Star Trek fans pose for a photo outside of DragonCon in Atlanta. Fan-written stories about the characters from Star Trek helped launch the fan fiction phenomenon.

Star Trek fans pose for a photo outside of DragonCon in Atlanta. Fan-written stories about the characters from Star Trek helped launch the fan fiction phenomenon.

Movies, television shows and books build entire worlds with characters, and now more than ever, fans are expanding those worlds. Fan fiction can build a relationship between a creator and the fan base, inspire new material and even raise legal issues.

Guests

  • Amber Davisson Assistant professor, Keene State College
  • Petra Mayer Editor, NPR Books
  • Rebecca Tushnet Professor, Georgetown Law; legal aid, Organization for Transformative Works
  • Katherine Larsen Professor, George Washington University; author, "Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirl."

Interview Highlights

What is fan fiction?

“Fan fiction is when fans take works they love and attempt to expand the universe by creating new things out of it,” says Professor Amber Davisson. She gives an example from a book that’s inspired a lot of fan fiction online. “You start with the characters from Harry Potter, but you expand the relationships those characters’ have, you may place them in a universe, you may give them new powers, you may write new stories for them; you may put new characters into the story.”

How did fan fiction start?

Professor Katherine Larsen says fan fiction is nothing new, tracing it back to the end of the 19th century. “I’d argue that it’s been around a very long time, going back at least to Sherlock Holmes fan fiction.” People viscerally connect with the fandoms they love, “I think on a very basic level we just love to revisit certain characters and certain stories are really compelling.”

Where do people find fan fiction?

“Lots of fandoms will have their own specific sites,” says NPR book editor Petra Mayer. “I think there are two major places you can start. One is fanfiction.net, the other is Archive of Our Own.”

Does fan fiction infringe on copyright law? Is it plagiarism?

Rebecca Tushnet is a legal aid for the Organization for Transformative Works, whose mission is to protect fan-created content. She notes the differences between plagiarism and a copyright infringement: “Plagiarism is actually an ethical and academic concept. It’s the idea of not properly crediting your sources. Copyright is about protecting original expression. Usually copyright does extend to the derivate works – like the movie version of the book.” She continues, “The more usual situation with respect to fan fiction specifically is fair use.” That includes the question of if the fan fiction can “replace” the original; it often cannot.

About women writing fan fiction, and the “stigma” surrounding this particular type of geekdom:

Larsen takes issue with even using the word “stigma.” “That is where I would stop and say, just because it’s dominated by women that’s necessarily a stigma,” she says. Female fandom “seems to be something that we might want to embrace.”

Mayer, who has written about the romance genre, notes the similarities between the two. “Fan fiction and romance are both generally kind of associated with female writers. People tend to be ashamed if they like either one of them, and I feel like that has a lot to do with the identification of female writers and consumers.”

Tushnet agrees, “[The derision of fan fiction] reflects denigration of women and in particular women’s pleasure – and in particular grownup women’s pleasure; like we’re supposed to stop.”

“There’s a particular form of fandom that’s often times associated with expertise,” says Davisson, noting the differences between fandoms frequented by men and women. “It’s ok to be a football fan that knows all the statistics about your favorite player and about your favorite team. It’s even ok to be a fan of something like Star Trek or Star Wars where you know every single thing about the show. That kind of expertise is all about proving prowess, which tends to be very masculine in behavior,” she says. “I think there’s something different about female fandom which is about creating something new and putting yourself out there which makes you vulnerable. I think a lot of the feminity of that fandom comes from the vulnerability of making new things, whereas masculine fandom makes you feel like you are the expert in the room.”

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