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What is Fanfiction?

By Jane Harmon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Fanfiction, also called fanfic, is fiction that has been written by people who are fans of a particular television series, movie or book. The text can be printed or written on paper, but modern examples are often published on the Internet. This material might violate copyright laws but, but copyright claims are rarely pursued by the original authors or creators unless the fanfic writer is attempting to profit from the material. Fans who choose to create their own works based on copyrighted material do so at their own risk.


It is believed that fan-written fiction has existed for several centuries — since published books of fiction first became widely available. Among the earliest examples might be the writings of girls in the late 1800s who penned their own endings to Louisa May Alcott's classic book, Little Women. For instance, some girls might have written an ending in which Beth survives and Jo marries Laurie. These writings likely were for personal consumption and probably were not shared with more than a few friends and family members.

Fanfiction emerged as a shared experience in the 1960s, with the advent of serial TV shows that gained large followings. One of the main shows that helped increase the popularity of this type of writing was Star Trek. At gatherings of the show's fans, people who had written their own stories based on the show began sharing them with other fans. These early examples of fanfic stories were often mimeographed, hand-stapled texts referred to as fanzines. More recent fanzines, also called zines, are often more professional-looking because they have been printed from computers, and they might include illustrations.

Internet Publishing

The rise of the Internet brought new growth to fanfiction, with fans discovering each other worldwide, forming websites, groups and mailing lists for the sharing of fan-written fiction as well as fan-created art. Virtually every fictional TV series that is of interest to a young audience has a fanfic community associated with it. Books that gain wide followings, such as J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series or Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, are known for their popularity among amateur authors who create new stories with the characters from those books.

Legal Issues

Any material that uses fictional characters, places and other names from copyrighted works of art constitutes a violation of copyright laws. Many authors, producers and publishers who own copyrights will go to considerable lengths to protect their works, especially if they consider alternate uses of their material to be damaging in some way. Others, however, choose not to pursue claims against creators of fanfiction as long as they are not trying to profit from it. This is likely an appreciation of the fact that fanfiction can be a powerful form of free publicity as well as recognition that negative publicity could result from a legal attack on the most dedicated members of a work's fan base. Some copyright holders have even embraced fanfiction, holding contests to allow fans to submit their writings and sometimes publishing collections of these materials.

In most places, copyright protection expires after a certain number of years. After a work of art's copyright expires, the characters and places in it move into the public domain and can be used freely by others. Characters such as the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet have all moved into the public domain, so it is legally permissible for another to profit from their use. Many new works that use characters from the public domain have been very successful, possibly because many fans enjoy seeing familiar characters reworked into new stories or viewed from a new perspective.

Adult Forms

One of the most startling forms of fan-created fiction is the erotic variety. For example, viewers who thought that two characters in a TV show or movie should have had a sexual relationship might express that point of view by writing a piece of erotic fiction. When these relationships are between two male characters or two female characters who are not homosexual in the original works, this type of fiction is often called slash. The name comes from the way that these writings might be labeled, with a slash between the names of the two characters involved. Some people consider slash to include only works that involve sexual relationships between two male characters.


The reaction of fans to other people's pieces of fanfiction is mixed. Some people do not like seeing characters who have become dear to them interpreted by others and behaving in ways that might not be consistent with their own concepts of those characters. Other fans enjoy reading alternate stories and find this form of fiction an entertaining pastime and a new way to indulge their interest in characters who have become important to them. People who want to read fanfic stories online are likely to find many examples by typing the term "fanfiction" along with the title of a book, TV show or movie into a search engine.

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Discussion Comments
By anon38424 — On Jul 26, 2009

Currently in both the USA and UK so far, writing and publishing/posting fan-fiction is acceptable under what is legally known as "fair use" legislation. Admittedly this is a complex area of law generally, but the best way to proceed is to ensure every story (or chapters therein) has a disclaimer along the lines of: No infringement intended, no money being made, all characters/universe remain the property of...Basically, you should have no problems unless you are attempting to make money from your writing using the official creator/author's works, because that is plagiarism and essentially theft.

Most authors/creators will not pursue fan-fiction writers. The whole point is that we think these characters are great and we want to share our enjoyment of them generally. The creator/author gets a vast amount of invaluable free publicity (people tend to listen far more to personal recommendations than TV ads about a product)that would otherwise have cost them a fortune, as well as the warm glow of seeing how many people genuinely like what they have produced.

Those who resist fanfiction of their works or who menace fanfiction writers of it, unfortunately tend to be seen -- fairly or unfairly -- as arrogant or petulant and only interested in making money out of the hard-working people buying their product.

Commensurately they lose goodwill plus sales of their book/show, so the corporations backing them have no desire to attack a fanbase providing priceless free 'advertising' and expanding their customer/viewer base.

A word of caution for fanfiction writers - there have been instances of elements of plots and even dialogue turning up virtually unchanged in episodes months after 'you' posted 'your' story. Unfortunately, even if you can prove that it wasn't simply cosmic synchronicity or great minds thinking alike, but that the original author/creator/show's scriptwriters were trawling the fandom's archives and appropriating useful elements and passing these off as their own, as the fanfiction producer, you have no recourse. You are only protected in terms of your own "Original Characters" not those you are writing fanfiction about.

By anon5397 — On Nov 23, 2007

In response to the question re copyright posted by Anonymous...Yes, I believe so. Even if you acknowledge the copyright holder/s of a work, it is still infringement if you have not received express permission to use/publish the material owned by someone else. Many authors of creative works overlook some uses of their work as long as the user is not making money from it, and it is not offensive or damaging to the reputation of the copyright holder.

By anon3659 — On Sep 10, 2007

is it still copyright infringement if the author acknowledges and/or credits the copyright holders and states that it is just for fun?

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