Thursday, May 23, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Amazon Kindle Worlds

So the big news yesterday in the writing spheres was Amazon's announcement of its Kindle Worlds program.  In short, it's a program where fanfic writers can submit short stories set in the worlds of the shows Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl.  And with this announcement, the internet exploded.  "Get paid for fanfic?!?!"   Much concern and handwringing ensued.

Now, the reasoning behind Amazon and Alloy Entertainment doing this is pretty clear: this stuff exists, and therefore money can be made off of it.  And it certainly is easier for them to roll with these things existing and try and profit from it, instead of fighting upstream.  Plus there's Fifty Shades of Grey as a case study: its birth was as Twilight fanfic, a point which was used as a marketing tactic... but Twilight's author and publisher didn't profit from this.  So the lesson is simple: an avenue for profit is there, so ignoring it just lets someone else make that profit. 

One key point of concern I've seen out there is the terms of the agreement.  Yes, the fanfic writers get paid.  But anything new they add to the Worlds they play in is the property of Alloy Entertainment.  So if you write a story where you add in an additional Liar who isn't quite Pretty or Little*, or some other character who catches on and becomes a big thing... well, that's their character now.  So there's concern that they are snatching up your intellectual property for free.

Now, I see that point, but... I don't agree that it's a problem.  Because, yes, you made up a new character and that's you're baby, but... you made it specifically to play in that sandbox.  It's a character in that world,  for that world.  What else were you going to use it for?  And how much are you really giving up?

For example, I read a fair amount of Star Trek licensed fiction, and there are plenty of "new" characters who become key parts of the books, that never appeared in the books.  While whichever author came up with each one deserves a nod, they were made to be part of a shared universe.  Other authors picking up the ball and running with them has given them added depth.  Same thing if you create a new hero or villain writing for DC or Marvel.  You made it to be part of that sandbox. 

And there are cases where those licensed-but-not-canon additions find their way back to the source.  Por ejemplo, in Star Trek, the first names of Uhura and Sulu were never said on the show.  Nor what the "T" in "James T. Kirk" stood for.   Licensed fiction-- which had a pre-internet fanfictiony origin-- provided those gaps, which were later adopted by the canon.  That is pretty cool.  Now, does whichever author who came up with "Nyota Uhura"** deserve a paycheck because the latest movie used it? Or is the fact that she got paid for the book she wrote enough?

I mean, I've got no problem with people who write licensed fiction or fanfic, but if you are contributing to an existing property, you've got to embrace what that means.

*- I don't watch the show, so I don't know.
**- I want to say it was Vonda McIntyre with Strangers in the Sky, but I'm not 100% sure.***
***- Yes, I am a total geek.


Jc Farnham said...

People who enter into such a contract should do so knowing what they're getting into. And good luck to them. Really. Making money of something you enjoy is awesome.

My problem is the metaphorical flood gate this type of contract opens in the industry. My main concern is if this type of contract sets a precident. Then we'd have yet more "vanity" presses who try to force shoddy deals on their authors... not to mention what could happen in the world of copyright law.

Legitimising the grabbing of IP from authors isn't really a good thing (whatever the situation). And I'm not sure if "they knew what they were getting into" is a good enough excuse for publishers to push this particular envelope. It feels like taking advantage of a people who might not know better...

So on one hand you'll have those who don't mind, find fan fiction fun and will enjoy getting paid for it. On the other you'll have those who think of it as a way of getting noticed, don't realise exactly what they're handing over, and get annoyed at it. Then you'll have more seasoned authors that know a little about how contracts should work, who'll steer clear.

I'm torn by this whole situation. It's too divisive, right? It's looking like another case of "We can pull whatever we want, because who's going to stop us?"

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

Well, one question is, is the IP grab any different than what's standard for licensed fiction? I'm sure, say, Pocket Books uses a different contract for Trek books than for original material. It would have to. Is this really setting a new precedent?