Doctor Who is one of the most popular science fiction fandoms in the world. It should come as no surprise that, with that huge presence comes a very large fan fiction community.
However, over the past few days much of that community has been sent into a frenzy as, according to a report on iNews, several fan fiction authors have received demands from the BBC to take down their works.
This has led others to seek out and find the Doctor Who FAQ page, which includes this passage about fan fiction:
You are welcome to write Doctor Who fiction for your own enjoyment, but we should remind you that it is not permitted for you to publish this work either in print or online.Doctor Who FAQ Page
However, as noted by the Daily Dot, that FAQ has been up since at least 2014 and has included that passage since then. In short, this is not a new policy, but one that has been in effect for at least seven years.
It’s clear that we are not in the middle of a massive clampdown on Doctor Who fan fiction. A simple Google search finds communities and forums with tens of thousands of stories available.
So what is going on? Most likely, much ado about nothing.
Difficult Times for Fan Fiction
Fan fiction (and fan art) are a messy space for copyright. In general, when you create a work of fan fiction, you are creating a derivative work based upon the original work and that is something that the copyright holder has the exclusive right to do or license.
In short, unlicensed and unpermitted fan fiction is a copyright infringement and rightsholders are well within their rights to take action against it if they see fit.
That said, they rarely do.
The reason for this is quite simple: Most rightsholders don’t want to go to war with their fandoms, especially when the infringement isn’t harming their bottom line and may even be helping to keep fans engaged during gaps between official works.
However, authors and creators have taken a wide variety of approaches to fan fiction. For example, Anne Rice has a lengthy history of banning all fan fiction, CBS and Paramount once were famously permissive about fan fiction but set down strict guidelines after one fan production pushed things too far and others have no official stance whatsoever.
Still, there are general guidelines including publishing fan fiction for fun and not commercializing it, not submitting the work directly to the creators and not trying to position a fan creation as canon. As long as those lines are not crossed, fan fiction may well be an infringement, but it is generally well-tolerated (sometimes begrudgingly).
However, we’re not at the halcyon days of 2013, when Kindle Worlds launched and offered fan fiction authors a way to earn money from fan fiction legally. Kindle Worlds appears to be defunct and fan fiction has been receiving a great deal of pushback in recent years as it increasingly became a platform for authors to launch their careers.
So, it is entirely possible that the BBC is seeing the writing on the wall and has decided to start more strictly enforcing their boundaries. However, a handful of removal requests does not represent a tidal change, not when tens of thousands of stories remain online, and countless communities are active.
Once that changes, then the time to panic has come.
In April 2017, three years after the FAQs went live, the BBC published a guide to fan fiction writers. However, it wasn’t a set of legal guidelines but help on penning a great story and encouraged users to publish it to Mixital, a BBC-owned site for fan fiction works that went defunct in April 2019.
Clearly, the FAQ page is not the last word on BBC’s approach to fan fiction. Though they would be wise to clarify their policy and spell out the boundaries that they DO intend to enforce, that FAQ has been up for seven years with very little, if any, enforcement of that policy.
To make matters more complicated for the BBC, many of the show’s writers including Nicholas Briggs, Steven Moffat and Paul Cornell got their start writing fan fiction. David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor, also reportedly wrote fan fiction as a child.
To be clear, fan fiction is under more scrutiny than any point in history. We’re in a period of pushback after several fan productions overstepped boundaries and other former works of fan fiction, such as Fifty Shades of Gray, went on to become large commercial successes.
The relationship between fan fiction community and rightsholders has never been more tenuous. But that doesn’t mean a blanket ban is on the horizon.