In Defense of Fanfiction

Stefan Bartram-Lee

August 3, 2022


Ask the average reader how many Harry Potter books there are and they’ll tell you "Seven!" without a second thought. A more passionate fan who thinks this might be a trick question may inflate that number, taking into account some spin-off publications. But, if by "Harry Potter Novels", we mean published narrative texts of more than 40,000 words set in the world of Harry Potter, the real answer to the question is far closer to 70,000 than it is to 7.


We might dispute the use of the word "published", which conventionally means printed by a traditional publisher, appearing in all good bookstores, and so on. What I mean by "published" in this case is something more generic, merely that someone has put it somewhere where it can be accessed by the public. These works, over 70,000 are accessible online and for free. They are a prominent example of what is normally called "fanfiction".That it is free availability is one of the most interesting facts about fanfiction, in showing how far capitalism has developed and what it can offer to us. Yet, it also how in the end how nothing can escape from the commodity regime within it.


Fanfiction is a form of literature written in fictional worlds by people other than the copyright holder and those approved by the copyright holder. Some of these works are very close retellings or alternative narratives. For instance, one example might follow the same plot as the original text but have the protagonist as a girl rather than a boy. Other examples are known as expansions, for instance, filling in the story of a background character that was only sketched in distant detail in the copyrighted works. Sometimes, fanfiction publications are highly divergent works, classic examples of which would be publications that retain the characters but change the world they live in nearly entirely, or where the world is retained as is but a whole new set of characters play out their stories in it.


Copyright History


The legal status of fanfiction is generally ambiguous, with some authors being firmly set against fanfiction, while others are relatively welcoming, but a basic principle is that you cannot profit from making fanfiction. You cannot sell it, and you cannot do any kind of nearby activities. This fact, its inherent decommodification, has not dampened the creation of these works at all. Since 2008 Archive of Our Own, a non-profit set up to promote and defend what they call "transformative works", has archived over 9,000,000 stories, with an even larger number on fanfiction.net.


The idea that some entity, human or otherwise, can own not just a story, but a character, a world, is something we now take for granted. But, as with many things we take for granted, this is not an eternal or natural fact. In reality, this only became the way things are done and the form of how things are enforced in the past few hundred years. As it came to be, at some point this system will come to an end, and fanfiction is an indication of this potential future.


I don’t want to shock you dear reader, but Homer, the father of literature, didn't own a mite of intellectual property - although as a legendary figure himself perhaps someday someone will own Homer, and perhaps Greece will sell him, possibly as an NFT. Homer did not own Achilles, nor Odysseus. If someone retold his stories, verbatim, or altered them in various ways, for profit, or otherwise, he would have had no legal recourse. We could wonder how he managed to make a living. The model of retelling, exp