I want to be clear about this – I don’t have a problem with fan-fiction, so long as it remains part of the not-for-profit, fair-use celebration of characters that it’s always been.
I’m know there are some very talented people out there who, by virtue of another author’s work, create scenes, situations, and storylines for characters the original author perhaps never envisioned (or did, but due to decency laws, excised those scenes out), and are very good at it. I know there is fan-fiction of Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, House, Desperate Housewived. Then there is the slashfic, which is fan-fiction with a dash of the naughty: Buffy/Edward , Doctor/Rory, and when you stumble upon Kirk/Spock/Tribble slash in the course of doing research, you understand you have reached the end of the Internets.
Except the people that write those would (probably) never consider selling them for money and accepting those characters as their own. Those characters don’t belong to them, and the sonic screwdriver was never meant to do some of the things discussed in some of that slash fic. It’s a means as a celebration of characters and worlds on a pivot, to be read and discussed and enjoyed.
I don’t think E L James ever got that memo, and somehow, either through sloth or greed or deliberate deceit, she managed to get a 7-figure deal for her series of novels beginning with Fifty Shades of Grey, which comes off as a poorly executed romp of Twilight Slash Fic – with the names changed to (seemingly) protect the author from violation of intellectual property laws. It makes me a little sick, truth be told.
Fan-fiction works primarily because there are already characters people are familiar with – you have a built-in audience. That world is already created. There’s no backstory to create because your audience is still plugged in. You don’t have to explain why Spike is a favorite whipping boy because you watched 7 seasons of Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and you know Edward is some emo creep who can’t make friends you read all of Meyer’s Twilight, so all you have to do as a fan-fiction author is create a scenario, have their clothes fall off and boom – you have yourself some slashfic. There is no character research, no world building, and you don’t have to spend any time as an author making people like your characters, because someone else has already done that hard work.
Essentially, that’s what E L James did. Based on another’s canon (regardless of how lame), took characters that didn’t belong to her and created a fan-base and parlayed that into a lot of money. Sure she did a find/replace job on all the names and the vampires are gone, but she’s tweaked it just enough so it reads exactly like you’d think fan-fic would read.
Fifty Shades of Grey is, for all intents and purposes, the Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge of slashfic, and from the chapters I’ve read, just as poorly executed.
It also crosses a line that is troubling.
Despite what Vintage (publisher) says, it is not original fiction – and everyone knows it. It feels like intellectual property theft. 50 Shades of Grey is EL James’ Masters of the Universe (Twilight AUAH Fan-fiction, with the names changed on the off chance that the lawyers of Little, Brown start sniffing).
Need proof? Ever wonder how professors catch the plagiarizers who turn in gently used essays? They employ a few bits of software, like Turnitin to highlight similarities between original uploaded work, and a new student’s work. Dear Author.com did that with passages of 50 Shades of Grey and the original fan-fic Masters of the Universe. Their findings?
Vintage says of MOTU and 50 Shades, “they were and are two distinctly separate pieces of work.” Turnitin says they are 89% the same.
As one commenter pointed out, if this were a student’s essay, it would be enough to get you kicked out of the class and possibly expelled. Granted, this is E L James stealing her own work, but it’s an out and out lie that it’s an original story and different from the fan-fic piece, which at least had the decency to give a nod to the original creator, Stephenie Meyer – like all fan-fic sites do. There is always a disclaimer on the site that states that the characters and established universes belong to the original creator and the works posted on the site are for the free enjoyment of all with no infringement implied.
I’ll say it again – this isn’t about E L James plagiarizing herself – it’s about her original piece being Twilight Fan Fiction and her published work being so close to the same it makes no difference, but she gives no acknowledgement to Meyer’s work in the published (see her 7-figure price tag) book.
But for the grace of Meyer go thee, James.
50 Shades of Grey feels like infringement. As the kids these days say, it’s “filing the numbers” off Twilight and passing it off as an original creation. While other fan-fiction authors have gone on to make it big, one thing they didn’t do was take the fan-fiction that gave them their start and publish it. They created their own universes with their own characters and proved their worth as storytellers.
I had a discussion about the evolution of ideas because it is said nothing is original anymore. I completely agree that ideas evolve and become something that is a shade of what it was (see what I did there), but is still it’s own entity. Stoker gave us Dracula, who spawned Rice’s Lestat and Louis, who spawned Meyer’s Edward. Dante and Goethe gave us Inferno and Faust, which spawned Jigsaw and Pinhead. These are ideas that evolved and become something new.
What James did was basically take a cat, shave off its fur, dye it green, and called it a Felynx. She did not create a new cat and at the same managed to piss off a lot of cat lovers.
Hell, Pride Prejudice and Zombies is the Jane Austen novel with the situations changed to eat the innocent, but Seth Grahame-Smith came right out and said – look what we did with Jane’s story, and then he gave her a co-credit. It’s her story, her characters – he just put zombies with them.
I have a feeling that we haven’t heard from Meyer’s or Little, Brown’s team of attorneys because intellectual property and copyright, along with fair use laws are still murky at best. However when we will, I think the only people that will ultimately suffers are the fan-fiction writers who discover that what once was tolerated by their favorite authors stands to be shut down with a C&D.
If I had my say, E L James’ best bet would be to acknowledge the origins, get permission from Meyer and Little, Brown, call 50 Shades an “alternate adaptation”, and pay a franchise fee. Then this all goes away.
She won’t, but it’s not like anyone expected any better.