Writing fan fiction is a popular hobby in California and most other areas of the country. While many writers create fan stories for personal enjoyment, there are others who choose to publish their work online. Some even attempt to charge money for their stories. What many people may not realize is that most fan fiction violates copyright protections, even if it is not sold for profit.
In 2016, the Los Angeles Times reported that Paramount Pictures and CBS initiated a copyright infringement lawsuit against a Star Trek fan film. The makers raised over $1 million through crowdfunding platforms for their “Star Trek: Axanar” film and planned to market and distribute it as a professional production. As part of the lawsuit settlement, the amateur production company admitted their work violated copyright boundaries and agreed to follow Paramount’s guidelines for fan-film content.
There are nuances to copyright law that may complicate legal actions related to fan fiction. In many cases, the determination of whether a work violates copyright comes down to how it relates to fair use or public domain law. According to FindLaw, determining fair use involves answering many specific questions. For example, reporting on or reviewing original works is legal under fair use law. Creating a parody may be an acceptable form of fair use, but only if the fan fiction writer adds content, such as social commentary, to the original work. The publication year of the original work may also affect whether it is part of the public domain.
Not every work of fan fiction ends up in court. In many cases, copyright owners choose to ignore fan-made content, especially if there are no monetary profits involved. However, this may not change the fact that many fan fiction works are copyright violations. Determining how copyright protections apply to original and derivative works may help both creators and fans to avoid litigation.