Amazon’s Worlds for Authors and the grey area that is fan fiction

Amazon recently announced the creation of Kindle Worlds for Authors, a publishing platform for fan fiction, currently restricted to Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and Pretty Little Liars, and expected to launch soon. Amazon is obviously hoping to cash in on the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, originally written as fan fiction of the Twilight Series, as are the rights holders themselves, who will share in the royalties.

Fan fiction falls into a grey area of copyright law: characters and personalities are not copyrightable, only the expression of them. Thus, one can write a whole new book based on a Twilight character, and may do so without permission from Stephanie Meyers and without any compensation to her, so long as you do not lift any of the original text and use it in your book, a feat that can be difficult, which is why fan fiction often crosses the line into infringement. But there have been many literary and cinematic examples of established characters, both real and imagined, used in new works that do not infringe the copyright of anyone else.

What makes the Kindle Worlds for Authors interesting, then, is the compensation paid to the original author and the right to incorporate the fan fiction into the original author’s later works without compensation to the fan fiction author, and which allows other Kindle Worlds authors to build on the fan fiction author’s work, again without further compensation:

We will allow Kindle Worlds authors to build on each other’s ideas and elements. We will also give the World Licensor a license to use your new elements and incorporate them into other works without further compensation to you.

One must also grant Amazon an exclusive licence to publish, and, more worrying still, “Amazon Publishing will acquire all rights to your new stories, including global publication rights, for the term of copyright.”

If this sounds a bit one-sided in favour of the original author and Amazon, you would be right. Full details of the contract are not yet available, but what is available is already cause for worry, especially the term-of-copyright clause. Fan fiction authors should ask themselves why they would avail themselves of this “offer” when fan fiction itself is not necessarily a violation of copyright. I am also concerned — in fact, I expect — that the contract will include an automatic licence to all subsequent works based on the original fan fiction work.

There are also creative restrictions placed upon the fan fiction author:

World Licensors have provided Content Guidelines for each World, and your work must follow these Content Guidelines… your story and all the new elements must stay within the applicable World… No crossovers from other Worlds are permitted….

Perhaps oddest of all is the restriction against “offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts.” So either Amazon doesn’t want the next Fifty Shades — the success of which was clearly the impetus behind this new endeavour — or Amazon will now be the arbiter of what is “offensive.”

What the platform appears to do, then, is deliberately restrict fan fiction authors to the original world in order to ensure that publication outside of the platform would likely fall into copyright infringement. Authors of fan fiction-inspired works should ask themselves if these creative restrictions are desired, and whether you wouldn’t be better off creating a whole new world for a familiar character and possibly creating your own successful franchise.

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