A licensing model for fan fiction

A licensing model for fan fiction

Fan fiction is an eternally popular genre by which a reader writes their own stories featuring the characters, plots and settings of their favourite books. In almost all cases, these stories are written and published without the consent of the author. The unhappy outcome is so often that the fan writer is infringing the copyright of their beloved author and the author (or their publisher) face the prospect of resolving the issue by suing their own readers.

The interactive entertainment industry has been facing a similar dilemma. The proliferation of YouTube, Twitch and other video streaming websites has seen the explosion of fan-created gameplay videos. These are videos in which a fan records themselves playing a game. Obviously, such videos contain extensive amounts of in-game footage, the copyright in which is usually owned by the company that published the game. The most popular of these gameplay videos generate millions of views and, crucially, significant advertising revenue for the fans who create them.

Until only a few years ago, a fan who wanted to post a gameplay video legitimately would, in most cases, have to do so by approaching the game’s publisher and requesting a licence. Such a process was complicated for the fan and time consuming for the publisher, leaving many fans to ignore licensing options completely and post potentially infringing content. Rather than bring claims for copyright infringement against each of these fans, the interactive entertainment industry created an innovative solution.

Multi-Channel Networks (MCNs), such as Machinima and Fullscreen, negotiate and obtain licences from relevant rightsholders (usually the game publishers) on behalf of their members to enable their members to exploit certain games commercially in fan-created gameplay videos. 

In exchange for such licences and certain other ancillary benefits, MCNs take a percentage of the advertising revenue that their members derive from the exploitation of their fan-created gameplay videos. Some of this revenue is then paid on to the relevant rightsholders pursuant to the terms of their licence agreement with the MCN. This provides the rightsholder of the in-game footage featured in such gameplay videos with an additional revenue stream in addition to the free publicity that is generated by such gameplay videos.

MCNs have grown in popularity as they present a means of avoiding infringement and allow the uploaders of gameplay videos to show their passion for a game and share in the income in a legitimate way.

In 2013 Amazon Kindle launched Amazon Worlds. Here, fan fiction writers are granted a licence by rightsholders to use copyright material to create their own stories, subject to strict guidelines, and to publish and sell them on Kindle. Unlike the interactive entertainment industry, there are few other examples of licensed fan fiction in publishing.

Perhaps the main reason for the industry’s reluctance to explore such legitimate fan fiction systems stems from a desire to avoid fans reimaging works, which are often deeply personal creations of authors, in a way in which the author never intended. Whilst this is certainly a valid concern, as fan fiction continues to mature and become a more popular medium with greater revenue opportunities, it may soon be time for the publishing industry to take another look at the possibility of introducing alternative licensing systems. Building new relationships with readers and enabling new income streams for authors and publishers could be just some of the benefits.  

Nic Murfett is an interactive entertainment industry specialist with law firm Harbottle & Lewis