No shades of grey – why fan fic is usually also plagiarism

I posted the other day on the ethics of fan fiction. One of the comments, which I declined to publish, informed me that it is breaking no laws to write fan fiction  and post it on the internet, with credit to the original author.


The laws being broken are usually called ‘Copyright Act’. All western countries have them, and there are international agreements – such as the Berne Convention – enforcing them across national boundaries. It’s one of the tenets of intellectual property law, and it’s not rocket science.

Both the law, and morality, is on the original author’s side. Indeed, here in New Zealand, the act of copying alone suffices to break the law. You do not have to sell or republish the infringing work. Crediting the source makes no difference. And as I’ve noted before, Google have broken that law by scanning some of my books held in US universities.

Deliberately copying somebody else’s ideas is also called ‘plagiarism’. I have heard of people falling into accidental plagiarism. The trap for non-fiction writers involves note-taking, followed by note-using months later, without remembering that the notes were verbatim from another book. Sloppy, but it happens even to experienced writers.

However, fan fic is deliberate plagiarism.

I think it happens for two reasons. One is that readers (or viewers) get an emotional response from the original and enjoy extending it. The other is that it is also, I think, part of the learning curve for beginning writers. But out in the real world – the world of publishing, the world where people need to sell written stuff to make a living, the fact that something is popular does not make it common property. It isn’t.

My advice? People who write fan fiction are more than capable of making original stuff up instead – and should. What’s more, I’ll help them be original. I publish how-to advice on this blog. The blogroll below has links to more. Check it out. I think it’s great to see new original writers out there, creating. Anybody with me on that?

+++ Get in quick to win a copy of Convicts – New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past. My online contest closes at midnight 28 July NZT. Check it out here. +++

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

12 thoughts on “No shades of grey – why fan fic is usually also plagiarism

  1. I agree, but I guess in some circumstances it depends on the intention of the plagiariser. If they are crediting the source (non-fiction for instance) and expressing their readers should seek out that source for more information – it acts as an advert for the source. For me, if I found others using my material with the intention of helping someone else AND they credited me offering my contact details I’d be more than happy. You make a valid point however. 🙂


    1. Thanks. And yes, I also agree – properly cited references to your stuff, with recommendation, is advertising and we can’t complain too loudly. But there gets a point where it isn’t – and if the plagiariser fails to credit (as happens) then there’s reason to object. It’s one of those shades of grey. Did I say that? Oh I did, didn’t I…


  2. Another reason that attracts people to fan fiction is that there is often a ready-made readership for that kind of material. You are completely right though, while copyright owners haven’t often made examples of online publication of fan fiction it does happen, and of course anyone that is silly enough to try to monetize fan fiction will find that out the hard way.


    1. Fan fiction is a ‘derivative work’ under law, which is definitely prohibited in the US and, generally, under other copyright laws. Authors who I’m aware have asked that their work not be ‘fan-ficced’ include Robin Hobb and Anne Rice. I believe Larry Niven also took action over a lascivious Kzin fan-fic story, too. One ‘grey area’ remains parody, which IS permissible in US law, though NOT New Zealand.


  3. Fan fiction is yet another “concept” I fail to understand; why would one want to write a story that’s already been written? Of course, I believe that is your point.

    These blog posts on plagiarism and copyright show us how easy it is to get sloppy, i.e. your nonfiction example of notetaking and then later “creating” an idea. After that, it is not too hard to assure one’s self that providing obvious credit for another’s work is sufficient. Of course, both instances involve a great deal of ignoring of sirens and fields of red flags….

    Thanks for another thoughtful post.



    1. I had a chat a while back with another historian, a friend of mine, lamenting the other side of it – the ease with which out-of–copyright material can now be clipped from its online sources and used either as wholesale quotes (with credit), or otherwise filtered into the writing of a modern historian. As it’s out of copyright, it’s quite legal, and in some cases there is good reason to provide an extensive quote from source. Still, the onus remains on the writer to otherwise create their own phrasing.


  4. Matthew, does NZ copyright law state that if I am at the library and copy a page in a non-fiction book for research pursuant to a work of historical fiction, that that “act of copying” is an infringement? Even if it’s for my own personal reference, for example, to be sure in the novel that if a particular military unit is in a particular place and time that it really is? How, then, would “fair use” be defined in NZ? Or is there such a thing? My understanding of US law (quite possibly obsolete…!) is that I’m not infringing by doing the above.


    1. I can’t speak for the US, but in New Zealand, fair dealing for purposes of private study here is covered by s.43 of the Copyright Act 1994, which is online here:

      As I understand it, it’s OK to make a photocopy of part of a work (like, a page or two) for your own private study. This is only in New Zealand, US law is slightly different but I guess might allow something similar. It is very carefully restricted, of course.


      1. Thanks for the citation, Matthew! Ya never know when something like that could come in handy. And even if they’re behind some odd-colored balloons (charcoal? seriously? is this a Kiwi thing us Yanks just don’t get?) your book looks GREAT up there!


        1. Black is the national sporting colour – derives from the name given to our rugby team when it toured Britain in 1905, ‘All Blacks’. A typo, they were meant to be nicknamed ‘All Backs’. Net result today is we’ve got black yachts, black sports bikes, canoes etc, black sports uniforms, teams with the word ‘black’ in them, and a rocket car being built to break the LSR, with one of our air force pilots to drive it, called (and I am not joking) Jet Black.

          The motif leaks into the real world quite often.


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