Monday, June 27, 2005


A couple of commenters have recently pointed me in the direction of web sites which have proved to be more than usually interesting (to me, at any rate).

'Interesting', by the way, is a word that I seem to be typing more and more often these days. I suppose it is redundant. If a topic wasn't interesting (to me) I wouldn't be mentioning it. However, the word will probably continue to appear from time to time.

And, also by the way, one should not, I suppose, be worried about repeating a word if it is in fact the most appropriate word for one's purpose. It was the great Fowler who, in a famous essay of 1926, deplored attempts on the part of 'second-rate writers' to avoid using the same word twice in the same sentence. Fowler referred to this as the 'elegant variation' error. (And there is a rather good book blog named after the essay.) Given what Fowler says, I probably shouldn't worry about using 'interesting' in more than one post.

But I digress. As usual. Back to the follow-ups.

I was advised by a commenter to have a look at a relatively new blog, Short Term Memory Loss, and indeed it is worth a look. It will probably get added to the blogroll (on the right) shortly, but the roll is beginning to look mighty long and I don't suppose one can list every book blog in the known universe. Never mind.

If the author of Short Term Memory Loss has given his name, it has escaped my notice. But one of the books that he mentions is John Preston's Hustling: a Gentleman's Guide to the Fine Art of Homosexual Prostitution. Which is, at the very least, an intriguing title.

So I followed it up. And Google led me to a site called Topman. This is dedicated to the life and work of John Preston, who, as you would expect, was a writer. He was also, by sexual inclination, a homosexual sadist (hence Topman, in the jargon of that world), and he died of AIDS complications in 1994.

During his lifetime, in fact during a period of fifteen years, Preston authored or edited some 49 books. A short introduction to the man, on the Topman site, says that he 'brought pornography to the literary world, [and] he also fought over the years to bring literature to the world of pornography.'

Now that is interesting. It may not be too everyone's taste -- won't be, in fact -- but once again I have come across a writer that I've never heard of before but who clearly had some talent, a great deal of determination, and some success.

In particular, Preston was the author of an essay called 'The right to write', which I would like to read but I have not yet been able to locate an online copy. The Topman site/archive evidently has a scanned copy, but if it's accessible I ain't found it yet. (Note the elegant variation.)

Another commenter made reference to fan fiction, and this led me to a truly astonishing site: the home of Harry Potter fan fiction.

Fan fiction is a phenomenon that I had kind of heard of before but never really come across, much less studied. As its name suggests, fan fiction is fiction written by those who are great enthusiasts for a particular writer's work, and have borrowed his or her characters and contexts to write fiction of their own.

The Harry Potter fan fiction site has no less than 14714 stories, 68032 chapters, and 7482 authors. Now that is serious productivity.

The issue which immediately came to my mind, on encountering this site, was that of copyright. If there are 7482 writers (so far) cheerfully and passionately churning out stories featuring Harry and his friends, what is the copyright position?

I used the site's search facility to see what the organisers/owners have to say about copyright. The answer is nothing much. But there is a short statement at the foot of the search page:

All stories remain the property of their authors and must not be copied in any form without their consent. This is an unofficial, non profit site, and is in no way connected with J.K. Rowling, Scholastic Books or Bloomsbury Publishing or Warner Bros. It is not endorsed by any of the aforementioned parties. Rights to characters and their images is neither claimed nor implied. Although we provide links to other websites, we are not responsible for any material at these sites. You acknowledge that you link to these other websites at your own risk. All original administrative content is copyright of the site owner and must not be copied in any form (electronic or otherwise) without the prior consent of the owner.
In other words, the issue of whether or not these fans, and the site, are systematically breaching J.K. Rowling's copyright on a substantial scale is neatly sidestepped. But the owners of the site make it clear that they will sure as hell defend their own copyright! Mess with them and the heavy mob will call round and break both your legs.

The technical term for this kind of thing is naughty.

Should you be intrigued by the fan-fiction phenomenon, there is an interesting starting point for further investigation on the wikipedia site (a site which, incidentally, is become not merely useful but almost the first port of call for reliable and extensive information). And it is here that you will find a most valuable discussion of the legal aspects of the practice.

In the wikipedia article you will find it stated that writers and copyright holders vary greatly in their attitude towards this stuff. Some take a firm stand against it: Lucasfilm (Star Wars) and Anne Rice, for example. Others tolerate it, in order to avoid alienating their most frequent buyers of product; and some even encourage it. J.K. Rowling is said to be relaxed about the matter, though she is troubled by 'adult-themed' Harry Potter stories. Whatever they are. Harry Gets Laid?

In order to shed some light on the position under UK law, I went poking through various archive boxes in my study. I was, as usual when I do this exercise, somewhat appalled to note the amazing amount of work that I did in the past, much of it abortive, but I eventually found what I was looking for.

The item in question was a 1994 article by Nicola Solomon, entitled 'Sequel Opportunities'. And, very much to my surprise, it turns out to be available online. It is posted (as one might have guessed) by the indefatigable Andrew Malcolm on his AKME site. (Andrew Malcolm's online law library, by the way, is a massive resource, and not just for UK writers; he offer it for free.)

Nicola Solomon is described by Malcolm as a leading literary lawyer, a Deputy District Judge and Partner of Finers Stephens Innocent. Her article makes startling reading, and I remember being taken aback by some of the statements which appeared in it when I first read it; they are still pretty jaw-dropping today.

Nicola begins by saying this: 'One might assume that it would be an infringement of copyright to use characters and style developed by another person. Not so; copyright protects the words and form in which ideas are expressed, not the ideas or characters themselves. The type of copying envisaged by the law, taking large chunks of original text, is unlikely in the case of sequels which aim to develop an original story, not replicate it.'

Well bugger me, I thought. And still I do think. I find that legal advice very surprising.

Nicola suggests various precautions for the writer of a sequel, such getting an endorsement from the original author or making it absolutely clear that the sequel is not endorsed by the original author; and also ensuring that your publisher does not land you in hot water by suggesting (falsely) that there is a connection with the original author. But apart from that, open house seems to be the order of the day.

At least, it is under English law. As for elsewhere, Nicola says: 'In the US, copyright in characters is far more established and the rules preventing unauthorised use may be more restrictive.' So writers would be well advised to take separate advice on the legal position there.

As ever, it is staggering to be be given proof of what a vast resource the internet is. And virtually none of it was available ten years ago.


Anonymous said...

The fanfiction issue has been cropping up in the form of very violent debates over at Lee Goldberg's blog, and Holly Lisle recently posted a notice that she does not want fan fiction created from her work. I've lost the links, because the crazybooks' host is apparently throwing a hissy fit. I may have to re-start the whole damn site again.

Anyway - J K Rowling has apparently said that she has no problem with fans writing fanfiction; as long as they don't try to make money out of said fanfiction.

On another interesting case, Marion Zimmer Bradley reputedly pulled a novel she was planning on publishing because a fanfic writer claimed that MZB was impinging on the fanfic writer's copyright. The legal costs outweighed the potential profit, so although MZB would have won, it would have been easier to pull the book.

Anonymous said...

I have no negative feeling towards fanfic. It does not
not reduce the mainstream demand for the orginal authors work.
And it does give people a place to practise what are usually pretty poor writing skills.

Now if someone else were to have produced James Bond Books while Ian flemming was capable of writing them I might feel differently, but then again
people did'nt beacause they assumed the market would feel like me.

I would like to say Let the J K Rowling site get on with it.
but the MZB case put cult SF and fantasy in a tizzy. its not just the fanfic suddenly any interaction
between author and fan is seen as a problem. Terry Pratchett recently fended of someone who claimed he stole their ideas. and I came upon him once in some forgotten corner of the internet pleading with fans to stop talking about superheros on disk world because he had been think about something along those lines.
(Personally I would have sold him the rights then and there for an autographed first edition)

Anonymous said...

"...During his lifetime, in fact during a period of fifteen years, Preston authored or edited some 49 books..."

Aaarghh! He didn't 'author' any books at all, he wrote them. Please don't use this awful Americanism.

archer said...

'brought pornography to the literary world'...

Maurice Girodias said that pornography, like the Bible, gets people to read who wouldn't otherwise read.

Having used "read" twice in one sentence, I declare my day efficient.