Should Authors Read Fanfiction of Their Work?

Flower on book by Sara A. Noe


This topic came up recently in a conversation, so I thought I would take an extra moment to write about it and share my thoughts from an author’s perspective. In this short post, I’ll give a quick overview about the legality of fanfiction and how it impacts authors.

Lab Rat first draft in the Chronicles of Avilesor series by Sara A. Noe

What is Fanfiction?

Fanfiction (fanfic), is unauthorized amateur writing that is based on an existing intellectual property. It features copyrighted characters, creatures, settings, et cetera and can range in size from a few sentences to a complete novel. The most common sources for fanfic include movies, comics, novels, television shows, cartoons, video games, anime, and manga.

That’s a gray area if you ask a lawyer. Technically speaking, if the copyright holder has not granted permission to use elements of their intellectual property OR if the work is not in the public domain, then no. Fanfiction is not legal and is considered copyright infringement.

I could, for example, write a story about the original version of Cinderella because it’s a public domain fairy tale. I could NOT use details from Disney’s version because they hold the copyright for their movie, including all elements that deviate from the original.

Under the fair use doctrine, it’s possible to use copyrighted work if you are criticizing, commenting upon, or parodying the original. If you are directly quoting the source, you must cite the source material. But be advised that “fair use” is rather ambiguous and can be difficult (not to mention expensive) to prove in court.

When I published my first novel, A Fallen Hero, I used eight words from the lyrics of “You Are My Sunshine.” Prior to releasing the book, I had contacted the copyright holder and requested permission to use this small snippet since I was using it in the context of a character singing the song, not a review or parody that would have fallen under the fair use doctrine.

Most of the fanfic posted online is not legal and was written/published without the permission or knowledge of the original creator of the intellectual property. And yet, fanfiction is very popular. It’s a fun way for a fan base to engage with each other and keep the story alive while they wait for the next official installment from the author. As long as you aren’t selling it, copyright holders generally aren’t going to come after you.

(Let me note here that I am NOT a lawyer, I am NOT providing legal advice, and I am NOT guaranteeing that you can publish fanfic without consequences.)

A copyright holder would have to send you a warning and takedown notice prior to pursuing legal action against you. If you fail to comply, then things might start getting messy.

Should Authors Read Fanfic of Their Own Work?

Here is where the conversation gets interesting for me. I’ve published three novels so far in my award-winning sci-fi/fantasy series, the Chronicles of Avilésor, and I’m preparing to publish the fourth book soon.

I certainly can’t speak for all authors, but I was extremely flattered a couple of years ago when a reader sent me a short fanfic piece she’d written featuring one of my characters. I considered it a badge of honor to have reached a new level in my career where people enjoyed my work enough to continue imagining my world and characters beyond the constraints of what I’d written in the pages of the novel.

But, after I enthusiastically shared this landmark achievement, a fellow writer who went to college with me sent me a private message with a kindhearted warning… and I understood that reading fanfic as an author came with some major risks. After that incident, I decided to make it a formal policy that, while I still appreciate fanfic, I would not read any more.

Fanfiction comes with legal risks for the fan… but there’s a flip side that opens the door to potential liabilities for the author as well. As my colleague pointed out, there’s a possibility that one of my upcoming novels could contain plot points or other elements that share similarities with a story that was written by a fan. Even if the fan made a lucky prediction and I’d already been planning to steer my series in that direction, I’d have no way of proving that I hadn’t gotten the idea from the fanfic, potentially opening myself up to legal trouble if the fan accused me of stealing their idea.

Some authors do enjoy fanfiction but will wait until after their series has concluded before reading it. Other authors consider fanfic to be a theft of their intellectual property and want nothing to do with it. Regardless of preferences, it’s usually best to air on the safe side and NOT send a copy or link of your fanfic to an author, as there’s a good chance you could be inadvertently causing potential harm.

(I do enjoy seeing fan art, though!)

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I'm an award-winning fantasy author, artist, and photographer from La Porte, Indiana. My poetry, short fiction, and memoir works have been featured in various anthologies and journals since 2005, and several of my poems are available in the Indiana Poetry Archives. The first three novels in my Chronicles of Avilésor: War of the Realms series have received awards from Literary Titan.

After some time working as a freelance writer, I was shocked by how many website articles are actually written by paid "ghost writers" but published under the byline of a different author. It was a jolt seeing my articles presented as if they were written by a high-profile CEO or an industry expert with decades of experience. I'll be honest; it felt slimy and dishonest. I had none of the credentials readers assumed the author of the article actually had. Ghost writing is a perfectly legal, astonishingly common practice, and now, AI has entered the playing field to further muddy the waters. It's hard to trust who (or what) actually wrote the content you'll read online these days.

That's not the case here at On The Cobblestone Road. I do not and never will pay a ghost writer, then slap my name on their work as if I'd written it. This website is 100% authentic. No outsourcing. No ghost writing. No AI-generated content. It's just me... as it should be.

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