Consdering that, until very recently, (hereafter referred to as fpnet) did not exist as a separate entity, it's a pretty good bet that most writers on this site cut their teeth over on (ffnet). And probably a majority still write fanfic to a greater or lesser extent. Which all begs the question: is fanfic justifiable in the first place?

You might think that an odd question to be asking here, especially given that I've written the occasional bit of fanfic myself. And in brief, my answer is, as you'd expect it to be, "yes". But the subject is, I think, worth discussing, as there are issues arising out of it that apply even within the fanfic community, but especially as original authors' attitudes to fans writing their own stories based on their work vary so wildly. Let's start by considering that very point.

At one extreme, you have those authors who have made it crystal clear that they do not want to see any fanfic at all. You'll see a list of these whenever you submit a story over on ffnet, and perhaps the best known example (most infamous, some fans might say) is Anne Rice, author of well- known works such as the Vampire Chronicles. She nailed her colours (various shades of black, presumably) firmly to the mast when she stated on her own website that "I do not allow fanfiction", and that the mere thought of fanficcers using her characters was "terribly upsetting". (I don't know if the statement is still there, as her website is terribly badly designed, and takes so long to load that I gave up.)

That anti-fanfic statement wasn't just for show, though - there were lawyers' letters too, as authors of Anne Rice-based fanfics (known as "specs") can attest. Such actions might seem excessive, but in law (as we'll see later) Rice is completely justified in what she has done. So ffnet really had no option but to cease to accept fanfics based on her work. There are still specs around elsewhere on the web, but you have to hunt pretty hard for them.

There are other authors who clearly take the same view, but don't go quite as far as Rice's all-out attack. That doesn't necessarily mean that they're better disposed towards fanfic, though - they may simply feel that they have better things to do with their lawyers. And in some cases - Lindsey Davis, author of the superb Falco novels, springs to mind - they're such terrifying people anyway that a well-directed hard stare would reduce anyone to quivering jelly.

In the second group, we have the great mass of authors - the overwhelming majority - who have never said anything on the subject in public. There are several reasons why this might be, the most obvious being that they may simply be unaware that such a thing exists. Fanfic is overwhelmingly an online phenomenon, and even in the twenty-first century, there are authors - highly successful ones, at that - who do not use the internet at all. And even if they do, it might well only be for emailing their publishers. It might also be that said authors have seen the size of the fanfic-writing community, and have judged that annoying so many thousands of their fans is not perhaps such a great idea. Finally, there are bound to be some authors who simply don't mind very much one way or the other.

The third category is the most interesting. Occasionally you will get an anti-fanficcer state baldly that no successful published author supports the idea of fanfic. Wrong. JK Rowling is, I think you'll agree, a reasonably well-known writer, and she has said that she finds the volume of Harry Potter fanfic flattering. Terry Pratchett, too, has said that he doesn't mind Discworld fanfic, so long as a few simple guidelines are adhered to - namely, that the fanficcer makes no money out of their fic, that it's made obvious that Pratchett himself had nothing to do with the story and that it's not shoved in his face so he can't avoid it.

This last point is an interesting one. One of the reasons sometimes given by authors as to why they don't like fanfic is that eternal worry, fear of litigation - that if they read a fanfic, then years later write a story with a vaguely similar theme, they'll be sued by the fanficcer for breach of copyright. Don't laugh; it could happen. Sadly lawyers have encroached more and more into the literary field in recent years, to the extent that many people now feel it necessary to gain explicit permission even to quote half a line of a song in passing in a novel. That, frankly, is just plain silly. But you can't really blame the authors, very few of whom are rich enough to afford a long legal battle, for being jumpy. It's perhaps notable that both JK Rowling and Terry Pratchet can afford expensive lawyers, which might have something to do with their relatively relaxed outlooks.

We now need to look at what the law actually says. I'm British, so the US laws that are normally quoted in discussions on this subject don't apply. (Actually, they do on fpnet and ffnet, as they are both American-hosted sites, so technically we're all publishing in the US, but I'm speaking more generally in this case.) Instead English and EU laws need to be considered. The most important EU law here pertains to when a piece goes out of copyright; in the case of a literary work, the limit is a rolling one: 70 years after the end of the year in which the author died. So in the case of Rudyard Kipling, for example, as he died in 1936, his works will lose their copyright protection at the end of 2006. (There is one specific exception in the UK: JM Barrie's Peter Pan remains in copyright as its [considerable] royalties go to Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital in London.) All this means that if you want to write a sequel to Oliver Twist, for example, then no-one's going to object. (Unless you're a really terrible writer, of course...)

So, let's confine ourselves to more modern publications. Next, we need to consider the idea of a "derivative work". This is a work which carries over significant parts - characters or locations, for example - from the original story. I think most people would agree that a fanfic is the very essence of a derivative work of the original, and that brings it under the scope, in English law, of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act. Therefore the original author most definitely has the ability in law to stop fanfics of their work should they so wish - as we saw earlier in Anne Rice's case.

Right then, having established that we're all miserable sinners, what can we do? Well, in the first place, as we've seen, most authors do not object to fanfic of the sort you see on ffnet. So it's probably not necessary to go off to the nearest police station saying, "lawks, copper, yer got me bang ter rights; it's a fair cop an' no mistake, by criminy.". (In any case, wilfully impersonating Dick van Dyke is a serious offence in many countries.) Secondly, there's a good case to be made that fanfic actually helps the commercial writer, by getting their existing fans more enthused still, and bringing in new ones from outside. This is really the same argument as is used by supporters of MP3 downloading, and it seems to me to be a sensible one. (I'll just in passing mention the fact that, by all accounts, some of the biggest users of the old Napster were... er... record company executives.)

What is needed, I think, is a more open and clear-headed view from both sides. The authors would benefit from accepting that fanfic is not written with the intent to rob them of their hard-earned fame and fortune, or of devaluing their own imaginative achievements, and the fanficcers would benefit from accepting a degree of responsibility in how, where and when they publish their fanfic. That being so, it seems to me that a good compromise might be to say that authors should accept fanfic subject to the fanficcers accepting the need to place an accepted and standardised form of disclaimer at the head of their work. Something like this, maybe:

"Sample Story", by Albert Fanficcer. Based on Eddie Author's work, "Tales of Splot".

"Sample Story" is published as an unofficial work of fanfiction, not authorised or supported in any way by Eddie Author. Under no circumstances may any monetary gain be obtained for or by the use of this fanfiction. This disclaimer must be included in full whenever this fanfiction is distributed. If you create a derivative work based on this fanfiction, you must make that fact clear, and you must include an equivalent disclaimer to this one.

None of these restrictions shall be held to apply to Eddie Author, or anyone authorised by him.

Lawyers could doubtless tear the above to shreds in seconds, but what else is new? You're probably ahead of me here - yes, it's a form of Open Source Fanfic!

A few points there need clarification. Most Open Source software, for example that distributed under the GNU General Public License, allows you to make money from it should you so wish. However, fanfic is based on a commercial work, so I think any form of commercial competition with the original author would be completely unfair; hence I think it would be necessary to forbid fanficcers from making money from their stories.

Secondly, the part about derivative works brings up another point. It's always seemed to me a little hypocritical of certain fanficcers that they merrily write reams and reams of stuff based on another author's work, but then, the moment they write an original piece, plaster it with "Hands Off" notices. Really, you can't have it both ways! (And to prove I practise what I preach, in the highly unlikely event of anyone wanting to do so, they're quite welcome to write fanfic based on my own original works, so long as they acknowledge the inspiration.)

The final part, exempting the original author, seems like a good alternative to a royalty - what you're doing, in effect, is giving them a right ordinary fanficcers don't get: the right to use your ideas, characters, locations etc in their next book and make money from it. This also avoids the possibility I mentioned above of a fanficcer suing an original author.

So, there you have it. There are quite a number of other topics worthy of discussion on this issue, but on the whole I think the central issue of legitimacy is the most important one. Of course I'm biased, as are we all in one way or another, but I really think that there is a moral case for fanfic, and that - as with other things - an open, regulated "market" would be far preferable to the semi-underground system we have today. The gratifying success of ffnet (and, by extension, fpnet) has been a great boost in that regard, as we now have many tens of thousands of writers on a universally accessible, free, public site, sharing a common set of guidelines. It seems to me that this could - and should - be the first step towards establishing fanfic as an accepted part of the literary world.