Those of you furiously polishing your meticulously researched and beautifully written Gossip Girl fanfic novel, rejoice — Amazon has created a platform whereby you can not only publish it, but possibly make money from it. Whether you’ll want to use that platform remains to be seen.
Yesterday, the House that Bezos Built announced the launch of Kindle Worlds, a digital publishing platform where writers can publish fan fiction under official licenses. Right now, Amazon’s deal is limited to Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and The Vampire Diaries — all from Warner Bros.’ Alloy Entertainment — but it promises more to come.
On the surface, it seems like a sweet deal. After years of conflict over the copyright issues and ethical conundrums of non-licensed works, fan writers finally have an official OK to not only write, but possibly profit from their work.
Which means, of course, that there must be a catch — or catches, as it turns out. Author John Scalzi was quick to voice concerns about the publishing agreement and the program’s potential impact on professional writers working in the media tie-in market. Wired spoke with attorney Jeff Trexler, who expressed similar concerns, pointing to a clause in Amazon’s contact that grants Amazon and the licensor rights to the text of the stories and any original elements they might contain.
“In short, if your fan fiction includes new elements that catch on with the general public, it’s likely that you’ll not be able to profit from them outside of the stories that you write,” he said. “For example, Time Warner could launch a movie series based on a character you created and not owe you a dime. While the terms state that you retain the copyright, you also give Amazon an exclusive license to your original work and Amazon in turn licenses your work to Time Warner in a license that provides nothing for you.”
Furthermore, says Trexler, if you decided to keep using that character outside of Kindle Worlds, you’d be violating the terms of your contract.
But what do the fans have to say? Betsy Rosenblatt is a professor at Whittier Law School, and chair of the legal committee of the Organization for Transformative Works, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing access to and preserving fan works and culture. She said the Organization is pleased to see Amazon taking an interest in fan works, but, like Trexler and Scalzi, she has reservations about the rights writers would be signing away, and about the restrictions on content: Amazon’s list of content guidelines nix pornography and crossovers, as well as some more nebulous and subjective qualities like “offensive content” and “poor customer experience.”
To Rosenblatt, those restrictions underline the importance of unrestricted fan platforms, like OTW’s Archive of Our Own, which “allow fans to express the full range of their creativity and appreciate the creativity of other fans through fair use.”
Indeed, given the limited licenses, draconian content guidelines, and dubious contracts, it’s hard to imagine fans abandoning open platforms for a far-from-guaranteed paycheck. While Kindle Worlds is sure to attract a fair number of fan writers excited at the prospect of working under official license and maybe even making a buck or two off their stories, for many, the most appealing route to publication will remain the one taken by Fifty Shades of Grey author E. L. James: just file off the serial numbers.