How to Write for Free

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Fan Fiction – Or – How to write for free, with no benefit, and some risk to yourself.

There is no easy way to say this.  No comforting words or happy, smiling faces that can be used to explain the truth.

You do not own any fan fiction you write.

Not a part, not a sentence, not a scenario, nothing.  All of your fan fiction, all of your work is owned by the original copyright holder.

Yaoi-wikipedia

Now over the years, or ugh, decades of writing, I have spoken to many authors and a fair number of copyright lawyers about this very issue.

The writers of course are almost positive, or pretty sure, or in some cases angrily, foaming at the mouth, enraged to hear anything to the contrary, that they own their creations.

They do not.

Now to explain why, just in case you are not sure.

When you create an original story with original characters and situations, you own all of it.  Your creation and all the parts of it are pretty much forever yours once you finish writing it.  No one is able to take your story and write book two without your permission are they?

Of course not.

Well the same goes for fan fiction.

The original creator or copyright holder retains their rights to all characters et cetera.  They hold those rights as long as the copyright is active.

If you decide you want to write a fanfic about Harry Potter, well, no one is going to stop you.  You decide to share it for free amongst friends, well, chances are no one is really going to care.  You might post it on a fanfic site, thousands may love it, they may tell you it is the greatest Harry Potter story ever written, and no one may really care.

But there is a dark and dangerous spirit floating through your own personal Hogwarts.

Someone might care.

Everything you wrote, every scenario, every scene, every character, even, and are you ready for this?  Even original characters and scenarios you created to populate your Hogwarts are all owned by J.K. Rowling and her publishers.

You may scream “But my character of ‘Zipperwhip the angry troll’ is a character I made up.”  That may be true, but there is a thing known as derivative works, and they are protected.  A derivative work is something derived from another thing.  Small changes or even large changes do not change the fact that it came from somewhere else.

Even though your characters and scenes are original thoughts you had, they took place in the world of Harry Potter and are therefore owned, lock stock and barrel by the copyright owners.  This of course is not just true for Harry and his pals but for pretty much all creative works.

When people argue with me that they can do it, I ask them this.

Imagine you read a really great book, brand new, just released, and you think “wow, this could be a great movie.”  Are you allowed to go and make a movie of it?  The screenplay may be yours, the casting, the music, the everything…except the original story.

So, at the start I said there was no benefit and some risk to you, the writer.  Now I will explain why.

If you write a work based on someone else’s, they can sue you.  You don’t have to make any money, you don’t have to do anything other than create a derivative work.  You can write the most amazing fanfic ever and the owner can sweep in, demand you turn it over and, if they really wanted to, use all of it in their own work with no reparation to you.

If they had hired you to write for them, they have to pay you for your work.  Since they did not hire you, they have no legal need to pay you.  From their point of view they are just recovering their own property.

So imagine, you spent months writing a story and someone can not only just take it from you, they can if they want to, sue you for your efforts.

My advice…

Make your own worlds, make your own characters.  You are a writer, a creator, a visionary genius.  Sure some of those other places are pretty cool, they are fun to think of, but think of this.

Would you rather spend your time thinking about someone else’s work, or have people thinking about yours?

4 Comments
  1. Avivit says

    Fine article.
    Made me understand one or two new things.
    Thank you for sharing.

  2. Andrew J. Sacks says

    Craig, I echo the words of Avivit. Well done and illuminating. Thank you.

  3. Kristin Fouquet says

    This is definitely a thought provoking article. I agree writers should create their own characters.

    Two books came to mind as I was reading this: “60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye,” by J. D. California and “Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter” by Tom Carson. I confess I haven’t read either. I have read “Catcher in the Rye” and “The Great Gatsby.” Both books are derivative in that they take off where the original books ended. Salinger sued over the former, but Fitzgerald’s estate has not sued over the latter. I have to wonder if there is some fine legal line where some derivative works are allowed or if the second book is simply under the radar of the Fitzgerald estate.

  4. Craig Murray says

    A lot of times books or movies are produced under a legal agreement between the copyright holders and the “new” author. In many cases this is beneficial especially to the old owners as it can represent a new source of income on a dead title.
    In other instances the copyright on the material is no longer held and the work is public domain. If I was to write (or have the horrific audacity to write) a sequel to Voltaire’s Candide, I could because no one owns it anymore.
    Of course parodies get away with it when they are produced as parodies.

    Other than that, thank you all for your comments

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