Fanfiction recently hit mainstream media thanks in part to E. L. James and her erotica series, 50 Shades of Grey, which began as a BDSM Twilight spinoff. Among the many conversations held over the last several years, fanfiction legality and legitimacy are issues that have been raised repeatedly. The Wall Street Journal even did an article in 2012 about best-selling authors who began their career with the help of fanfiction.
But beyond the USA, fanfiction can also be found in other parts of the world. The cultural implications are fascinating, and in this article, I’d like to take a global look at fanfiction and highlight some of the similarities and differences of fanfic culture from four different countries: USA, Japan, UK, and Russia.
Fanfiction in USA
The US has a history of stigmatizing fanfiction as hackneyed and talentless dribble. Though generally protected as fair use under copyright laws, there have been cases of authors refusing to allow fans to create fanfiction of their works. In general, the community as a whole abides by these limitations. Most archive websites actively advises against writing fanfiction for said fandoms and makes available a list of authors who dissent to having their creations repurposed by fanfiction writers.
Recently, we are seeing more original published works derived from ideas written by previous authors. Pride, Prejudice and Zombies comes to mind as a work of fiction altered to fit a different reality than the one drafted by its original author. Orson Scott Card, who was once an avid disavower of fanfiction, started seeking them to include in his anthology as canon. As quoted from Mr. Card, “Every piece of fanfiction is an ad for my book. What kind of idiot would I be to want that to disappear?”
Fanfiction in Japan
It’s incredibly common in Japan for enthusiastic fans to create their own manga using a unique storyline populated with characters from a beloved manga or anime. These fan mangas are called doujinshi, and while technically illegal, manga publishing companies actually encourage the creation of these books as a way to market the original stories, and it allows for talented non-professional artists and writers to find a medium to expand their skills. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
As reported by Megan Harrell in a study that examines aspects of masculinity in creative works in Japan, “The industry also views what are undeniably violations of copyright law with leniency, as fanwork doujin do not directly compete with the series they are based upon, and actually represent a surprisingly effective form of free advertising for those franchises.” However, it is necessary to mention that there are exceptions, and like in the United States, each author will have their own preferences as to what their fans can or cannot do. You can download a copy of Harrell’s paper in its entirety as a Word doc here.
Fanfiction in England
In England in the late 1800s, fanfiction brought Sherlock Holmes back from the dead. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle so hated his famous character that he killed him off in an effort to stop writing the books that had grown widely popular throughout the United Kingdom. However, the main public wasn’t satisfied with the ending Sherlock met, so they began to write their own stories. Some of them were so well-written that readers couldn’t tell the difference between an official Sherlock Holmes mystery and a fan’s work. This forced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to raise Sherlock from the dead, and he begrudgingly continued to write his mysteries.
Most recently, the BBC utilized online fan theories to construct Sherlock’s return from the dead in his eponymous hit show. In between series two and three, fans argued whether or not Sherlock truly died, and if not, how he managed to survive. Several popular explanations made it into the first episode of series three in the guise of characters attempting to solve the mystery of Sherlock’s death with the same fervor as real-life fans of the show.
Interestingly, England recently passed legislation to allow for the production of fanfiction as long as it does not directly compete with the source material or work as an act of plagiarism. The law states that a work is protected from copyright infringement if it is “caricature, parody or pastiche.” This means that if the work is written in the voice of the author but is not expressly being used for monetary gain, it is protected.
Fanfiction in China
An article posted on The Daily Dot describes how China’s National Office Against Pornographic and Illegal Publications has been cracking down on fanfiction in an effort to clean up cyberspace. In particular, authorities are forcing authors to remove their slash fiction, especially male-on-male ones. Jail time and public shaming seem to be the official punishment for violating national policies regarding decency on the web. Entire sites have been removed from servers for this reason, and it has led to an international discussion on the legality of fanfiction.
Fanfiction in Russia
There’s not a lot of readily available information about fanfiction in Russia, but according to my research, the one site I was able to find seemed to imply that the community has been growing since the mid-90s. Once the Soviet Union began to crumble, the illegal appropriation of Western media gave way to an increasing number of movies and books made available to the public. The country’s tendency toward a loose interpretation of international copyright laws helped what was once an underground fanfiction culture to come out of hiding. In particular, Tolkien fiction seems to be insanely popular in Russia.
Fanfiction and Censorship
Due to strict control of the internet in countries such as Russia, North Korea, and China, it’s been difficult to discover information about their views on fanfiction. Media blackouts have been reported in Russia in an attempt to control and stem the flow of Western Media influence. Russia also has very strict laws prohibiting homosexuality, so it is quite probable that slash pairings would be seen as indecent, and like China, may result in harsh punishments too.
While fanfiction is common (and popular) worldwide, it is not always welcomed or viewed with approval. In the case of those Chinese women being taken to jail, the detainees reacted as if they had been caught peddling drugs. There can be significant shame lambasted toward fanfiction writers despite the many valid reasons for writing fanfiction. This is reason all the more for our international community of fanwork creators to stick together and support one another.