Prior to becoming an author and interacting with people on Livejournal and some other sites where fanfiction became a major force, I was only aware of "arguments" about fanfiction in a pretty narrow set of senses – whether it fit with canon or not, and whether it was well done, or not. I had really never heard any serious arguments about whether it was right or wrong to do, and the few times I'd heard it I thought these were minority (and very silly minority) opinions.
I was … mistaken in that impression. There is a large set of people who, for various reasons, detest fanfiction and think it's wrong. The reasons for this are quite varied:
- Some are merely offended by the fact that many fanfics cause characters to do… things that are inappropriate for the characters in their canon source.
- Others feel that it is (this is a quote, though I'd rather not point to the source) "a form of identity theft"
- Others simply object on the grounds that it's illegal (probably correct in many cases, though often not for the reasons often given)
- Others contend it's damaging to the original product
- Still others contend that it's an offense to the author.
- Some say it's a terrible thing to do to yourself as a writer, and will at best not help you learn to write, and at worst will actively damage your ability to write.
This is not an exhaustive list, but I believe it covers the major points I hear repeated often.
A couple of the most vocal anti-fanficcers were, rather ironically in my point of view, also chiefly writers of tie-in novels for movies/TV shows. This made me simultaneously laugh and wince; a tie-in novel is paid fanfic, or – from at least one point of view – WORSE than that; the usual fanfic writer is doing it for the love of the show and the story, while the tie-in writer is doing it for the money. A parallel with certain other well-known activities would be taken to reflect quite poorly on the tie-in writer.
But more to the meat of the issue. Let's first address the most objective charge, that of legality: basically, yes, most fanfics probably ARE technically illegal… but not probably on copyright grounds (which is the common term used). Most of them, written about popular and highly valuable properties, are almost certainly in violation of trademark. The general definition of copyright protects a particular expression of an idea, not the idea or ideas themselves; thus it is difficult, though not impossible, to have copyright on a character. Trademark, however, can be (unfortunately, in my opinion) applied to things like character names, images, and so on. Moreover, trademark law hasn't caught up with the 21st century yet (or even the latter part of the 20th), so the law tends to require any infringement of the trademark to be immediately acted against, or risk dilution of the trademark's value and force in law.
Of course, the details of law are much more complex, and it's quite possible for copyright to be held to apply to broad but recognizable elements of a given work, especially if enough money and lawyers can be thrown at the problem. And, naturally, if you're the average fanfic writer and Walt Disney or Sony Entertainment decides to come after you, the cost of fighting the suit – even if, somehow, you win – would break you for life.
That said, let's face it: 99% of the companies holding major trademarks and copyrights for these properties really don't care to prosecute all the fanfic writers, and for damn good reason, the short version of which is that most of them are smart enough not to want to piss off a major portion of the fanbase, even if they could afford to start a hundred thousand lawsuits all at once.
A few of them are even smart enough to encourage it; CBS's "CSI" website had (may still have, I haven't checked recently) a section targeted to fanfic writers which included – honest to god – specific scenes and quotes that the writers could use to justify ANY "pairing" they wanted. Supernatural has definitely pandered to certain parts of its fanbase and even directly referenced the fanfiction in the show. Doctor Who encourages all sorts of fannish activity.
The "identity theft" concept is pretty much ridiculous on the face of it. Virtually* no one is going to mistake a fanfic for "the real thing", nor judge the real thing by the fanfic. Virtually all fanfiction notes the original source for the characters and settings and, at least in modern days, usually contains a disclaimer saying that these things are property of [original source]. "Identity theft" is a serious crime, one that has consequences ranging from serious inconvenience to life-destroying for the victims; calling a fanfic written by someone that's likely to be read by a few dozen people at most "identity theft" cheapens the term and is laughable if the term is intended to be taken seriously.
*NOTE that I say "virtually". There are always the outliers, and when you have literally millions of fans, there'll be at least a couple hundred outliers. The problem comes in when the reaction against fanfic is based on the actions of the outliers, rather than the majority (i.e., on the idiots who try to publish their fanfic and make money from it, rather than those who just write for fun).
Related to this issue is the idea that the fanfiction somehow damages the original product. Honestly, I'm unsure just how that's supposed to be possible. Admittedly, I don't really see how making a crummy movie of a book is supposed to ruin the book either, but some people claim it does, despite the book being in fact untouched. But a fanfic isn't even a licensed and distributed product. It's someone's own amusement that was important/stimulating enough to them that they felt they had to write it up themselves.
Finally, we get to one of the most common objections; "it's an offense against the author". Well… maybe. If the author takes him or herself awfully seriously. I'd agree it's an offense against the author if the fanfic was being published as the author's work, but that would be identity theft, or forgery, or something along those lines.
The fact is – put bluntly – you have no right to never be offended. In this case, you generally have to decide to be offended. No one's protecting the public from being offended by the author's original words – except the public's choice to read it or not. Similarly, an author can mostly defend themselves against such offense by the simple expedient of not reading it. It's certainly not the readers' duty to determine what is an offense against the author, and that's actually the common reaction I see; while there are authors who are terribly bothered by fanfic for these and other reasons, more often I see a group of readers who think a given fic is wrong and shouldn't be permitted.
Yet, we permit the publication of exactly such "offenses" all the time… as long as the "victim" of such abuse is safely dead and the legal ownership of their stories is no longer relevant. I find, for example, Maguire's Wicked to be an offense against everything in L. Frank Baum's original Oz novels (although I should stress that's NOT because Maguire can't write well – he can, I just don't like the choices he made in those books when portraying Oz), and I'm sure there's more than a few readers out there who will twitch violently at the mere title of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter or Pride and Prejudice with Zombies; I also enjoyed, but at the same time found occasionally twitch-inducing, Philip Jose Farmer's "Wold Newton" stories which rewrote the backgrounds and histories of many famous fictional characters such as Doc Savage, Tarzan, Phileas Fogg, and Captain Nemo.
And let us not ignore the literally hundreds of reinterpretations and extensions of the originals of Dracula and Sherlock Holmes, many of which are at best… rather questionable interpretations. I'm pretty sure Bram Stoker would not be entirely pleased with Hellsing's "Alucard" or the movie "Van Helsing", and Conan Doyle might take issue with Sherlock Holmes' depiction in many settings. Heck, one of my favorite movies, Young Sherlock Holmes, is a classic fanfic in approach, taking the original characters and saying "but what if they met when they were kids"?
I might have slightly more sympathy towards the general negative reactions if the entire copyright situation was different – i.e., if copyright hadn't been extended to the point that hardly anything's gone into public domain for decades (under orginal copyright regulations, things like the original Star Trek and even Star Wars would be public domain now). But even then, hey, once you publish your stuff, other people will see it. They'll think about it. They'll write about it. (There was Holmes-Watson fanfic being written all the way back in the Victorian era, one should note; fanfic is not a new phenomenon, even though the modern fanfic era is generally agreed to have begun with Star Trek fanfiction)
Are there things I'd really rather not see done to my own characters and settings? Hell yes. But that's a different thing from my asserting that other people shouldn't be able to write them, especially for their own entertainment and that of their friends and associates. Nothing in the law – I hope – prevents people from thinking of these things, or discussing them in person, so to me there's little-to-no difference if they decide to write down their thoughts before bringing them for discussion. I can't, nor should I be able to, control their thoughts, and so controlling what they write for pleasure? Not my business, and not anyone else's either.
Sure, if someone's going to try to make money from my characters, that's a different matter, but the VAST majority of fanfic writers not only don't do that, most of them won't even think of it (and even fewer have the writing talent to do so even if they tried).
"Writing fanfic won't help you to write, and may even damage your ability to write. Do something original instead!"
Well, now, this one is just plain wrong. I learned how to write on my own… and to a great extent I refined my writing doing fanfic. If I can write well enough to be published – and I can – it's at least partly due to the fanfic I worked on for years.
The fact is that writing is not a single set of processes and approaches; the methods that work for me may not work for you or even anyone else. Writing in someone else's world certainly has some aspects that are easier – you're aware of who the characters are and what they're like, for instance – but it can equally be more challenging, especially if you're trying to be careful about your writing and adhering to the postulates of the original universe. Even if you're rewriting aspects of the world, keeping the ones you want in place can be a challenge. There's a reason good tie-in writers get paid pretty well; it's not a trivial exercise to produce a good, original story within the constraints of another person's vision.
It's also a matter of mistaking goals. Some fanfic writers do aspire to become "real" writers, of course, but an extremely large number of them do not. Some write just to literally get their rocks off with porn-fics of the type generally called PWP ("Plot? WHAT Plot?"), others write to give closure to a character or story arc they felt was abandoned, others to extend the adventures beyond the point chronicled, others to fix what they see as mistakes in the original's continuity, and others for many other reasons.
Talking about how this won't help their ability to write in other areas basically misses the point. For most of the fanfic writers, the writing of the fic itself is the point of the activity. For those who DO intend to be "real writers", well, it's quite likely they're aware of what they're doing and why they feel it helps them.
"But… it's bad!"
Well, yes. Most of it is bad. Of course, most "original" fiction (I put that in quotes because the vast, vast, VAST majority of published fiction is not in any significant way actually original) is also very, very bad. What you see published is what made it past the editing slushpile. You should really think about that for a minute. Think about the worst published novel you've ever seen. The absolute worst. Then realize that it was still so much better than 99% of what surrounded it that it was picked up out of the slushpile and chosen for publication. If it's a traditionally published book, someone spent something like $25,000 to get that piece of crap onto the shelves.
Original fiction descends JUST as low as fanfic does; we just rarely see that cesspool unless we happen to be slush readers.
And just as with original fiction, some fanfiction ascends to great heights. Perhaps the most popular fanfiction on the Net, at least for quite a while, was Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, an alternate-universe fic in which Harry, instead of being raised by the anti-intellectual and dully cruel Dursleys, was brought up in the house of a brilliant – and completely rational – mathematician. It takes off from there, trying to make sense of the inherently nonsensical world of Harry Potter – and doing so in many ways brilliantly. I don't actually like it in some ways, but for reasons utterly unconnected with the quality of the story; it is a well-written, well-paced, very well thought-out storyline which works hard to accomplish what it set out to do, and has continued to do so for an astonishingly long time (I think the fic's wordcount now exceeds that for the first three or four books). This is not an isolated incident; there are many very high-quality stories written that just happen to also be fanfics. Occasionally, one of them gets a chance to go "legit" – this happened with a number of Doctor Who stories.
In the end, the most important point I, as an author, would take from fanfic – or other fanworks – is this: they know you. Most authors do not reach even a tiny fraction of their potential audience. Of those who have read your work, how many of them think about it?
The fanfic writers think about it. Oh, you may not like the exact thoughts they're thinking, but you have had an effect on them. Your writing has affected them so strongly that they find themselves driven to take up pen (or keyboard) and write stories you have not, and likely never will, write, to satisfy the need for a precise event, specific closure. They will spend hour after hour at this work, discuss it with others, return to it again and again util it was complete.
How many of us will ever influence people so profoundly, so strongly that they must express the thoughts we have caused to appear within them?
Fanfic – even the bad stuff – is a compliment of the highest level to an author. It says "I couldn't get your stuff out of my head, so I had to write it down". It says "I love (or, sometimes, hate) what you said SO MUCH that I couldn't stop myself from writing out an entire novel!"
It says "I know you. I remember you. I think of you."
And what more, really, do we want as writers?