Originally Written for Internet Economics and Digital Media at Emerson College, taught by Dr. Tylor Orme
Some of the best and most awarded works of literature or film have been adaptations of classic stories we know well. King Lear is a retelling of the story of a legendary British king (with a new, tragic ending); The Lion King comes from Hamlet; all four new adaptations of A Star is Born are re-written from the original 1937 version. We know these stories, and we flock to them in each of their new iterations without question. Legal adaptations draw on copyrighted works, and re-create them in new and interesting ways, with the permission from the original creator (or they do so once the material has entered the Creative Commons). Game of Thrones began this way, as a book-to-screen adaptation, but by the end of its life, the creators were putting those characters that had gained a following into new and interesting situations, with an ending that was miles away from the original book. The 50 Shades of Gray series originated as Twilight fanfiction, which gained notoriety online and then, after some name changes, became a mainstream sensation; likewise the book series After by Anna Todd started as One Direction fanfiction, made the “Control F” edit from Harry Styles to Hardin Scott, was published, and subsequently made into a mediocre teen drama. In all of this, we can see the benefit and the thread: people become fans of stories and characters, and they want to put their own twist on them, often with incredible success. These re-worked stories become some of our favorites, and live on even when the old piece of work slips from notoriety.
In this essay, I’ll look at the life cycle from original works, to fandom and fanfiction, as well as the way long tails, information asymmetry, copyright, network effects, and creative destruction all impact this process. If we look at fanfiction in this broad scope, it becomes obvious that there’s no technological restriction to the creation of new works. However, like it did to most things, the invention of the internet made the creation, distribution, and consumption of these works considerably easier. In the past, if you wanted your alternate-ending fiction to be read by many, you had to be Shakespeare; if you wanted your animal universe version to be seen, you had to have it produced by Disney. But with the internet, and the subsequent creation of free publishing tools like Wattpad, Archive of Our Own, or FanFiction.net, often specifically geared towards this fanfare, anyone could write their new idea, and anyone could read it once published. And publish they did.
This accessible version of transformative or derivative publication made it possible for fans of original content to turn those mainstream characters that they love, and that normally inhabit the “short tail” of movie or book publication, into endless variances of “long tail” content. Where JK Rowling had to write novels that the masses would enjoy and that could be reasonably published, full of adventure and coming-of-age narratives that eventually had to end, a fan could write those characters in anything from mundane day-to-day life, to creating relationships that didn’t exist in the original works (often with far greater LGBTQ+ representation than mainstream media would ever see), to revisiting what the writer thinks those characters would be like as adults. Because fanfiction isn’t produced with profit in mind, or backed by massive corporations who have put millions of dollars into its creation, the writers don’t have to be concerned with fitting into the standard distribution of storytelling that Hollywood and major book retailers tend to follow. And, though it’s not created with profit or widespread attention in mind, these works can often be wildly popular, with hundreds of thousands of reads on their online publishing forums. This long tail media does, in fact, have massive demand, that, on one hand, shines a light on places where mainstream media production is lacking, and on the other, showcases an idea that we see used constantly by mainstream studios to minimize risk: sequels.
De Vany (2004) discussed the prevalence of sequels in the movie industry, and positioned them as a method filmmakers and film studios can take to reduce risk by reducing the information asymmetry between producer and consumer: audiences already know they like these characters and that they like this storyline, so if they liked the first movie, it’s probable they’ll enjoy the sequel and won’t waste their money—compared to not knowing anything about a movie, other than what the trailer tells them. This is also common in book publishing, where the most popular books are often part of a series, or the author creates prequels or side stories after the original novel had success. It’s easier and less risky to tell more of the same story, than it is to come up with an entirely new one. And this is how fanfiction can be so popular. Where original content creators stop, fanfiction writers can continue, fulfilling the long tail versions of those character’s journeys, and providing easy-reading for their consumers, who already know they love those characters. Where a reader might not want to start an entirely new series, and risk not liking those characters or that writer, they’ll happily read thousands of words of fanfiction because there’s less risk that they won’t like the story, and there’s no cost of switching to a different story if they didn’t like that plot line. These days, with the aforementioned sites this far into their existence, there’s not even large search costs (the effort it takes for someone to sort through all their options): readers can specify which fandom they want, how long, how many times it’s been read, if it’s a finished piece, and even specific tags about what the story is about.
This all means there’s practically no cost to readers if they want to consume the fanfiction, there seems to be very little harm done to the original producer. Fanfiction wouldn’t be considered a substitute to the original works, but instead a compliment, since people wouldn’t be reading these works if they hadn’t previously consumed (and paid for) the original content. This makes it likely that fanfiction actually builds something like a network effect around an author or film series, and therefore benefits them. While popular novels or movies already had to have a fanbase to succeed in the first place, the creation of fanfiction seems like it can build that network of fans even further, and make them more willing to consume the next piece of original content the original creator makes. Fanfiction, and fan forums in general, turn a collection of separate fans into a unified hoard who constantly have the original series on their mind, are discussing upcoming releases, and flooding the theaters or bookstores with purchases, early on. That early push, in turn, catches the sights of media and people outside of the fandom, and can produce even further advertising benefits.
However, there are some real concerns when it comes to fanfiction. There have been works of fanfiction that are removed due to copyright violation, and some authors have requested that sites like Fanfic.net remove pieces using their characters, or put specific notices in their books about not allowing fanfiction (Legal Issues 2020). While these instances of authors who are against fanfiction do exist, it often takes more effort than it’s worth to remove the pieces. And whether or not most fanfiction is legal under copyright is sort of a gray area. Some are obvious: a writer publishing a novel word-for-word with different character names is obvious infringement (and this, according to a friend, happened in an ironic instance where someone published the 50 Shades of Grey series with the character names and appearance descriptions replaced with the cast of another movie, which was removed multiple times from multiple different sites). But most seem to lean towards legal and are allowed by the original creators. This is because most online fanfiction isn’t done for a profit and, more importantly, would be considered transformational, which are both somewhat protected under copyright law. Fanfiction writers are writing because they want to put characters into totally new situations that haven’t been explored by the original creator, often alongside characters the fanfiction writer created themselves; and that means they’re not actually copying anything other than the character names and sometimes their “canon” character traits.
Copyright isn’t the only issue that arises within fanfiction, however. There is also a possible negative effect of fanfiction, specifically when it’s written about real people (usually singers, usually of girl or boy bands), rather than fictional characters. Some celebrities have cited feeling uncomfortable knowing that people write about them, often in sexual instances, but it doesn’t seem to be illegal and defenders of the works have suggested it’s just part of being a celebrity. Scope of these instances play an important part: if it’s just people writing online for other fans, it’s easy for the celebrity to ignore it; if fans meet the celebrity and bring that online existence into real life, it feels questionable to onlookers; if mainstream media publishes something referencing the fanfiction without consulting the celebrity first, it seems like it’s crossing a line (like when the TV show Euphoria had a graphic scene of its character writing gay One Direction fanfiction, and Louis Tomlinson went to Twitter about his discomfort (Tomlinson 2019)). It’s tricky whether or not to call this an externality, since technically a celebrity is a part of the network of original content, fans, and fanfiction, but they’re not necessarily agreeing to be a part of the now fictionalized version of their lives. And, because there’s little regulation to what can be published as fanfiction, a lot of it can be incredibly sexual or dark, so there’s the potential negative network effect where fans of a series or artist are exposed to works that would normally have strict ratings on them or not be allowed to be published in the first place. Sites have attempted to solve this by encouraging writers to tag their works with appropriate ratings, but those can be overlooked and don’t actually prohibit people from reading them. Neither of these issues have been really solved, nor has the copyright question, nor are they easy to fix. Because of the freedom to publish, the ease of account creation, the lack of rating systems or publishing restrictions, and the vast amount of fan-created content, it’s incredibly difficult to change the system without either shutting down the sites entirely, or by making fanfiction legitimized and accessible by purchase, which would probably do more harm to the original creators than fanfiction does on its own.
What does sometimes happen, and has been mentioned a few times in this paper so far, is that a piece of fanfiction becomes so popular online that it catches the eye of someone willing to actually publish it. Recently, this has been the case of the Fifty Shades of Gray and After serieses, and this is where fanfiction writers are actually able to gain monetary benefit from their works, and where a degree of creative destruction comes into play. These pieces that make the transition from fanfiction to mainstream media are the ones that most show why fanfiction seems to be allowed under copyright: you just can change the names of the characters and you’re left with a story almost completely different from the original (all that’s left are some character traits or appearances that are noticeably similar when seen by the original fans). And when these pieces go mainstream, creators are often able to maintain some of the people who were fans of the original works (grown up Twilight fans were likely to know that the 50 Shades series was based on that, and might be more inclined to read that series because they know it’s history), while also attracting new readers or viewers now—the 50 Shades series was a massive mainstream hit, every Valentines Day for three years in a row. This, in turn, is a form of creative destruction. While there are few new Twilight or One Direction fans, there are now people writing 50 Shades and After fanfiction
And so, after all of this, we seem to be left with a new publishing supply chain. The original content has to be written, packaged and distributed by large companies, and consumed; that has to gain a fandom; individual fans write their fanfiction, package and distribute it on the site of their choice, to be consumed by other fans within the network; the most popular fanfiction gets noticed by large distributors, who remove the original fandom association, so it can be re-packaged and re-distributed to the mainstream once more as a new original work, for the process to start anew.
De Vany, Arthur. Hollywood Economics: How Extreme Uncertainty Shapes the Film Industry. London: Routledge, 2004.
“Legal Issues with Fan Fiction.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, March 10, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_issues_with_fan_fiction.
Tomlinson, Louis. Twitter Post. July 1, 2019, 1:57pm. https://twitter.com/Louis_Tomlinson/status/1145753419447177218