Toeing the line of fanfiction

6 years ago | mathtans (Member)

I don't expect an answer to this, because I don't think there is one, but I'm curious about people's opinions. At what point is the switch flipped from "fanfiction" to "original work"? I know you're definitely in the former if you're using a story, setting or character from an otherwise original work of fiction. But what if you're only using a race? Or a type of robot? Or a device, like a lightsaber? When do you cross the line?

The context for why I'm asking is because I finally decided to submit my current story efforts to WFG, and one of them was rejected for being fanfic. Understand that I'm totally fine with this ruling - my only immediate worry being that moderators will think I'm an idiot for not reading the guidelines, when that's not it - I just honestly hadn't considered it as fanfic. But it's true that one of the main characters is a Time Lord, with a TARDIS. No characters of "Doctor Who" appear, the setting is definitely not the same universe (seeing as how they discuss "Doctor Who" being a TV show), and the story is my flavour of bonkers - yet one of the main characters is a Time Lord. In retrospect, I can see it, given that I didn't create that mythos, but anyone keen on reading "Doctor Who" fanfiction really doesn't have much of an entry point. (Thus I've created the worst sort of fanfiction! No one will read it!) Hence, the curiosity - if I write a story about Cylons, not cool, but if I simply change them to robots, are we all good? Is it really that easy? I wonder.

Writing a Time Travel serial:
Writer of the personification of math serial:

Read responses...


  1. alex5927 (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    What do you think Fifty Shades is? Just change the names of everything, mix up a few of the rules, and from a technical standpoint, you're golden.

  2. D. D. Webb (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Yeah, if your work explicitly takes place in a pre-existing fictional universe, you're doing fanfiction. Changing the proper nouns is the minimum you have to do to get out of that box; if it's still pretty obvious what you're doing, then people are going to call you a plagiarist. To an extent, it depends on the source material. Cylons are pretty generic robots if you take away the history; Time Lords and TARDISes are very explicitly tied to that universe.

    On a related subject, has anyone read the Magic Ex Libris series of novels by Jim C. Hines? That's one that toes the fiction/fan fiction line to an extent I sometimes wonder how he was allowed to publish it. I do recommend them on the basis of quality alone, but I'd also be interested in hearing opinions from others familiar with the series.

    The Gods are Bastards Cowboys! Demons! Elves!
  3. Chris Poirier (Moderator)

    Posted 6 years ago

    My standard is simple: if you have created what copyright law would define as a derivative work, it's fanfic, and at the moment, we won't list it. By using the names "Time Lord" and "TARDIS" in your story, you have created a derivative work under copyright law. You don't legally own your story until you remove those words. And we won't list it.


    EDIT: As clarified in a later response, it's not the words themselves that are the problem, but their use as a story element in something that isn't an obvious parody of the original work.

  4. Chris Poirier (Moderator)

    Posted 6 years ago

    To clarify, under copyright law, the ownership of a derivative work goes to the author of the original work. In this case, the BBC owns your story. There are exceptions to the derivative work rule, the most notable ones being literary commentary and parody. Your story did not appear to qualify for the exceptions.

  5. mathtans (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Alex - Yeah, I know the whole "50 Shades is Twilight" deal, there were tons of articles about it back in 2012. In particular, the idea that a work needs to be "transformative" enough. Because I admit, I don't think I would have made the connection without it having been effectively pre-released as fanfic... not that I read either book. What I'm wondering is, where was the tipping point? Names wouldn't be enough. Was it removing the vampires? Making the characters older?

    I think DD's remark about the source material is an interesting point, some things being more iconic (and thus easier to identify) than others. Even if you're in a galaxy far, far, away (itself suspicious), if someone there turns a DeLorean into a time machine, there's probable cause even if literally everything else is different. I will argue that simply using names isn't enough though, is it? You need names and context, as surely having your characters watching pop culture movies and inventing their own "lightsaber" or a device they describe as "like a TARDIS" isn't enough. Sort of the difference between a derivative work, and a shout out?

    To be clear once again, I'm not arguing against the ruling (if anything I'm agreeing with it), just find it interesting that it hadn't crossed my mind until now. Maybe I'm just too used to puns and parody, thus getting tripped up by the ramifications of playing it straight for once!

    Writing a Time Travel serial:
    Writer of the personification of math serial:
  6. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    There's actually one more shade in between the two, I think.

    If you are writing in a pre-existing universe, and the writing is not officially recognized by the creator(s), it's fan fiction (it's also a derivative work). If you are writing in a pre-existing universe, and the writing is authorized (for example, Larry Niven authorized a number of books in the Known Space universe, Isaac Asimov did the same thing for his Foundation series, and then there are all the Star Trek and Star Wars universe books) then it's not fan fiction per se but it may not be entirely canonical either (but it is still a derivative work--it's probably also licensed work, though I'm not entirely sure that's the correct terminology).

    If you're the creator of the setting and you write in it, it's not a derivative work because it's your work.

    By using the names "Time Lord" and "TARDIS" in your story, you have created a derivative work under copyright law. You don't legally own your story until you remove those words. And we won't list it.

    That's not necessarily true -- not the part about it not being listed here, your authority is supreme on that part -- but about the derivative work part. You can get away with making Doctor Who references as long as they are clearly pop culture references. My wife has run across a lot of urban fantasy books that refer to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, and the reference is specifically in the context of a person talking about something that happened in one of their favorite TV shows.

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  7. Chris Poirier (Moderator)

    Posted 6 years ago

    @ubersoft: Yes, certainly you can make pop culture references without it being a derivative work. I wasn't intending to imply anybody owns the words themselves. In this case, the story includes a character who is referred to as a "Time Lord" and who rides around in something called a "TARDIS", which, in the opening passages, materializes into a London street. If I remember correctly. Without written permission from the copyright holder (ie. the BBC), or an obvious copyright exemption (literary commentary, parody, etc.), any court in any western country would find that sufficient cause to rule the story derivative of Doctor Who, and that the copyright belongs to the BBC.

  8. Nina Santucci (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    I would consider that fanfiction. Maybe an AU or spinoff, but definitely fanfiction, since you didn't create the concepts of Time Lords or the Tardis. Like ubersoft said, if you gave a nod to the Tardis or something (like have your MC going, "Well, it's a good time machine, but it certainly isn't any Tardis!") then that is obviously just a reference that a fandom would get, which can be pretty fun.

    I wrote fanfiction all the time, my story here on WFG is my first original work, and I learned a lot with fanfic but I think it is good to push yourself and come up with your own concepts. It can be a pain but it also helps you grow as a writer, instead of relying on the world and the popularity other works have achieved.

    Fooled - Never underestimate the Jester!
  9. Alexander.Hollins (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    There is also "pastiche" which is fan fiction thats SOOOO close, but you change a few things JUST enough.

    For example, there was a serial a while back about Doctor Katherine Hu, a time traveling woman who's machine was a L.O.R.D.

  10. Oniwasabi (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    The line you seek is narrow and somewhat murky. Many works have been actually published that are so close to plagiarism that it's astounding no one was sued. Using your example; your main character is a Time Lord and he travels around in a TARDIS. Now unless this is going to be very blatantly a giant Dr Who parody story, you've crossed the line into fanfic/derivative work. If you write about Cylons, but change the name to something else, then it's quite possible that you are now writing an original work (even if your Robots are very obviously based on Cylons). However, if you are basically re-writing an episode of Battlestar Galactica and you just changed the names around, not cool.

    As a rule of thumb; avoid using unique proper nouns (TARDIS and Cylon are good examples) in your fiction unless it is intended to be a parody or pop-culture reference. Ones like Time Lord and Light Saber are a little trickier, because it's normal words that have effectively become proper nouns when referencing certain sci-fi settings. It's safer to avoid these ones when you can, but as they get more and more generic (Space Marines had a fight over whether the name was trademarkable in fiction a little while ago, for example) you might end up co-opting a term someone else has used before, and that's usually not going to be a problem.

    As you get into more vague material, the line blurs more. At this point it's pretty safe to say that you can include Elves and Dwarves or Orcs and Goblins in just about any fantasy work, as they've shown up in so many places that I don't think anyone could realistically claim them as their own. When a race defines a series (like Time Lords) or is unique to a single setting (No Klingons outside the Star Trek universe please), then including them is pretty much going to make your work a derivative/fan-based.

    Overall, my advice (if you want it): Don't TRY to toe the line. Try to keep as far away from that damned line as you can with your original works. Be inspired by things, and include things based on those inspirations, but do everything you can to make them yours and yours alone.
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