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Title: The Line Between Plagiarism & Fanfiction
Author name: Icarus
Author email: icarus_ancalion@yahoo.com


I apologize that I won't have time to reply to comments. I'm in finals, behind, asking for extensions even, and I won't have time to deal with the distraction. This is picked up from .

Aha! The Line! Or -- The Line Between Fanfiction and Plagiarism

For those who have trouble deciding where the line is between fanfiction and plagiarism, here it is.

Caras_Galadhon writes of a popular Lord of the Rings fanfic that turned pro-fic A Hidden Passion by Lucia Logan, which was then revealed to follow Jane Eyre on each plot point, and even in its wording. (I'll leave aside my surprise that the Jane Eyre plot wasn't recognized in the first place. I understand it was called an "homage.")

Next we have Gehayi's report on the pro version A Hidden Passion, which has a handy chart demonstrating where A Hidden Passion copies Jane Eyre.

This example is invaluable. I'm sorry so many people have been burned and the publisher invested in this book and had to withdraw it. (I'll leave aside my surprise that the publisher didn't recognize the Jane Eyre plot either.) Yet what we have here is a perfect example of where the line is drawn between fanfiction and plagiarism. Fanfiction haters take note.

Distance Between the Source and Fanfiction

Why is this such a perfect example? Because there is already published work based on Bronte's Jane Eyre. It's called Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. It takes the madwoman in the attic of Jane Eyre and tells another related story. Wide Sargasso Sea follows the two most important rules of fanfiction. Every word of Wide Sargasso Sea is (1) the author's own words. That's the easy part, the litmus test for pure plagiarism. But beyond that, (2) the plot is entirely the author's own. Even though it links up at key points to Jane Eyre. Geraldine Brooks' 2006 Pulitzer winning March does the same with the absent father from Little Women.

This is exactly what is done in Loupnoir's fanfic The Durmstrang Chronicles, Mctabby's Two Worlds and In Between, and to a lesser extent Miss_Porcupine">'s The Jenny Code (not to mention many others). Like Wide Sargasso Sea, they take minor characters, displace them, and expand on their story to tell us something completely different.

Wide Sargasso Sea tells us of the colonialism that takes place between the lines of Jane Eyre. The Durmstrang Chronicles explores the moral grey areas of the "bad school" in Harry Potter that's only briefly mentioned in the series. Two Worlds and In Between, although unfinished, gives us a rich portrait an 18th century wizard culture based on Harry Potter. The Jenny Code gives us a purely military viewpoint of Stargate Atlantis through the eyes of one Major Lorne, a character who at the time didn't even have a first name on the television show. Telling us something completely different isn't a requirement of fanfiction any more than it is in any other fiction. It just tends to be a marker of better quality.

Embedded Fanfiction

Most fanfiction, however, is closer to the source material than these. Most fanfiction involves the main characters of the source work. There is an entire subgenre of "missing scenes." The Wolfie Twins' Call of the Wild takes a supporting character in Harry Potter, Remus Lupin, fills in twenty years of his life and creates a werewolf culture set in Transylvania. It's highly original, without a doubt the co-authors' own words and plot, but it revolves around a Harry Potter character whose characterization was definitely fleshed out by J. K. Rowling.

Other "missing scenes" are even closer. Mahoni's From One End of the World to Another takes a single moment in Stargate Atlantis between one scene and the next -- where viewers were only given the hero shutting his eyes and next his panicked return home -- and shows us what happened. The character and situation are the creation of the television series, but this scene is only hinted at. The words belong to Mahoni as do the exact plot points, but it is intended to drop into the show like a missing puzzle piece. There is no attempt to create or flesh out new characters. That would defeat the purpose.

Paid and Unpaid Tie-In Novels

A segment of fanfiction stories are simply new adventures created for the main characters. This is what most people imagine when they first hear of fanfiction -- amateur tie-in novels. Stories like Martha Wilson's Fellow Traveler and Auburn's The Taste Of Apples focus on the source material's main characters, and while it's their own plot and words, at the end they return them in good condition.

Subversive or Transformative Fanfiction

Now the vast majority of fanfiction stories take the heroes further afield and place them in circumstances that are highly unlikely. A gay romance between a military commander and the head scientist? A pregnant man? Characters switched to a different gender? The hero turned into a small, fuzzy cat?

Here Professor Henry Jenkins' definition of fanfiction as "subverting" the original text is appropriate, or we could go with OTW's description of fanfiction being "transformative works," which is similar but avoids the negative connotation of "subversiveness." These stories explore possibilities within the characters and world of the original that might run counter to the intention of the author.

Some fanfiction stories are more likely than others but couldn't happen in the source for darned good reason. One of the most popular types of fanfiction is porn, or dramas that contain at least one very explicit scene. No doubt many viewers of Stargate Atlantis would appreciate a sex scene between actor Joe Flanigan and any number of his co-stars, but that's not the kind of show they're writing (also, they'd probably have to pay him a lot more). Then there's the mutiny that takes place in Cesperanza's Written By The Victors which would end the series, the violent deaths of important characters in Auburn's bleak Legion The Things I Would Give To Oblivion would pretty much do the same, while Tevere's sexually explicit relationship between enemies in The Human Stain wouldn't happen in the show for a whole host of reasons.

The bottom line is that more "subversive" or "transformative" stories make up the bulk of fanficion and while they begin with the main characters and world, by the end, so much has changed they no longer "click" into the main source. Some changes are so radical (or even absurd) they could be classified as parody.

Character Displacement - Alternate Universes

The furthest extent of character displacement is the fanfiction "alternate universe." Here the characters are removed from the context of the original world entirely. Celli revisualizes a military commander as a Nascar driver in Fireball. Toft_Froggy"> in String Theory: A Concerto For Violin In D Minor plucks a physicist out of Stargate Atlantis and drops him into the role of a composer. Characterization remains similar, but the characters are given entirely new histories and there is a considerable amount of world-building.

Character Displacement - Crossovers

A variation on character displacement is the "crossover," where characters are plucked from one writer's world into another. For example, Shalott writes the physicist Rodney McKay from Stargate Atlantis in the role of Jedi master and the Colonel Sheppard as a Sith Lord from Star Wars in her The Dark Side. In Xparrot's On The Wings Of Imagination the same two characters are placed in Anne McCaffrey's Pern, with the colonel as a hungry bronze dragon.

Character Displacement - Remakes and Remixes

The farthest range of this type of crossover is the adaptation or "remake." Characters are put into the plot of a popular (often classic) movie, such as Linaerys' fanfiction remake of Hitchcock's Notorious, Entanglement. Here the movie's plot points must be followed. The challenge is in adapting the dialogue, viewpoint, and description to the new personalities in those roles. What changes when a laconic male lead takes Ingrid Bergman's role? The fanfic version of the remake is the "remix," where fanfic writers volunteer to have one of their stories re-written by another. The benefit to the writer isn't obvious unless one understands the exploratory nature of fanfic writers and the promotional value of having your work linked to a better known writer.

In both cases, for the most part only the words belong to the fanfic author, breaking with the (2) second rule of fanfiction although following the film tradition of remakes. Adaptations are widely accepted (how many adaptations of Shakespeare have there been?) and may be what the publisher of A Hidden Passion assumed Lucia Logan had written. It's an important line, respected by publishers and fanfiction writers alike. There was a tremendous uproar and cries of plagiarism from the fanfiction community in 2006 when an author of a remake lifted dialogue in its entirety from a movie without adapting much of anything. Like Logan's book, the story was removed from circulation.

Author Reaction to Fanfiction

Although the accusation of plagiarism is leveled at fanfiction writers, I've noticed that authors tend to be more comfortable with "tie-in" type fanfiction that's similar to their world, which actually changes less. They are irritated with stories that change it too much. The fans who don't read fanfiction tend to react the same. "Frodo's not gay!"

Fanfiction writers aren't very different. Copyright is assumed among fanfiction writers. It is customary and polite to ask a fanfic author before one writes a fanfic based on theirs (oh yes, there is fanfiction based on fanfiction) although granted, some ignore this. (J. K. Rowling is not expected to sign off each of 300,000+ Harry Potter fanfiction stories; permission is considered tacit unless professional authors opt out on sites like Fanfiction.net, although granted, some ignore this, too.) But when the resulting story varies radically from the original fanfic, it's often read as a critique. When Helen wrote her unauthorized Take Clothes Off As Directed, a inversion of Xanthe's BDSM novels, General & Dr. Sheppard and Coming Home, many readers took it as a feminist critique, if not quite a parody along the lines of Fielding's 18th century Shamela which mocked Richardson's Pamela.

It's interesting to note that author feelings about this haven't changed in the last 300 years. After the publication of Pamela, a number of unauthorized additions to Richardson's novel were published, irritating Richardson to no end -- for the very same reason. These "Pamel-ites" didn't write what he had in mind. Pamela pre-dated the legal enforcement of copyright. The difference between these Pamelites and modern "tie-in" type fanfiction is that modern fanfiction is non-profit.

Fanfiction Plagiarism

Fanfiction writers respond violently to the plagiarism, a fact that critics of fanfiction like Lee Goldberg find ironic. Fanfic plagiarism is the stuff of ferocious flamewars. The perpetrator is run out on a rail and entire communities like are devoted to the removal of plagiarized fanfic from the internet. While the motive of the plagiarism of Jane Eyre in A Hidden Passion seems to be profit, most fanfiction plagiarists covet the positive comments received by other writers. The standard pattern is the plagiarist will post one or two stories that are not well received, then they will plagiarize a popular fanfic author and rake in the praise -- until they're caught, which is usually pretty quickly, because they, uh, plagiarized a popular story.

There is the peculiar case of Cassandra Claire where the popular Harry Potter writer collected bits and quotes with magpie-like abandon. The large section of word-for-word plagiarized work embedded in her Draco Trilogy was out of place. It added nothing to the story and was not an improvement. Was this a case of lack of confidence, or a plagiarist who learned after the fact that she could write? Or her own plot developed around plagiarized pieces, like concrete emedded with glittery bits of glass? Or perhaps the rest of her writing was such a patchwork of plagiarism that no one can track down all the original sources? Later she credited many sources, but missed quite a few and seemed unclear where she got them. The effort involved in stringing it all together... well, writing it from scratch would have been easier. It's a strange case.

Telesilla repeats the belief that Harry Potter fans don't give a damn about plagiarism, I'm guessing based on Cassandra Claire's continued popularity and the support for the published version of the Harry Potter Lexicon. But I think the reality is that many, many people were friends with Cassandra Claire and the owner of The Harry Potter Lexicon (currently in legal trouble for trying to publish a copy of the Lexicon). It's harder to thrash your friends, even when they're in the wrong. Copying word-for-word and claiming someone else's work as your own breaks rule (1) and is plagiarism, no matter who does it. But how you treat a friend will always be different. For good reason. Friends have done things for you that weigh into the mix.

Fanfic Leeches? Perhaps Symbiotic is the better word.

While Fanfiction isn't plagiarism, I can be honest in that there is a kind of... leeching... going on. As a creative writing professor told me, "Fanfiction solves the problem of finding an audience."

A fanfiction writer probably wouldn't find such a large audience for their first original story. No way. Most fanfic writers are also fanfic readers, so a tight supportive writing community grows around the source text, the kind of support new writers can't find anywhere else. Some people characterize the relationship between the fanfiction community and the original source as an homage, and it's true that the original source is elevated and treated as Canon (with a capital C). In fanfiction writers, the source author has his or her most dedicated and obsessive fans. They buy everything related to their favorite book or television show or movie, sign petitions, and call television stations to fight for their show. But the relationship is also... well, we can admit it... somewhat parasitic.

It's like the hotdog stands outside a major league ballfield. The fanfic writers have a vested interest in the survival and continued success of their favorite show or author. Their own audience depends on it.

Yet fanfiction writers relate to other writers as writers, first and foremost. If fanfiction writers viewed the other writers as commodities, they would not have responded as they did to the WGA strike. When the Writer's Guide struck, fanfiction writers called stations to tell them they wouldn't be watching replacement television, got the word out, signed petitions -- and then raised $21,339.18 to support writers who'd lost health benefits due to the strike.

My Point, if I have one....

I've heard critics call fanfiction plagiarism. The O.E.D. gives the definition "to take (the work or idea of someone else) and pass it off as one's own." That doesn't occur with Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea or Brooks' Pulitzer winning March. Both acknowledge their debt to Jane Eyre and Little Women respectively. Fanfiction writers do the same. No one is passing the work of others off as their own. (Except, apparently, Lucia Logan.)

But the sense that fanfiction is unoriginal and ripping off authors' ideas is what's really meant by those who blanket fanfiction with the term plagiarism. Answering that complaint with a flat definition of plagiarism then is unhelpful and sounds like so much legal nitpicking. Hopefully now the relationship between fanfiction and professional authors' ideas is more clear. (I've mentioned copyright in a few places as it's also often conflated with plagiarism, but I haven't gone into it at any depth. The legal status of fanfiction and copyright is unsettled, largely theoretical--due to a lack of case law--and varies from one country to the next. Fanfiction writers attitudes towards copyright is a topic for another essay.)

At the opposite extreme, I've heard it said in the fanfiction community that the difference between Wide Sargasso Sea and all fanfiction is merely that Charlotte Bronte's copyright has expired. That's an oversimplification. Yes, some fanfiction is very far from the original source, like Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea and Brooks' March. But the relationship between fanfiction stories and the original source varies. They range from tightly embedded stories, to extra episodes, to irreverent stories, to stories that have only the characters in common with the original.

This doesn't mean that more independent, distant fanfiction stories are better or somehow more "valid" (whatever that means) although it looks like the March-es of this world are more likely to win a Pulitzer. But the various types of fanfiction stories have different aims, and are trying to accomplish different writing challenges. What the different types of fanfiction have in common with each other is the intention to explore the characters and facets of the original writer's world.

I think I've written this long post just to avoid all the work I'm supposed to be doing right now. Do me a favor and if you comment, be patient about the lack of replies? It's going to be a week before I finish finals.

ETA: So I don't have a dozen comments misunderstanding me --

*sneaks in one more answer before I'm caught by the final-fairies*

I didn't say this explicitly though I probably should have. People who call fanfic plagiarism are usually conflating "plagiarism" with "lack of originality." (I should probably add that to clarify, thank you.) Some don't know any better, others count on people not knowing any better so that any argument against them sounds like hair-splitting.

I return to plagiarism at the end, but mostly I'm addressing the underlying accusation of "lack of originality." That's why I begin with Wide Sargasso Sea and March (obviously not plagiarised) and set them alongside fanfiction that does exactly the same thing as those two, is similarly original and quite far from the source material. I'm addressing both actual plagiarism and what they really mean by "plagiarism" at once.

Then I address the "yes-buts," because it is true that not all fanfiction is far from the source. So I analyzed the distance of various texts from their source and what that says about their "lack of originality."

There's a little bit about copyright in there with the discussion of fanfiction authors' attitudes about copyright with eachother, because people also conflate "plagiarism" with "breaking copyright" and "lack of originality," but I don't go into it. I probably should draw that point out more clearly. I just didn't want to get into a legal digression since the whole point is to avoid the legal nitpicking and address the underlying issue.

I've tried to look past the word "plagiarism" into what's really in question.