Intellectual Property vs Inspiration

A little book hit the shelves recently, called Fifty Shades of Grey.  The racy trilogy by Australian author E L James has spent nine weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List for combined eBook and print fiction.  The sequential two books have been steadfastly trailing along in second and third.  Prior to its success as a print book, readers had already been clamoring to read the series in eBook format, downloading it hundreds of thousands of times.

Since then, James received six-figure advances for US print publishing rights, UK and Commonwealth, as well as film rights.

What may not be immediately apparent is that Fifty Shades of Grey began as a piece of Twilight fanfiction.  E L James took Stephenie Meyer’s characters of Bella and Edward and reimagined them in an alternate universe for the basis of Fifty Shade of Grey.  So the question becomes, as Jason Boog states for NPR:

“Does the book owe more than just character names to Twilight? Even though the names and relationships have changed, Fifty Shades of Grey reproduced the mad thrill of reading Twilight, the moody relationship at its core and the endless emotional analysis.”

Boog further speculates that this may be a trend that publishers are going to have to tread lightly around as they hope to also capitalize on the series’ popularity.  But the larger implication is on authors’ intellectual property.  Authors are a divided camp when it comes to fanfiction of their works.  Some openly support it, such as Cory Doctorow, Neil Gaiman, and JK Rowling.  Others are staunchly against seeing their characters and environments used by others, most notably Anne Rice and George R.R. Martin, whose arguments against focus on legal copyright and intellectual property.

Writers of fanfic generally are under no disillusion that they’re using someone else’s creations, often including on sites such as disclaimers that they don’t own the original source or characters within.  James’ story created a new environment for the Twilight protagonists, set in modern day Seattle, also changing the relationship between the two and molding it into a different story.  Others writers have used fanfiction as a launching pad, such as YA author Cassandra Clare, who cut her chops writing Harry Potter fanfic.  Her popular fanfic was not adapted for mainstream publishing; she instead wrote a new original series.

The issue with Fifty Shades of Grey is that at its heart, it and its characters were inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s works, begging the question of where to draw the line between copyright infringement and an inspired homage.  Is Fifty Shades of Grey a derivative of Twilight or can it be seen as an original work?  It is, admittedly, a rather grey area that can’t be answered simply.

Vintage Books included a disclaimer acknowledging the book’s fanfiction origins, and the original fanfic has been removed.  As self-publishing continues to rise in popularity there’s a likelihood that more works based on fanfiction or existing IPs will crop up, and the definition between derivation and influence may need to become more black and white.