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Sep. 10th, 2007

Creative Commons and Fanfic

I'm in the process of processing several of my short SF stories for release as free downloads, and in doing so I've been reviewing the Creative Commons licensing scheme. CC is an effort to add some richness to our ancient and somewhat blunt-instrumentish copyright laws, in order to allow creative people to grant some rights to their works without having to grant all rights, or else no rights. The CC license is granular, with a grid of grantable rights and restrictions that may be selected in various combinations by the creator/rightsholder. The CC licensing scheme is a little more complex for music than for written works, and in this posting (not being in the music biz) I'll restrict my comments to the realm of text and images.

For example, I'll shortly be releasing several stories under the attribution/noncommercial/verbatim license. This allows free distribution, providing:

  1. Attribution to me is retained;
  2. The work is not distributed as part of a commercial product; and
  3. The work is distributed as I released it, without modification.

There's more to it than that, and if you're a writer, illustrator, or photgrapher, I encourage you to read up on it.

My point today is this: In reading over the Creative Commons site, it occurred to me that there is no provision for granting or retaining fanfic rights under CC. I suspect that this is simply because fanfic (while ancient in some respects) has gotten big only recently. Many huge fights have been fought (and are being fought) over fanfic. An unambiguous legal vehicle allowing the selective granting of fanfic rights would be a very good thing to have.

This is being done. Paramount has for years granted a sort of non-commercial fanfic license to the Star Trek characters, designs, and trademarks. I recently saw an episode of Star Trek: The New Voyages that was a low-budget but pretty effective fan remake of my favorite Trek episode ever, "The Doomsday Machine." (It was retitled "In Harm's Way.") This was done with Paramount's blessing, under the proviso that no profit was to be taken from the effort, and the produced material would be given away rather than sold.

It would be good to have some crisp legal framework within which we could do that without having to call in the lawyers. I'd like to suggest three different fanfic licensing components:

  • Fanfic is permitted with attribution of the original work and author.
  • Fanfic is permitted as long as the works are given away rather than sold.
  • Fanfic is permitted with the approval of each fanfic work by the rightsholder.

The first two should be obvious. The third component allows rightsholders to exclude fanfic that is crude, obscene or in some other way harms the reputation of the original work, and perhaps fanfic that (even within the spirit of the original work) overlaps or contradicts characters, situations or story arcs that the rightsholder would like to "keep clean" as they were created—or intends to pursue him/herself in the future.

The third license implies some sort of "approved by the rightsholder" bug to be placed in the distributed copy of a fanfic work.

Charlie Stross has said emphatically that "Your fans are not the enemy." It's obvious to me that fanfic is a great way for authors to broaden the reach of their works, and authors should have a framework to make fanfic possible legally, to the degree that they choose to support it. I am not anything like a lawyer, but there are lawyers who have worked on the Creative Commons licenses, and I hope that eventually they work out something within CC to make fanfic legally and unambiguously supportable.