks about Japanese manga (doujinshi). You can also check out some of the surprising ways corporations have reused public domain works mentioned in this book.

Public Domain and Fan Fiction?

Back to Public Domain and Fan Fiction being used in the same sentence. Fan fiction is fiction based on or derived from other works (usually those works that have a fan base). There's no reason fan fiction cannot be based on public domain material or copyleft material that allows legal derivations. There are several TV shows and movies based on public domain works such as myths and legends. What about Hercules, Jason and the Argonauts, King Arthur? Fans have written about these TV shows and movies in fan fiction. Go one step further! What about going back to the original public domain sources and writing from there? By being able to derive from other fans' legally derivable works as well as the original, newer source material can be introduced as well. Need something more up-to-date? Fan fiction writers have often written AUs (alternate universes) where they take characters out of their original time periods or have them travel through time and set them in different environments or more contemporary settings. Writing fan fiction based soley on public domain works or on that plus the works of other fans who are using derivable copylefts is entirely possible. I've often read on various fan fiction mailing lists about fans who are writing fan fiction for the first time and who have never seen the original show. Everything they've learned about it is from other fan fiction authors they've read. So it can be done.

Of course, many fan fiction writers may now be asking why it should be done. Personally, I think it would bring the benefits of both types of writing together (community innovation and sharing, ease of finding like works). It can be done successfully without any of the minuses (legal grey areas). It can also be an educational experience. The opportunity to collaborate with co-authors from anywhere in the world, give writers a chance to learn about other cultures. You can also make new friends.

The Next Step

So here's the plan. There are two immediate steps I see as needed to get this going. One is from the public domain/Open Source/Creative Commons style community. Appropriate licensing to make ease of derivation between works is necessary. Two, from the fan fiction community, we'll need a body of derivable works and the community that fan fiction authors and readers can provide to go along with it. A good start for the first step is to pick a license type that allows for derivation from the Creative Commons or similar online projects. Use it in any works you may create that fit the public domain fan fiction category. This can help others find authors' works and give a starting point for more ideas for stories. Step two, I think a list of which characters and worlds are already in the public domain could be incredibly helpful. You'll find good examples of public domain material on the web such as Project Gutenberg. You can also search for material under Creative Commons licenses in some of the more popular search engines now. I'd like to eventually see a web page that puts together some of the more popular of these links as a reference source for locating characters and worlds that are safe to derive from and create with. If you run across any online communities or web sites that are sharing their fiction via Open Source style licensing, please be sure to let the members of the Wstorm mailing list know about.

If you've been looking for that next evolutionary step in fan fiction, the one between 'borrowing copyrighted material' and going pro with your original works, here's your chance to join in. Whether you've been considering the alternatives between fan fiction and completely original work and how to have the best of both worlds at once or you've just started thinking about the possibilities after reading this, please lend your talents to the task. For those who don't write and just like to find new places to read stories online, your help is necessary too. What good's a newly created story without someone to read it? As mentioned, if you want to get involved, you're welcome to join the Wstorm mailing list and further share ideas. If you prefer working on your own, think about the possibility of writing your next fan fiction story inspired solely on public domain or legally derivable works (plus your own imagination) and publishing it under a copyleft license. You might be pleasantly surprised with the results.


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(c) Copyright 2005 by Laura Michaels
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