Producing Fan Fiction in the Digital Age

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Post written by Anthony J. Noonan, Esq., Patent Attorney at Gearhart Law

               Fan fiction, the creation of derivative works by fans of an original work that incorporates elements of the original work and/or continues or expands upon a story described in the original work, has been around and published for many decades with little to no interference from the owners of the original work’s intellectual property.  However, over the last decade, there has been an expansion in the creation and widespread knowledge of fan fiction.  What was once only known by the most ardent of fans is now widely read, watched, or listened to by many people all across the globe.  This is partially due to the dawn of the internet age.  Fan-created books, movies, and audio recordings no longer need to be disseminated in physical form.  These fan-creations can now be cheaply uploaded online, becoming available to the entire globe nearly instantaneously.  With these derivative works now becoming mainstream, the owners of the original work’s intellectual property have begun to take notice and take steps to protect their intellectual property.

               One franchise that, for decades, has had a history of fans producing fan fiction is Star Trek.  With the dawn of YouTube, fan-made Star Trek series and movies have spawned, with ever increasing production values.  These fan-made series and movies have amassed a cult following and have occasionally starred actors reprising their roles from officially licensed series and movies. 

The popularity of these fan-made films eventually led to the production of a crowdfunded fan-made film with higher-than-normal production values and reprisals from actors from officially licensed Star Trek series and movies.  This led CBS and Paramount Pictures to file a lawsuit for violation of intellectual property rights (December 2015) and eventually release a set of guidelines (in 2016) for acceptable fan-made films based on their Star Trek intellectual property.  Their announcement reads, in part, “CBS and Paramount Pictures will not object to, or take legal action against, Star Trek fan productions that are non-professional and amateur and meet the following guidelines.”  (http://www.startrek.com/fan-films).  In January 2017, the above-mentioned lawsuit was settled out of court.

               Although these guidelines provide reasonable rules describing what can and cannot be done when producing a fan-made film and enable fans to continue to make fan-made films without having to pay royalties to the intellectual property owners, the guidelines are often met with disdain from the fan base for preventing many of them from producing the fan-made films that they so wished without repercussions. 

               As the popularity of fan fiction of every medium continues to grow, it is likely that more intellectual property owners will institute similar guidelines in attempts to appease fan bases while still maintaining control over the intellectual property.  It is also likely that further litigation will result from the production of fan fiction.

              

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