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Copyright Law And Fanfiction

Navigating Copyright Law and Fanfiction: Your Ultimate Guide

Amrusha Chati

Amrusha Chati

11 December 20234 min read

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copyright law and fanfiction

Do the words "fic" or "fannish" stir something in you? If they do, chances are you're acquainted with the intriguing world of fan fiction. Maybe you're a fervent reader frequenting fan fiction websites. Or maybe you craft your own tales. Either way, fiction, or fanfic, is a fascinating form of fiction birthed by fans of an original work.

Picture this: in 2016, two massive fanfiction realms, Harry Potter and Star Wars, released movies that went off their main storyline. These ventured into spinoff territories. These stories aren't like regular fanfiction. They come from the owners of the original works. However, they still tell fanfiction stories in the same universe but not the main story.

"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" is a story in the "Potterverse" but separate from Harry Potter. "Star Wars Rogue One" is not part of the three main trilogies but is still in the Star Wars universe. Both tales introduced new characters and stories into their respective canons.

So, if you're a Potterhead or a Star Wars aficionado exploring fanfiction, understanding the intricacies of copyright law and fanfiction is crucial. This article explains author rights and avoids legal issues related to fanfiction.

Let's explore copyright law, especially rights in the United States. To have copyright protection in the US, a work must be original and visible to others. According to intellectual property laws, the creators have the special right to make new works based on their original creations.

But copyright doesn't shield every aspect of a work. Characters in fiction aren't usually protected by copyright unless they have unique qualities. For example, famous characters like Harry Potter or Star Wars icons are protected. This was established in the well-known Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corp case in 1930.

Copyright holders can stop fanfiction writers from using their settings or characters. Nevertheless, exceptions exist under fair use and with general permission from the author.

Decoding fair use

The fair use doctrine acts as a shield against copyright infringement. Courts evaluate several factors to determine fair use defense:

  • Purpose and character of use: Is it commercial or for nonprofit educational purposes?
  • Nature of the copyrighted work Is it a common idea that others have to use to create something else?
  • Amount and substantiality of the portion used: Is it a derivative work, or has the original been changed enough to come under "transformative works"?
  • Effect of use on the potential market or value of the copyrighted work: Does it take away from the original creator's economic opportunities?

Fanfiction that changes the original story may violate copyright laws and limit creativity. If fan fiction alters the original work, doesn't profit, uses only a small portion, and doesn't damage it, it may fall under fair use.

Consider E.L. James' journey from Twilight fanfiction to "Fifty Shades of Grey." Her story changed, turning Bella and Edward into Anastasia and Christian so she could make money without getting in trouble. Fanfiction authors need to maintain this balance for any derivative work.

Seeking permission

Some copyright holders like fanfiction, while others don't, or some don't care. Kindle Worlds is similar to Amazon's licensing agreements. Writers can earn money legally by using copyrighted characters and settings in fanfiction.

But when writing fanfiction, remember that the original creator still owns the rights to new elements. They might use them again later without paying you.

Public domain explained

Works in the public domain are free from copyright protection and can be freely used. However, this can often cause confusion in the world of internet fanfiction.

To find out if a work is in the public domain, you should know the following:

  • When was it made?
  • How long did the author live?
  • Copyright laws of the region where it was created.

Famous characters like Hercules, Tarzan, and Dracula are in the public domain. This means that other fans can create new works based on them.

Disclaimers and their limits

Even if disclaimers say no copyright infringement, fan works can still face legal consequences. Fanfiction violates copyright many times inadvertently. This happens when derivative works cross the line between inspiration and infringement.

Writers can use disclaimers to show where they got their ideas or inspiration. While commonly used, disclaimers don't negate copyright infringement claims.

All original works are automatically granted copyright upon inception. However, to legally enforce a copyright, it has to be registered with the US Copyright Office.

Safeguarding your creativity

Creating fanfiction is an art, but understanding the legal boundaries (to avoid copyright infringement!) is equally essential. Creators can avoid legal problems by seeking advice from a copyright lawyer.

Knowing copyright laws helps protect fanfic creators so their work stays a tribute, not a legal mess. So, may the force be with you as you weave your fanfiction magic!


Does fanfiction violate copyright laws?

Yes, in some cases, fanfiction could be considered copyright infringement if:


  • It derives too much from the original work. 
  • It has too many characters or plots that are similar to the original.
  • It competes directly with the commercial market for the original work.

Can authors write fanfiction for their own books?

Yes, published authors sometimes write fanfiction based on their own books. Some notable examples of this include Harry Potter fanfiction by JK Rowling and Game of Thrones fanfiction by George RR Martin.

Do fanfiction writers get paid?

Yes, there are some ways to make money off fanfiction writing, such as through freelance contracts or commissions. Occasionally, writers can even sell their fanfic to publishers. But for any of these uses, a writer should first ensure that their fanfic does not infringe on the original work's copyright.

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Amrusha is a versatile professional with over 12 years of experience in journalism, broadcast news production, and media consulting. Her impressive career includes collaborating extensively with prominent global enterprises. She garnered recognition for her exceptional work in producing acclaimed shows for Bloomberg, a renowned business news network. Notably, these shows have been incorporated into the esteemed curriculum of Harvard Business School. Amrusha's expertise also encompassed a 4-year tenure as a consultant at Omidyar Network, a leading global impact investing firm. In addition, she played a pivotal role in the launch and content strategy management of the startup Live History India.