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Can You Write Fan Fiction Without Violating Copyright Laws?

Writers of fan fiction from time to time get cease and desist letters from studio in-house lawyers demanding that they take down their work. While many of the original creators don't pursue the makers of fan fiction, some do, since more often than not fan fictions are blatant copyright violations. Occasionally, fan fiction writers will produce parodies, but most fan fictions are derivative works that attempt to continue or build upon the original work. 

Copyright law generally protects the creator of a work of fiction from someone else coming along and stealing not just their exact words, but also their characters, settings, storylines, and even fictional space languages. However, many fans get so engrossed in particular works that they are compelled to create continuations or variations on their favorite stories.

Tips For Writers of Fan Fiction

The physical act of writing the fan fiction is not a problem. The problem comes when a person wants to share their fan fiction, and it is an even bigger problem if a person wants to sell their fan fiction. While selling, or profiting from fan fiction requires getting official licensing from the copyright holder, frequently, fan fiction is shared for free without consequence. Below are some tips for fan fiction authors to avoid legal trouble:

  • Don't publish your work online. While this may be untenable for many, or most, it is the only way to ensure you don't get in any legal trouble for your fan fiction.
  • Don't get too popular (which seems easy enough for fan fiction). It's the nail that stands out that gets hammered. If your fan fiction piece is getting a lot of attention and ranking in search results for the original content, you may want to consider taking it down to avoid getting in trouble.
  • Don't ask for, or charge, money. One Star Trek fan fiction has turned into a professional production and has been making headlines for getting sued.
  • Don't ignore legal demands. If you've published fan fiction online, don't ignore that cease and desist letter, if you get one. Frequently, an initial cease and desist won't request monetary damages, but rather simply a takedown of the content. If money is requested along with the takedown, comply with the takedown, even if you don't plan on paying.

Fan Fiction Is Not Fair Use or Parody

While copyright law doesn't necessarily protect original works from being parodied, reported on, discussed, or reviewed, most fan fiction doesn't fall into any of the fair use categories. Many are surprised to learn that most fan fictions aren't even considered parodies, as parodies require something more than just continuing or retelling the original. For example, a parody will add some form of social commentary/criticism on the original.

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