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Can you write fan fiction without violating copyright law?

You’ve always wanted to see a darker side of Harry Potter, imagining him developing a dangerous crush on the sadistic, tempestuous Bellatrix Lestrange. Realistically, though, you know that storyline would never have seen the light of day – until you wrote it yourself and suddenly you became the author of fan fiction.

Creating your own story around characters in an existing work or works – be it a novel, movie, television series, etc. – is termed fan fiction, fanfic or simply fic. Uniting characters in storylines from different bodies of work are called crossovers in the fan fiction world.

Watch out for more than just plagiarism

Some writers have become rather well-known for penning these creative stories but have they crossed the line when it comes to copyright laws? Laws pertaining to copyright usually protect the original creators of the work from anyone not only plagiarizing the work but also from stealing characters, storylines, settings and even any fictional languages that have been created.

Some fan fiction is very well done but that doesn’t mean it will be smooth sailing when it comes to copyright and what constitutes “fair use.” The law is very definitive when it comes to using works without permission of the original copyright owner. Since fan fiction has become incredibly popular with more and more websites created to its devotion, authors of original creations have begun to take notice when their storylines have been altered and republished by fans.

Not all copyright holders react the same to fan fiction

Many authors of original works frown on fan fiction, actually having sued fans for copyright infringement, while others encourage their fans to write fan fiction based on their characters. J. K. Rowling, the author of the aforementioned Harry Potter series of books, has said she is flattered that people take time to write their own stories.  

Writing fan fiction in itself is not the problem – the way it is shared is. To be on the safe side, those who do write fan fiction should get permission from the copyright holder before they either post online or publish any work. Charging money for fan fiction will only add fuel to a potential fire.

How to ensure your rights are protected

It is extremely important to understand your rights pertaining to copyright law when it comes to penning fan fiction. When it comes to “fair use,” the closer you can answer “yes” to these questions, the safer you will be in terms of copyright infringement: am I creating something new? Will my use have little or no market impact on the work that is copyrighted? Is the portion of the work I am using small in amount and significance when it comes to the entire work? Is the copyrighted work factual? And Is the copyrighted work in the public domain – something a lawyer experienced in business and commercial law can help you determine if you’re unsure.