“Fan” Fiction and Copyrighted Characters–Treading on Thin Ice

Photo by Can Stock Photo.

I had an interesting chat with another author at the recent Wild Wild Western Convention. He told me about a writer who apparently got into a some serious trouble with Paramount over some “fan fiction” he had written about Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. The story went that the writer had written a very adult Star Trek story, and Paramount had taken issue with the way their copyrighted characters had been used.

I remember when I was a teenager, Star Trek fan fiction was very popular, and, as I seem to recall, one of the reasons why Star Trek conventions started up in the first place was so the fans, or “Trekkies,” as they called themselves at the time, could share their fan stories. Of course, back then times were different. Authors wrote their fan fiction in conventional paper notebooks, so very few people probably ever read them. Traditional publishing, be it a book or magazine, was the only option at that time, so permission would have had to been obtained from the copyright holder before any fan fiction could be published. There was no Internet, no blogs, no self-publishing, and no eBooks.

Times have indeed changed, so it’s probably very tempting for the amateur writer of today to write his or her own Star Trek story in a blog or to post it on a fan forum. And while their motive may be one of sincerely paying homage to their favorite television show, their devotion could, potentially, get them into some very serious legal hot water. While I’m not an attorney and not purporting to be giving legal advice, it’s pretty much common knowledge that the legal rights to any artistic creation, including works of fiction, belong to the person who created it, or to a third party who may have purchased the rights from the original creator, and that would include rights to the characters as well as to the story.

Most of us who write fiction probably model our characters on people we know, or perhaps we base them on other fictional characters. Either way we do it, our characters should be very loosely modeled with plenty of other characteristics to make them unique. If Captain Kirk is your inspiration, then give your character a different age, background, physical description, or even change the race, ethnicity or gender. Above all else, be sure he, or she, has a completely different name. But if you really have your heart set on writing a Star Trek story, or of using other copyrighted characters, make sure you get permission first. Even if you’re not writing your story for monetary gain, it could still be considered copyright infringement.

My tip for the day,