Sometimes I read a great
fan fiction and think to myself, "Gee, I wish there was a Paypal
button here somewhere, because I feel the overwhelming urge to ram
wads of money down this writer's throat." This is basically impossible,
of course; fanfic is considered an illegal derivative work under
copyright law, and even the creators that allow it have a
no-tolerance attitude towards fans who try to collect money for their
work. If fans were allowed to earn money, conventional wisdom
claims, it would siphon money away from the original creator and they
would lose business. But what if conventional wisdom was completely
and totally wrong?
For-profit fan creativity
is a huge opportunity, but creators are letting it go to waste
because they're so anxious to protect their copyrights. It may seem
counterintuitive, but letting other people make money from your
intellectual property can add far more value than it costs—in
some cases millions of dollars. How does this work?
It has been estimated that
as of 2012, E. L. James was making $1.35
million a week
on Fifty Shades of Grey. Now, it is widely known that Fifty Shades
of Grey was originally a Twilight fanfic titled Master of the
Universe. E. L. James changed the characters' names from Edward and
Bella to Christian and Anna and republished her fanfic as a "new"
book. Now she's a multimillionaire.
So let me ask you a
question: how much money has Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight
series, lost because she sent this brilliant piece of Twilight
fanfiction out of her franchise? How many 50 Shades fans would have
gone on to become Twilight fans if Edward and Bella had not been
renamed? How many Twilight books would Meyer have sold in the
resulting publicity frenzy if people had seen 50 Shades as an
extension of her original stories? Meyer must have lost millions of
dollars and sent away untold potential fans.
Now imagine what would have
happened if she had shared her intellectual property with her fans,
allowing them to earn money from their work instead of relegating
them to non-profit status. E. L. James would not have been forced to
"barcode strip" Master of the Universe in order to make a
profit, and Meyer could have kept all that money and attention in the
Now, I admire Meyer's
attitude towards fanfiction—she's one of the few authors who
includes a list of Twilight fanfic sites on her homepage—but I
think it's time for progressive authors to start questioning whether
the taboo against for-profit fan activity actually serves a business
purpose, or if it's just a reflexive attitude left over from an
Many authors believe that
they must prevent fans from "competing" with them, or else
readers will buy the fan's work instead of theirs, resulting in lost
sales. This idea sounds good on paper, but it looks strange when you
actually try to give an example. Can you imagine a Harry Potter fan
saying, "Well, I was going to spend this $10 on Rowling's new
book, but I spent that money on a fanfic instead. I guess now I
won't buy the next Harry Potter book after all."
People like that just don't
exist in real life. They're only a bogeyman haunting the insecure
subconscious of the writing world. Even in the rare scenario where a
fan like E. L. James writes a fanfic that becomes more popular than
the original, it's highly unlikely that the original author will be
harmed. What is more likely to happen is that all the fans who were
attracted by the fanfic's success will now become interested in the
original author's work and go out and buy a copy of it for
themselves. That's hardly a negative consequence!
Let me give you a recent
example of how this worked for me. I had a written a fanfic (nothing
particularly special) that a few people clicked on and enjoyed. The
story didn't attract much attention, and the internet had pretty much
forgotten about it until a fan of my fanfiction (whee, recursion!)
decided to pay a particularly talented fan artist to illustrate a
scene from my story. So now someone is getting paid, and that
someone is not me, the writer. Was this bad for my "business"?
Nope. Immediately afterwards, the story got a big boost in traffic;
in fact, all my stories did. Subsequently, a user contacted me to
request permission to translate my stories into Russian.
Although I did not receive
any compensation from the fan artist, nevertheless their work
indirectly benefited me by expanding my fanbase and drawing attention
to my work. If I had tightly controlled the for-profit use of my
story, my work probably would have remained lost amidst a sea of
hundreds of other fanfics. It's worth noting that the fan art is
probably more popular than my original story—but who cares?
The more publicity that picture gets, the more fans my story gets.
It's a symbiotic relationship, not a competitive one.
But there are other reasons
why authors break into a cold sweat when they imagine an anonymous
fan's literary creations popping up alongside their own stories on
Amazon. Writers worry that new readers won't be able to tell the
fanfics apart from the original. The fear is that a new reader will
do a search for "The Hunger Games" and discover a one star
fanfic named "This Is My Frist Hunger Games FanFic About Katniss
Please Read!!!!" The reader will then mistake the fanfic for
the real Hunger Games, which has 4.6 stars and 21,746 reviews, and
buy the fanfic instead. Mortified by what they find, they will then
go and tell everyone how awful the Hunger Games is.
No, it doesn't make much sense. Nevertheless, there is a genuine concern that
this could happen. Fortunately, most fans are scrupulous about
giving attribution, and search engines are very good at pointing out
the most popular items and sending unpopular work into oblivion. But
for the extra-cautious, there's a simple solution to prevent reader
confusion: just require fans to label their work as a fan creation by
placing the word "[Fanfic]" "[Fan Art]" etc. in
brackets after the title. This would make it impossible to mistake a
fan's work for the original. Simple, no?
But there is another
argument often made against for-profit fan creativity. Meyer was at one point
threatened with a lawsuit by a fan who claimed that she had stolen
the fan's idea in one of her books. The lawsuit didn't go anywhere,
but you see the problem: if a creator and a fan creator both happen
to come up with the same idea, the resemblance between the two
creatives' work could give the fan an opening to sue the creator.
For this reason, even authors who approve of fanfic typically refuse
to read it for fear they might be held liable.
Such incidents do not
happen frequently, but the danger they represent has led many
creators to categorize fanfiction as a threat instead of an
opportunity. Fortunately, an easy fix for this problem already
exists. The solution is to use a ShareAlike
license in which creator and fans formally agree to share ideas
with each other. This explicitly ensures that creators and fans do
not face legal repercussions even if resemblances occur. Such terms
are already incorporated into tried-and-true open licenses like
Creative Commons ShareAlike. Why worry about a problem that has been
solved for years?
Of course, there are many
non-monetary reasons why a creator might not want fan
creators' work to become as popular as their own or to appear in a
search engine next to theirs. I can't address these concerns; all I
want to point out is that for creators interested in earning as
much money as possible, fan creativity is financially beneficial.
In fact, let's go a step
farther. The 50 Shades story is only the tip of the iceberg when it
comes to making profits from fan work. Let's talk for a bit about
the untapped potential of crowdsourced creativity. We all know why
Wikipedia beat out Encyclopedia Britannica: Wikipedia has (approximately) umpteen zillion
contributors who each contribute a single thought to the sum of human
knowledge, whereas Encyclopedia Britannica has a relatively small
team of paid staff who are experts in their fields. We can learn
something very interesting from how Wikipedia completely slam-dunked
the traditional encyclopedia biz.
When looking at franchises
like Lord of the Rings, there is a clear division of labor. On one
hand you have the "official" creators, namely Tolkien, his
heirs, the movie studios, and the marketers and designers behind the
various toy lines, games etc—a few thousand paid professionals,
all told. And on the other hand you have hundreds of thousands of
unpaid fans who each contribute a single piece of creativity to the
pool: a work of fanfiction, a set of comic strips, a costume, a
graphic novel, a short film, a kitbashed action figure. Taken as a
whole, the fans have done a Wikipedia on the official creators,
haven't they? They've created thousands of spin off novels, a
gigantic toy line, and enough artwork to fill a thousand coffee table
books. Not all of it is high quality, but even if we assume that 90%
is crap and 10% is quality, that remaining 10% is massive enough to
totally whomp the efforts of the franchise owners by any measurement.
All this unmonetized fan
creativity is money lost for Tolkien's franchise. Even if they
tripled their team of paid professional creators today, they could
never hope to satisfy the whole demands of the market, because
somewhere out there is a guy with $20 in his pocket who likes Lord of
the Rings but is completely obsessed with dinosaurs. Unfortunately
for him, LOTR doesn't have dinosaurs of any kind, so instead our
potential customer will spend his money on Jurassic Park merchandise.
Under normal conditions,
the owners of the Tolkien franchise would not be able to take
advantage of such a tiny $20 niche market; they simply do not have
the means to meet the unique needs of all the world's individuals.
But there is another way by which this vast untapped market could be
broken into. You see, somewhere out there is a fanfic writer who is
working on a Lord of the Rings rewrite with the elves as raptors and
Gandalf as a stegosaurus. (I have seen much, much stranger things
than this become wildly popular.) This fan—one of hundreds of
thousands of unpaid volunteers—has the ability to harvest that
$20 in our prospective buyer's pocket. But none of that money would
to go the owners of Tolkien's franchise. Or would it?
Imagine what would happen
if the fanfic writer was allowed to
accept the $20. The writer would have a strong incentive to
write another dinosaur LOTR fanfic, wouldn't they? If the money kept
flowing and the market kept responding, eventually other fan creators
would join in with fan art, a short Flash cartoon, some comics,
translations into various languages, a line of 3D printed toys, etc.
Meanwhile, the dinosaur fan is now being slowly converted from a guy
who was mildly interested in LOTR into a True Fan of LOTR who will
now buy "official" merchandise from the franchise owners.
But could this ever happen in real life?
It happened to me recently.
As a kid, I used to be a big fan of Garfield; as an adult, I had
pretty much forgotten about it. But that was before I discovered
Mezzacotta's "Square of Root of Garfield Minus Garfield," a
hilarious reinterpretation of Garfield which combines playful
mathematics, Garfield scholarship, and ingenious twists to put a
whole new spin on strips I had read dozens of times as a kid. After
reading through all the Mezzacotta strips, I needed MOAR, so I headed
over to Jim Davis' website to read through his archive of Garfield
comic strips. Lately I've also been hunting through the local thrift
store for his books. I'm still way more fond of Mezzacotta's
interpretation than Jim Davis' original comics, but the odds of Davis
getting money from me have increased dramatically with my renewed
interest in the series.
So you see the progression:
Fans tap market unsatisfied by original creator. New fans are
converted and become curious about the original works. New fans go
on to spend money on products offered by the original creator.
Once fan creators begin
making money, it starts a virtuous cycle of profits and reinvestment
that will allow the creation of ever more complex and expensive
productions. Right now, fans are limited in their ability to create movies, games, merchandise
TV series because such things
are out of their budget range. (It's not that they haven't
tried; see, for example, this crowdfunding drive where a fan tried to
$400,000 for a Final Fantasy web series, only to be shut down.)
Yet if this stifled creativity and entrepreneurship was allowed to
run its course, the results would be impressive.
How many writers dream of
seeing their work translated into 24 languages and made into a TV
series, graphic novel, toy line, video game and movie? Fans will do
much of that for free out of love. But add in money as an incentive,
and they'll take on increasingly expensive, complex and
time-consuming projects like the aforementioned Final Fantasy
Yet most creators balk at
the idea of giving fans the freedom to raise $400k for a project, and
here again we run into another deep-seated fear: the idea that someone
else will use the creator's idea to make a zillion dollars, and not
give the creator any of it.
Actually, it's hard for me
to imagine how a creator could NOT make money in such a scenario,
provided that he was smart enough to use a ShareAlike license.
Suppose, for example, that Tolkien was still alive today, and a group
of fans raised $10,000,000 on Kickstarter to create a smash hit LOTR
web series—all without paying him a dime in royalties.
Apparently the expected response is for poor Tolkien to bemoan his
predicament on a street corner as he rattles coins in a tin cup. But
what about the massive publicity boost? What about the fact that new
fans drawn in by the series will be reading Tolkien's books for the
first time in their lives? What about the fact that Tolkien could
write a new story set within the expanded universe of the series and
get a guaranteed audience? What about the fact that under a
ShareAlike license, Tolkien could record his own version of the
series with author commentary, then sell it himself as a special
edition? Even in this, the most-dreaded of all scenarios, there are
tons of opportunities to make money.
But let's make it easier,
shall we? All Tolkien needs to do is change his license terms to
read, "You can make as much profit off your fan work as you
want, but if you make more than $100,000 a year, then you have to pay
me a 5% royalty." So now Tolkien can still make money off the
series in the traditional way, and ambitious fan creators can still
get funding and start working on that new MMO or animated series.
Meanwhile, all the smaller fan creators are not faced with burdensome
profit-reporting requirements that would require them to send over
$0.25 whenever someone dropped a $5 tip in the bucket.
A license with just four
simple rules can overcome almost all of the problems with allowing
fans to monetize their creativity:
idea gets shared with the original creator and all the other fans
who want to use that idea. This prevents lawsuits and keeps good
ideas from being "claimed."
Require fan creators to
give credit to the original creator. This drives new fans to the
original source so that the creator can share in her fans'
Fans should mark their
work as being fan-produced by putting [Fanfic] or [Fan Art] after
the title or thereabouts. This prevents reader confusion and
protects the creator's reputation.
Fans who make more than
$100k a year on their activities must pay a 5% cut of the profits to
the original creator. This gives creators a share of the wealth if
a fan strikes gold, but does not burden casual fan creators with
It's time for creators to
let go of their old fears and begin to reap the rewards of the crowd.
Indie creators can benefit from the added attention their fans'
creativity draws to their work, while bestselling creators can take
advantage of hits like 50 Shades to expand the borders of their
franchise into new markets. Give it a try: turn your fans into
business partners, and see what they can do for you.