As possibly the fastest selling paperback book in history, E.L. James' "Fifty Shades of Grey" and its two sequels took the literary world by storm, filling everyone's bags with a tale of sexual awakening through the eyes of a very naÔve young girl. Whether or not the book is well-written isn't really the issue here because we all know it isn't, the author has even admitted as such on NBC's "Today" show. Regardless of quality, the trilogy has done so well that a movie is already in the works, with much discussion over who should play the two leads (Ian Somerhalder as Christian Grey, the emotionally deranged sexual deviant, is definitely a fan favorite).
You may have read the books but did you know that the "Shades" story was originally "Twilight" fan fiction centered around Bella and Edward's sexual exploits? Considering the book's origins, we can expect to see a lot more fan stories attempting to breach The New York Times bestseller list in the upcoming years and continuing the debate of ethics vs. entertainment.
If you don't know what fan fiction is, it's a pretty harmless community of people who are such huge fans of something, whether it be a book or musical, that they decide to write their own stories (an overwhelming amount being sexual in nature) set in the borrowed universe. Fanfiction.net is the most popular site for such stories, with "Harry Potter" (612,677 stories to date) and "Twilight" (201,291) with the most stories in the Book section, "Star Wars" (29,035) and "Pirates of the Caribbean" (19,607) the top two in the Movie section, and "Glee" (81,043) and "Supernatural" (66,400) reigning supreme in TV. Photo Courtesy of Thinkstock
On the surface, the idea of fan fiction seems pretty harmless even though it's technically in violation of U.S. Copyright Law, which pretty much asserts that you need the author's permission to use anything from their creative work. However, the majority of copyright holders don't seem to mind the borrowed content, choosing to turn a blind eye or even take flattery from the fan fiction. Some authors even encourage fan fiction writing, like "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling, "Twilight" author Stephenie Meyer, and "Princess Diaries" author Meg Cabot.
Cabot even admits on her official site that she wrote "Star Wars" fan fiction as a kid, and approves of it as being a good learning tool for young writers. "The good thing about writing fan fiction is that the characters and basic plot are already set up, so new writers can concentrate on dialogue, or further plot development," says Cabot. Photo Courtesy of Thinkstock
The original fan fiction story "Fifty Shades of Grey" stemmed from was "Masters of the Universe", a tale about Bella and Edward's BDSM relationship. "Universe" acquired a pretty big following online and when E.L. James decided to publish the story as her own original work, she altered the character names and took out any vampire references, but did little else. Many people have compared the original text with the published book and the changes look more like standard editing than anything else, making it pretty hard to call the book original when compared to the fan fiction. One very thorough comparison was done by Jane at DearAuthor.com, which found complete sections to be relatively the exact same. Photo Courtesy of Twilight Saga Official Facebook
Meg Cabot and E.L. James arenít the only authors to have come clean about their past habits, although I suspect many want to keep that information hidden. Cassandra Clare is the author of a popular young adult series called "The Mortal Instruments" and has written in the world of "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter." John Scalzi may be best known for his science fiction novel "Old Man's War", which was nominated for a Hugo Award, but he's also written stories that people see as "Star Trek" fan fiction.
There are many authors who are completely against the idea of others "borrowing" their fleshed out character to have their wicked way with. George R.R. Martin, the man behind "Game of Thrones", finds fan fiction to be a horrible waste of writing talent and considers it a copyright infringement. Anne Rice, author of the legendary "Interview With a Vampire" says, "I do not allow fan fiction. The characters are copyrighted. It upsets me terribly to even think about fan fiction with my characters. I advise my readers to write your own original series with your own characters. It is absolutely essential that you respect my wishes." Photo Courtesy of J.K. Rowling
Writing fan fiction is a labor of love, which as a literary/film obsessive, I totally understand. I do have concerns, however, when that labor of love that's derived from another begins to make you Scrooge McDuck amounts of cash. In reading the story, there's no references to "Twilight" and I imagine the original fan fic barely had anything to do with Meyer's books either. However, "Fifty Shades of Grey" would have never reached the success it has if it weren't for that original "Twilight" fan-base that read it when it used Edward and Bella. Without the fans of the preexisting books and movies giving the story solid ground, it would have been another poorly written erotic novel destined to be forgotten. The author's profits are a direct result of Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight," which begs the question, when is fan fiction alright and when is it unethical? Photo Courtesy of E.L. James
I suppose nothing will legally happen in this case because Stephenie Meyer, though not having read "50 Shades" herself, doesn't seem to be too troubled by its existence and wishes E.L. James the best of success. When you have an entire legion of fan-girls making your franchise millions, you probably don't need to waste your time on a tiny lawsuit. However, with James' success I'm willing to bet that we're going to be seeing a lot more of these fan fiction stories-turned-pro on bookshelves everywhere, which will force someone to confront that thin line between original work and copyright infringement. As for now, I suppose that line doesn't matter at all in the face of whether or not you enjoyed the material. Photo Courtesy of Thinkstock
For those of you who are internally mocking anyone who would read or write fan fiction, you've probably already read some without realizing it. The bestselling novel "Wicked", which spurned a widely successful musical version, is technically fan fiction. What about "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies"? If you want to get really crazy, let's go ever farther back with King Arthur; that story has been written and rewritten by so many different people, all stemming back to the "The History of the Kings of Britain" in 1138. In fact, Lancelot and the Holy Grail were both added in by separate authors to make the original account seem cooler. Copyright Law is really the only difference between then and now, and once those copyrights start expiring for certain books, like "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings", we may see a lot of former fan fiction stories take up residence in publishing houses. Photo Courtesy of Thinkstock
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