Recently, on the CCIA’s Project DISCO blog, Jonathan Band wrote a post that could make a person spit out the ol’ ball gag, if you know what I mean. He tells readers that the best-selling, S&M trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey, with film adaptation opening this weekend, exists thanks to the principle of fair use, a component of U.S. copyright law. While one must submit to the truth that Fifty Shades’s started as a work of fan fiction, derived from the source material for Stephanie Meyers’s Twilight series, one must also bristle at the manner in which Band is trying to insert fair use where it doesn’t belong. Specifically, there cannot be a question of a fair use if there is no use in the first place; and author E.L. James (Erika Mitchell) did not use any works protected under copyrights belonging to Stephanie Meyers. To the contrary, James specifically revised her original fanfic into what became Fifty Shades in order to avoid any content that might infringe, and this stands to reason because publishers aren’t that stupid. So why is Jonathan Band fetishizing the principle of fair use here? And is there a safety word one can utter that will get him to stop?
In fact, now that I’ve gone there, perhaps this is the central point of this rebuttal: fair use is not a safety word. It is not a term one can just incant in order to stop all potential claims of copyright infringement. Even a use that is allowed by a rights holder does not become “fair” by virtue of that permission. Fair use doctrine is a very important, but very specific, aspect of copyright law, and it’s worth noting that the United States has the most liberal application of the principle among nations that maintain strong copyrights.
In simple examples, fair use wants to protect the right of one speaker who may use a work in order to criticize, comment upon, or parody that work. These are not the only applications of fair use, and there are four criteria applied by judges when hearing a fair use claim as a defense against an infringement claim. But absent an actual dispute over infringement, fair use is often patently obvious or utterly irrelevant. And the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, the fact that there is no conflict between Meyers and James has nothing to do with the doctrine. These authors, and authors everywhere, professional or amateur, are free to remix the beauty and the beast theme to their hearts’ content. The elements which can be copyrighted in the individual expressions are easy enough to avoid plagiarizing, which is why James can begin with a derivative fanfic of Twilight and then revise to create an original work that does not infringe.
But fair use is just one concept that the dungeon masters of the tech industry like to dress up and parade around the blogosphere in order to seduce the public to believe that certain popular works only exist in spite of copyright. Interestingly, Band’s omission of the central fact that E.L. James did not use any protected works by Stephanie Meyers means that he isn’t actually writing a defense of fair use doctrine at all. Like so many blogs and articles of its kind, this seems to be another attempt to broaden one of copyright’s exceptions into some all-purpose answer to all manner of uses where the doctrine may not apply. This can be effective based on the safe assumption that most of us are not attorneys and don’t really know how the law functions. Hence, as a PR move, Band’s editorial aligns with the tech industry’s interest in selling the idea that all fanfic should ultimately be defined as fair use so that the activity can more easily be monetized without permission of any original authors.
To be clear, this reply to Band’s assertion about fair use is in no way an indictment of fan fiction itself. Many authors welcome the trend and even personally curate sites hosting fan fiction. It can be a great way to interact with avid readers and fans, particularly of popular series that contain many characters and complex plots and subplots. But fanfic enthusiasts should not be enslaved to the tech industry’s interests. Fanfic can and does coexist with copyright law without rewriting the meaning of core doctrine.
There are plenty of great examples of fair use doctrine available, and readers should be at least a bit skeptical when the tech industry picks a particularly weak example like this one to highlight. But I get it. This story wears stiletto heels, has a whip in one hand, and a multimillion-dollar franchise in the other. It’s flashy and alluring. But editorials like Band’s continue to overuse this false role play in which creativity is blindfolded, bound, and gagged by copyrights. Quite the contrary. In fact, copyright is a bit like S&M in this one regard: if the person being “used” doesn’t grant permission and can’t set limits, it’s called aggravated rape.
ADDENDUM: I cannot say that I am surprised Twitter lit up a bit because some readers were offended by this final paragraph in which I appear literally to be comparing copyright infringement to rape. I would never belittle a violent and disturbing crime by equating it with a non-violent one, and I hope readers understand that the S&M theme of this story is what sparked this reference to permission. I will add that, throughout literature, movies, TV, and journalism, authors have used the word rape metaphorically, including some months ago when Madonna actually said that piracy of her works was “like being raped.” I didn’t even agree with that simile as I thought it was making too direct a comparison. Take that all for what it’s worth.