A Quickie with The Doctor (Dr Who’s Fans and What They Can Tell Us About Copyright)

I’m on a Dr Who kick this week. It’s Daleks, TARDIS trips and charming stoles all the time. In addition to its own awesomeness, Dr Who fans are exciting on their own. They have a singularly long history of giving back. To get started, here is a mash-up video of Dean Grey’s “Dr Who on Holiday”, which mashes Green Day’s “Holiday” with samples from another mix which included Dr Who’s theme song:

There’s a theory of fanfiction, that fanfiction is a tribute by fans to authors. To me, this seems like the most accurate description of how fans see their work. Some authors even see it that way, like the forthright Catherynne M. Valente:

I have always been delighted when told there was a piece of fanfic inspired by a book of mine floating about. I don’t read it for legal reasons, but I’m thrilled to know it’s there. Someone cared. Someone loved it enough to spend their free time writing about it for free.

And boy are there people who love Dr Who. There’s the fanart: my current favorites are illustrations of the Doctor 1-11 as an owl (Dr Hoo) and chibis (cute animations) of his companions throughout the series. There is music like Dean Grey’s above, or like the one below:

And there’s fanfiction. It’s a creative community, built around a nearly 50 year old world, spanning continents. There is something in the Doctor’s world which brings people back again and again, desperate to play in his sandbox some more.

Those fans with access to lawyers and therefore capable of getting legal permission to create derivatives have driven 11 doctors, plays, radio plays, tv movies, several animated series, childrens’ shows, and spin-off TV shows. I’ll cover the issue to privileged  and fanfiction later, but Catherynne M. Valente touches on it, as does Nick Mamatas and Peter Serafinowicz.

The existence of such a thriving community which is a mix of fans with differing levels of engagement and access is a tribute to the world of Dr Who. That people without a legal right to create insist on doing so, insist on making community, reminds me of the Phillip Lopate poem, “We Who Are Your Closest Friends” which Anne Lamott quotes in her Bird by Bird. It is a description of a secret club of the author’s friends who meet weekly to discuss his personality flaws, and ends:

But since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community
of purpose
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center,
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your disastrous personality
then for the good of the collective.

Watching the videos above, looking at the fanart or reading the fanfiction above, it is important to remember that the copyright holders for Dr Who probably consider all of them a legal violation of their property rights. Those fans who create out of affection are in constant, though often theorhetical, danger of legal attack from those who hold legal claim over The Doctor and his world. I often wish those copyright holders would recognize the social value of the communities of purpose which form around their properties and leave the fans alone. If not for their own economic benefit, then for the good of the collective.

Inspirational Quote:

“Bad laws were made to be broken.”–Doctor Who


  1. I have people who copy my work, but don’t think they are fans because they erase my name and put their name on the art. Maybe you are right and they copy out of affection but it doesn’t feel like that: it feels like stealing. I wish they would go away or stop.

  2. Hi Baba,

    You point out a good distinction between plagiarism and fanfiction. All have to do with using other people’s works transformatively. But any art which references other works–whether by using black velvet to reference one kind of art, or using Dr Who to comment on Twilight:

    all of these are instances of artists using someone else’s dirt, as Greg London might say: http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/007464.html#122173

    Plagiarism is sloppy and immoral, but I think conflating fanfiction with plagiarism is inaccurate.

    1. I do not think so. That’s sort of the problem, isn’t it? FanFic authors never know if they will be sued or otherwise attacked by authors. Anne Rice’s litigious stance and reportedly abusive emails to fanfic authors in her fandom (circa 2000) remain a example of how badly hurt unprotected fans can be. But I will keep looking into it!

  3. I totally have–thanks for mentioning it, I’ve been musing on so many posts I got bogged down. GRRM and Diana Gabaldon sure kicked a hive of bees when they went out and insulted fanfiction writers. At least GRRM had the intestinal fortitude to keep his posts up, even if he capped comments (Gabaldon not only closed comments, but deleted her posts with no mention of why). My posts are coming soon!

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