by Mike Shea on 17 November 2004
Link drew his gleaming white blade, runed in an ancient script unspoken for thousands of years. He slashed hard at Gannon, tearing open the demon's bloated belly. Black organs and ropes of intestine splashed to the tiled floor. The demon roared out one last time and fell dead to the ground. Link grabbed Zelda and in a single motion hoisted her protesting over his shoulder before leaving the the now masterless dark citadel.
There, I just committed a crime. If someone pays me $2501 for that little bit of prose, I'd have committed a felony.
How can any kid writing an adventure with Barbie and Ken be violating the law? You wave your hand in a dismissive gesture and say "no kid will ever be sued for a Barbie story" but isn't the idea that a kid IS breaking the law by writing a Barbie story sleazy? Doesn't it bother you that our creativity balances on the raised or lowered thumb of a Caesar-like megacorporation?
I originally thought that Robert Howard's Conan world was public domain. I was wrong. A company called "Conan Enterprises, Inc." owns the trademark of Conan. I can't write any story with Conan in the title without getting permission I probably wouldn't receive.
Why can't I write a homoerotic tale about Legolas and Aragorn? Why shouldn't I get a few hundred thousand dollars if it turns out thats what people want? Tolkein is dead. The creative mind that came up with that world can no longer care what happens to his world. I can have homoerotic tales about Zeus and Thor if I want to, why not Han and Lando?
I understand copyrighting an entire work. I understand that people shouldn't be able to take any book off of the shelf and make a movie about it without going to the author. But derivitave works are derivitave works. They aren't the original. Current copyright law does not allow derivitive works without consent that will never be truly given. All of my Everquest stories are most likely owned by Sony Online Entertainment, not I. Even though just about every element of those stories is completely made up, I still can't bind them and sell them for $20 without SOE getting on my case.
Like the shakedowns of corporations like the RIAA, MPAA, and satelite dish companies (I have friends who were basically forced to either pay a $2000 fine for an unproven violation or pay $5000 in court fees), our choices fall to the whims of the megacorporations. If they decide to shake you down, they will. The laws are just tools to them. They have unlimited lawyers and unlimited funding compared to our google searches and $5 value meal pocket books. They will make an example of you if they choose to. No one person can stand up to them.
The solution to this is to avoid fan fiction. Go write your own damn world. Make up your own characters. I do. But derivitave works enhance an existing world. You don't have to build a society. You don't have to wallow in description when everyone knows what Darth Vader looks like. You might love Star Trek and think up a great episode. In my ideal world, you could sell that episode as a stand alone unit. If it doesn't steal anything more than basic elements and character names, what are you really stealing?
Any time I release my fiction, I'm going to release it with a Creative Commons license to allow derivitive works. Build off of my worlds any time you like.
Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @mshea on Twitter. If you enjoyed this article, please use this link to Amazon.com for your next online purchase.