Fan fiction is one of the most popular forms of writing on the Web. The combination of popular storylines, familiar characters and never ending hunger for more material (especially since many of these storylines have been abandoned by their original creators) makes it an easy form of writing to get into, both as an author and as a reader. Many new writers take up fan fiction before moving on to create stories of their own while other, more experienced, writers enjoy the tight-knit community and instant connection shared in their groups.
However, fan fiction is also a genre that can be very prone to plagiarism. As a recent incident on LiveJournal pointed out, articles of fan fiction can be very tempting targets for plagiarists and those looking for content to scrape. After all, such works are loaded with popular search phrases like “Star Trek” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” but also offer the promise of near-instant readership, especially with so many popular and established fan fiction destinations on the Web.
Nonetheless, plagiarism of fan fiction remains one of the hardest forms to detect and to stop. It’s a form of plagiarism where the rules have been changed drastically and what was once cut and dry is no longer so simple.
In short, it’s an entirely different ballgame.
The Copyright Issue
Most instances of plagiarism are handled through copyright law. Since plagiarism implies that a duplicate work was created, thus creating a violation of copyright law, one can use the regular tools of copyright enforcement (IE: Cease and desist letters, DMCA notices, etc.) to bring about an end of the situation.
However, with fan fiction, the author doesn’t actually hold the copyright to the work they create, in fact, the work itself is technically a violation of copyright law. Since copyright law grants the copyright holder the exclusive right to create derivative works based on an original one, which is precisely what a fan fiction is, the original copyright holder, whoever owns the rights to the original work(s) owns the fan fiction regardless of who wrote it.
With that in mind, one doesn’t have a valid claim of copyright infringement when their fan fiction work is plagiarized. Since a DMCA notice requires you to be a copyright holder or an agent authorized to act on that person’s behalf, one can not legally use one of those to have works taken down and a cease and desist letter, though legal to send, is nothing more than empty wind. Anyone with a solid understanding of copyright law would discard it immediately.
When it comes to copyright law, the fan fiction author has no recourse. From a purely legal standpoint, they are completely powerless to stop someone from plagiarizing their work.
Making Matters Worse
As if the lack of legal recourse wasn’t bad enough, fan fiction plagiarism is also notoriously difficult to detect. Since so much fan fiction is posted on forums and members-only sites that evade search engines, the usual method of looking for plagiarized works becomes significantly less effective. Theoretically, it is entirely possible that someone is stealing a work from a fan fiction author and evading detection by traditional means simply because the author and the plagiarist move in very different circles.
Worse still, with so many fan fiction authors using several different names, even if the plagiarism is detected, it might not be immediately recognized as such. The person that spots the similarities might just write it off as another identity for the original author and move on. After all, the fan fiction culture seems to thrive, in large part, on anonymity, a powerful tool for evading copyright problems, but a very poor way to mark a work as yours.
Finally, since fan fiction is organized primarily in large sites, such as fanfiction.net, by storyline and even character, it’s very easy for a plagiarist to find a large volume of similar material to steal. Also, since this spreads out the plagiarism over, potentially, dozens of authors, the odds of any one author discovering plagiarism drops yet again and, even if it is discovered, tracking down the original authors can be a mammoth challenge.
The end result is that fan fiction plagiarism is difficult to detect, hard to trace back and impossible to effectively prosecute under copyright law. This can make fighting fan fiction plagiarism seem to be an impossible task. However, their is hope, it’s just a matter of turning to less orthodox means.
The one thing that a fan fiction author has that most other copyright holders lack is a very strong community base. Fan fiction authors and readers tend to band together in small, but very tightly-knit community. United by their love for a storyline and desire to see it continue, fan fiction groups more closely resemble a fan club than a traditional writing community. They are, generally, very close and everyone knows each other beyond their relationship as authors and readers.
As such, most followers of fan fiction for a particular story line generally know one another at least fairly well and talk regularly amongst themselves. Though even the most avid fan of Star Trek fan fiction isn’t going to know every single fan fiction author, he or she certainly will know the major ones and will spend most of his time reading material related to the storyline. As such, the likelihood of someone detecting plagiarism on accident, by realizing they’re reading the same story twice, goes up dramatically and the community element of the genre makes it more likely that they will report the plagiarism to one or both of the authors involved.
Best of all though, fan fiction communities are notoriously united in their battle against plagiarism. Plagiarism is, by in large, seen as a cardinal sin in the community and plagiarists are ostracized and dealt with harshly. However, for whatever reason, this form of mob justice rarely seems to go too far. Though fan fiction communities willingly make their displeasure at plagiarists known, they rarely involve the personal threats, fowl language and other hallmarks that give mob justice such a bad name. By in large, these acts are just a coordinated effort by the community to isolate the plagiarist and support the victim.
In the end, it’s one of the few times that mob justice can be both civilized and effective. To my knowledge, all incidents of fan fiction plagiarism that have been dealt with in this way were closed out without any illegal activities taking place. Though these incidents certainly brought a great deal of tension to their communities, one might argue that such drama is typical of fan fiction groups, or perhaps fan groups in general.
Though one’s recourse against plagiarism when writing fan fiction is limited, it’s not a hopeless struggle. It requires a different mindset and a different set of rules, but such incidents can be resolved.
Regardless though, given the copyright issues surrounding fan fiction, the least of which includes plagiarism, authors should be very careful before trying their hand at it. Most of the copyright issues can be resolved by simply keeping the plot and overall concepts, but removing it from the universe in which it exists. While this might cost a fan fiction author the instant fan base that comes with writing for a familiar storyline, it can ensure that the author owns the work he or she creates and helps the author establish an independent fan base.
Nonetheless, this is a personal choice that every writer has to make.
[tags]Plagiarism, Content Theft, Fan Fiction, Copyright Infringement, Copyright Law, Copyright, DMCA[/tags]