Earlier this week, Amazon announced that it had reached licensing deal that will allow fans of some popular television shows and novels to write, publish, and earn money off fan fiction. For those not familiar with fan fiction, its stories written by non-copyright holders using characters or settings created by someone else without their permission. No professional publication (or semi-pro for that matter) will publish fan fiction because of the copyright infringement and potential lawsuit. According to the press release, certain works created by Alloy Entertainment, a division of Warner Bros. Television, including Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and Vampire Diaries are covered under the agreement. (Some have argued this isn’t really fan fiction, but media tie-in, because the copyright holder has sanctioned the use of the characters and world, but I’ll leave that distinction for others to sort out.)
Amazon will pay royalties on the net revenue to both the original copyrights holder and the fan fiction author, although it isn’t clear if the royalty rate cited will be paid to each or will be split among the parties. For those royalties, however, authors will give all of their rights to the story to Amazon and Alloy Entertainment, with no further chance at future compensation, and those rights will be given for the life of the copyright. Basically, this is a work for hire, leaving the author with nothing at the end but a paycheck (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It appears that Amazon stands to earn a significant amount of money from this deal especially considering the popularity of some fan fiction. If you’d like to read more about the rights, see SFWA President and best-selling author John Scalzi’s take here.
While often tolerated by copyright holders, fan fiction is technically illegal to sell or publish because it infringes on the original creator’s intellectual property rights. While every copyright holder treats fan-fiction differently, often there isn’t a problem as long as the fan-fiction isn’t sold or otherwise generating money. Let’s face it, who has time to track down and post take-down notices to every piece of fan fiction (although Game Design Workshop seems to have enough lawyers to do it, even when it’s inappropriate and absurd).
Currently the list of shows and other works included in the deal looks limited, but Amazon says it is trying to expand the licensing agreement. If this agreement does expand significantly, it could be a game-changer in the publishing field, especially for self-published authors, who must already compete against thousands upon thousands of other titles for a reader’s attention. Throwing fan fiction into the mix could potentially alter the dynamic, although it’s unclear to me how much it would do this—I don’t have any idea what number of readers could be drawn away from original fiction to fan fiction. I would like to think the answer is not many, but I wonder how many young readers, especially, will forego an original genre book to read the latest piece of corporate fan fiction set in their favorite television show’s world. Obviously Amazon and Alloy Entertainment think there’s money to be made, so it will be interesting to see how this unfolds.