Jim Hines Explains It All

Many years ago, I remember hearing an incredibly vague story about some fanfic writer who sued a professional author for writing a book they claimed was too similar to a pre-existing fanfic.

I suspect that was the product of this story going through a game of Telephone, with details being dropped at every turn. Jim Hines, Hero of the Revolution, has dug through the dustbin of the Internets to try and ascertain the actual facts of an incident in the early 90’s, involving Marion Zimmer Bradley and the fanfic writer Jean Lamb. Why? Because when arguments come up concerning fanfic, sooner or later somebody ends up trotting out this particular tale, often in moderately warped form (though rarely as warped as the version I heard). So it’s worth taking a step back and asking, what actually happened there?

We’ll never know for sure — particularly since, as Opusculus points out in one of the posts Jim links to, the incident almost certainly involved one of MZB’s ghostwriters, and none of the likely candidates has given a detailed account of the events. (Neither has Lamb, possibly — as suggested somewhere in the comment threads — on advise of counsel.) But if you’re interested in the boundary between fanfic and profic, and what kinds of legal issues can arise when something wanders across that boundary, definitely read Jim’s post, and follow the links if you have the time. At the very least, the story is not quite what folklore has made it out to be, and so the lessons to be taken away from it are not necessarily what you think.

Or at least what I thought, since I was operating from a very warped version of the facts. So I owe thanks to Jim for the breakdown.

0 Responses to “Jim Hines Explains It All”

  1. zellandyne

    Ditto. I’d heard a bastardized version of the same story.

  2. coraa

    Yeah, I found it really fascinating—I’ve been on the fanfiction side of the Force for many a year, and yet I’d still only ever heard the ‘independent simultaneous ideas, entitled horrible ficwriter, years of lost work oh no’ version of the story.

    (I confess to being curious as to whether there’s a similar more complicated story behind the Chelsea Quinn Yarbro story, since that’s the other legend of Why Fanfic Is Dangerous that I frequently heard rattle around.)

    • beccastareyes

      I don’t think I’ve heard that one.

      • coraa

        The story I’d heard was that a fan asked CQY for permission to publish a story using one of her characters (in a fanzine, I believe, although I don’t recall for sure); CQY said no; the fan did it anyway; legal proceedings were begun, eventually resulting in the fan turning over all copies of the fanzine for CQY to destroy.

        But that’s an account that’s fourth or fifth-hand, with big holes in it. I’ve heard it brought up as an indicator of how entitled fans are (specifically, in re: asking for permission and then ignoring the answer), but I have no idea how accurate it is.

        (There is also some discussion/confusion because one of CQY’s major characters is a real historical figure, and it’s unclear [at least to me] to what extent the fanwritten character might have been using CQY’s interpretation of the fictional character and how much was just going back to the source of the historical figure.)

        • carbonel

          My understanding is that things were pretty much as you describe in your first paragraph, with the addition that the idiot fan (the publisher of the zine rather than the author of the story, IIRC) stated in the intro to the story that she’d asked CQY for permisssion, and had it denied, but the story was so awesome that she had to publish it nevertheless.

          However, the writeup of the situation that I read by CQY (long ago, don’t remember where) perpetuated the myth (thankfully, generally known as incorrect these days) that one has to vigorously defend one’s copyright or one is in danger of losing it — true of trademark, but never of copyright.

          • Marie Brennan

            Clearly the solution to this problem is not to have three names. MZB, CQY . . . as long as your name boils down to only two initials, you’re safe!

  3. sartorias

    Well, that guy (not Jim) is totally wrong about the intersecting problems, but if the principals are not talking, then neither am I. But he’s WRONG.

    • Marie Brennan

      Opusculus, or someone else?

      And what do you mean by “intersecting problems”? I understand not wanting to talk if the affect parties aren’t, but I would like to know which part you are indicating is wrong, and that phrase doesn’t make it clear.

      • sartorias

        Well, he’s not completely wrong, after all–Marion had had those strokes. But some of the problems involved people not named; one of the names actually had to put out the fires. I don;t want to name those who did cause the problems, and there were several problems besides the Lamb thing. They all intersected.

        • Marie Brennan

          Thanks for the clarification. What was going on behind the scenes on MZB’s end is, along with the nature/extent of the usage intended for “Masks,” one of the two major things making this issue permanently unclear. And I’m okay with that — so long as we stop telling the story where this mean fanfic writer sued MZB out of the blue for “stealing her idea.” Because that’s very different from the facts we do know, which is that MZB (or a representative thereof) made an offer to buy some or all rights to a fanfic story, and negotiations broke down from there.

  4. ailaes

    I’d only read the version on MZB’s website [or fan website dedicated to her, I forget which].

    This definitely clears a few things up for me.

    My whole stance on fanfiction… I tried it once. Granted, it was based off a tv show and at some point I tried to continue The Vampire Diaries, yet found it very difficult to work with someone else’s… work.

    Though from the background view… I think I agree with your stance. If you like it that much to take a different view, great. I just don’t want to read it, for this very reason.

    Thank you for the link.

  5. Anonymous

    Parts of what Jim says are valuable perspective on what was going on. I think the most important thing he makes clear, though, is that the facts are unclear. (I think they’re even less clear than he makes them sound, but I have a really, really odd perspective that also involves biting my tongue due to parallel-but-not-directly-related client confidentiality issues.)

    Neither the MZB nor the CQY situations present anyone acting appropriately… or being “in the right” in some objective sense. In both incidents, nobody got competent counsel on their legal position and responsibilities until much, much too late, if at all. I am specifically including the respective publishers in that “nobody”. And we all know who wins in that kind of dispute: The lawyers.

    On the other hand, even trying to resolve the situation rests on a very unsound foundational assumption: That the legal status in general on fanfic has even a modicum of clarity — let alone for specific pieces of it. (Or, if you really want a migraine, try a longer set of musings aimed at a non-lawyer audience.) Unfortunately, the entire situation is so murky legally — let alone economically, ethically, etc. — that we’re left falling back on some notion of “common courtesy.” Since “common courtesy” is one of those great oxymorons like “civil war,” “honest politician,” “military intelligence,” etc., at the best of times, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it’s so rare in the arts!

    • Marie Brennan

      And we all know who wins in that kind of dispute: The lawyers.

      You see this? This is my surprised face.

      Part of me really, really wants a massive overhaul of our IP law, to handle the Disney Problem and also address the issues created by digital technology and let’s make some actual defined space for fanfic while we’re at it.

      It’s a small part, because the rest of me is screaming at the top of its lungs, “DO YOU REALLY THINK THAT WOULD TURN OUT WELL??!?!???”

  6. houseboatonstyx

    Fwiw, Pratchett said that some readers had tried to sue him for plagarising a ms of theirs — unsuccessfully, as his version had already been at the publisher’s at the key time.

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