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One of my favorite authors ranted a bit on her blog last night about not liking fan fiction. What she got in return was a firestorm from fanfic writers. It seems to me ranting on the net always leads to more rants, but somehow I couldn’t tear myself away from this particular train wreck because it had to do with fair use and derivative works, things that I have a strong interest in. (I don’t actually read or write fan fiction, but was mesmerized nonetheless). Diana Gabaldon says on her blog that she doesn’t want people to write fan fiction about her work. I think she has every right to say so, and to work to keep such derivative works off the internet. Unfortunately, she was inflammatory instead of circumspect in how she said it, and offended a lot of people. Even though I think she has the right to discourage fan fiction, I think she’s probably wrong to do so. Here’s what I wrote in my comment on her post:

I find it interesting that you encourage some artists to create derivative work (the family tree you spoke of, the wedding ring, the Outlander-themed videos that you’ve favorited on YouTube), but other art (i.e. writing) you find repugnant. What if someone wanted to write a song inspired by your series? Would you feel flattered or would you find it immoral? Perhaps a Creative Commons non-commercial licensing scheme that allowed specific types of derivative work could clarify what you do and don’t sanction.

Ultimately, your post made me a little sad. I think legally, you have the right to pursue writers who create fan fiction based on your work, but it may not be in your best interest to do so. Those writers and readers of fan fiction based on your work are probably some of your most devoted fans and while they may not bring new readers to your work (I doubt they would because only someone who’s already read your books would seek out fan fiction based on them), I think discouraging them may create a feeling of ill will in that part of your fan community.

On the other hand, if others creating stories with your characters in them makes you feel bad as it obviously does, then it’s good you let your fans know. I’m guessing that none of us would want to consciously offend you.

(As a side note I would love to hear your thoughts on the difference between creating stories based on public domain fictional characters–which you said find distasteful, and creating fiction based on deceased historical figures–which you must not despise because you do it so delightfully in your books.)

Today Gabaldon posted again on the subject, and it seems she’s reconsidering yesterday’s harsh stance. I doubt she will ever encourage fan fiction, but it’s nice to see that she’s open to hearing from her fans and wading through all the nasty comments she received to find some good in what people were saying.

05/05/10 – ETA: A new commenter has posted a link today to a Cory Doctorow piece “In Praise of FanFic.”  Cory is famously supportive of fair use and derivative work. He states his case brilliantly in this article. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Each person who retold Pygmalion did something both original — no two tellings are just alike — and derivative, for there are no new ideas under the sun. Ideas are easy. Execution is hard. That’s why writers don’t really get excited when they’re approached by people with great ideas for novels. We’ve all got more ideas than we can use — what we lack is the cohesive whole.

The biggest lesson I got from reading these posts and the responses to them is one that I seem to relearn periodically throughout my life communicating with people online: if you’re mad, don’t press “send” or “publish.” Just wait, because reasoned discussion will be more effective and efficient for all involved.

“Someone is wrong on the Internet”