FanFiction: a Definition

In long discussions with a wide circle of my friends (including readers, writers, and haters of fanfiction) I have decided it is worth it to make our debates public. This will be an occasional series dealing with small aspects of the immensely controversial (and fun) subject of fanfiction. To start with, I would like to propose a definition:

A  fanfiction (or, fanfic) is an original work which explores the world of an original work and which grows from a fan-community (fandom) that is centered on that original work.

NOTE: If you are not a reader of fanfiction, please look at the tropes of the genre from to get an idea of the discourse surrounding fanfiction.

Most people I spoke to considered all fanfiction violation of copyright, so a more common definition might be: unauthorized fiction using either the universe of another author, or the characters. But I do not believe all fanfiction is a violation of copyright, and so am consciously trying to distinguish that which is a fair use of copyrighted works, and that which is a violation of copyright.

To me copyright protects two things:

  1. The monetary value of an original
  2. The creator’s artistic vision

Therefore, to me, a copyright violation must do at least one of two things: decrease the monetary value of the original (ie, pirated DVDs sold at half the price of official ones) or it must violate the author’s vision of how the original is used (ie, John McCain using John Mellencamp’s music at his rallies). One of the reasons why I am so interested in fanfiction, other than that I like reading it sometimes, is the copyright and originality questions it brings up.

Some of those questions are:

Can something be authorized and be fanfiction?

  • I was thinking of the newest Star Trek (which I loved). The movie was created to feed a fandom, it explores an established universe and uses characters from that universe. Most importantly to me, is that it uses two common fanfic tropes:
  1. It uses time travel to delve into an alternate universe (so that the authors do not have to follow the original rules);
  2. It explores relationships (Kirk/Uhura, Spock/Uhura, Kirk/Spock) which were never part of the original show;
  3. It was not sanctioned by the original author, Gene Roddenberry. So, was the new Star Trek fanfiction?

Can fanfiction (which includes fanfiction, fanart and fanvideos) be fair use?

  • I am thinking of some innovative and transformative fanfictions which I have read.

What do authors think of fanfiction?

What is the history of fanfiction?

  • I remember something about Arthur Conan Doyle’s fans writing and publishing their versions of Sherlock Holmes stories?
  • This history could also include works like Macbeth which drew heavily from other published works. This leads to:

If it’s not fanfiction, what is it?

  • In defining fanfiction, I have come upon an array of terms which imply some kind of derivation without infringement: adaptation, historical fiction, novelization and more. Can any of these terms be applied to fanfiction?

In my months of research on plagiarism policies, I found that the issue of originality is rarely clear-cut. For example, Gene Roddenberry is known as the creator of Star Trek. But what about the dozens of writers who wrote the episodes for it? And the accusations that Gene Roddenberry passed their ideas off as his own? In dealing with the second piece of my definition of copyright, if we were to choose an artistic vision to be true to, would it be Roddenberry’s? His writers’? His actors’?

Even with something as simple as a book, with only one person’s name as author, originality can be difficult to determine. Is the Lord of the Rings truly original since it drew heavily on Norse mythology? LotR drew from public domain works, which is perfectly legal. But is it a completely original work? Does it need to be?

Even more interesting, is the emerging reciprocal relationship between creators and fans and the questions it engenders. For example, the writers of the the next Star Trek movie are “checking out [fans’] reaction[s]” on the new script. Another example, in Supernatural’s episode “The Monster at the End of this Book” there is a scene where the Winchester brother’s are reading fanfiction on a novel based on their lives. So, who’s the author now?

Anyway, fanfiction is fun to read/watch, and a great way to start conversations and pick fights. This will be an occasional series on feelingelephants, with a few guest bloggers.

Inspirational Quote:

“I think the first duty of all art, including fiction of any kind, is to entertain. That is to say, to hold interest. No matter how worthy the message of something, if it’s dull, you’re just not communicating.”–Poul Anderson


  1. Well, to me, FanFiction is taking an established work and then throwing a whole lot of “what if” at it. “What if X married Y instead of dying/marrying Z?” That sort of thing.

    But, I personally do not feel FanFiction is plagiarism if there is no money being made from the work of fiction. After all, FanFiction has the potential to boost sales of the original work, if people read the fanfic first and become interested in the universe it is based in. (Just check out any DnD novel….)

    What constitutes “devaluation” of a work? Is it then illegal to use a work in the “wrong” way only to have it roundabout and end up reinforcing the original message? And of course, there’s the whole issue of who actually owns the rights to the work and what that person wants to do with the message in the first place.

    Thats all for now. Maybe I’ll think of something smarter to say later.

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