Whose Characters Are They Anyway?

I know the title of this entry might seem awfully silly and obvious, but the characters in the Twilight Saga belong to Stephenie Meyer and to some extent, in regards to the movies, to Summit Entertainment.

So why are we bringing this up? Every now and then we get a teenager emails us wanting to know if we’d feature their Stephenie Meyer product that they are producing and they want to be paid for. They figure if Hot Topic has stuff why can’t they sell theirs. Once in a blue moon we get a teen who wants to publish their Twilight story. The short answer here is that you can’t do those things for profit because the characters belong to Stephenie Meyer and unless you have some type of specific licensing agreement or contract with her and Little Brown ( like Hot Topic, Summit, Borders, NCEA, Cafepress, etc. ) you can’t do this. She holds the intellectual property rights over her characters (copyright, trademark depending on what we are talking about) until such time as they go into the public domain. We then let the teen in a nice way know that despite their gusto, what they want to do is illegal.

So when do things hit public domain? According to US law (and other nations have highly similar laws) works created after January 1, 1978, are automatically protected from the moment of their creation and are given a term lasting for the author’s life, plus an additional 70 years after the author’s death. So folks, the earliest that anyone can profit from Stephenie Meyer’s work without her say so (assuming she met a sudden untimely end today) would be 2079. Suffice it to say, many of us will be long dead.

Let’s put this into simple terms: The loose ideas of vampires feasting on animal blood instead of human, vampires needing to stay out of the sun, the Quileute Tribe in La Push, shape shifting werewolves, etc. are not copyrightable until you lump enough together and make them uniquely yours. In other words a werewolf of the Quileute tribe whose name is Jacob Black and whose mortal enemy is a vampire named Edward Cullen who drinks animal blood, sparkles in the sun, and resides in Forks…(deep breath)…IS COPYRIGHT STEPHENIE MEYER. Think of it like TV series that try to imitate each other where they have similar types, but in the end, each series’ characters uniquely belong to that series and their creators.

The only thing you can legally do with these characters is something highly transformational like parody, such as what Saturday Night Live does in its spoofs, or a critique piece, and even then, you have to be careful on how much source material you quote. Writing a summary of facts (see the story of the Harry Potter Lexicon debacle) or writing a continuation is derivative and therefore illegal without permission.

As far as fanfiction goes. It absolutely infringes on copyright, but most authors are willing to look the other way on it as long as you are not trying to directly profit from it yourself. In other words you can’t self-publish your fanfic and sell it on Amazon or Ebay, at least not legally.  Other authors, do not just look the other way, two such examples of vampire writers are Anne Rice and J.R. Ward.

Is fanfic helpful? Maybe, there are current authors who used to write fanfic, Meg Cabot and Cassandra Clare are two examples. However, merits of their work aside, these authors never tried to publish things that weren’t theirs for profit. They knew better. If publishing fanfic were legal you can bet that Cassandra Clare would have published both her Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter fanfiction for huge profit, given the number of her followers, years ago.

Why are we bringing all this up now? Well this past month a 36-year-old fan fic writer who has her own publishing company (AV Paranormal) and given that fact, should know better, tried to publish her post-Breaking Dawn fanfic entitled “Russet Noon” on Ebay. She sent multiple press releases out on the matter; each one was more delusional than the next all containing gross misrepresentations of copyright law.  Frankly we keep baffling at these conservations that she supposedly had with her publisher that she keeps mentioning in her press releases since she is her publisher. Does she do it via an out of body experience?

At one point she linked her site to the Lexicon as if to suggest that we approved of this fiasco. (You can see how we dealt with her in the comments section here.). You can see how other industry professionals categorized her folly:

Lee Goldberg, Hollywood screen writer and blogger

How Publishing Really Works, industry blog and resource site

Well, we thought, that the author of this had finally seen the light when she self-deleted her website, and removed her novel from Ebay. Honestly we weren’t going to give her any press other than to point out her lunacy to Jaden for his commentary until today when she issued yet another press release.

It seems that she still hasn’t figured out what she did was illegal and has a great woe is me interview going on over here. Before someone else gets suckered by this adult, college-educated woman’s, “The big bad powers that be are ganging up on poor little me” and “now I’ll just have to publish it online for free” routine (AKA: what every other fanfic writer gets to do minus the whine and delusion), we decided to speak up.

So, in the interest of having the other fanfic writers out there (currently 74,107 on fanfiction.net alone), if you have a recommendation for a fanfic that isn’t bombarding the Twilight sites with press releases, put it in the comments.