Reading George Fox

Burning Our Seed Corn. Part 1.

In “Amazon has added Kurt Vonnegut to its 'official' fan fiction program”1, Rob Bricken argues the Kindle Words Program's inclusion of Vonnegut's work is an assault on all that is good and virtuous in the world of literature. That it “cannot end well;” that it will inevitably “…tarnish the works of one of America's greatest authors.” Sadly Bricken does not provide the mechanism by which this desecration will occur. Perhaps Amazon will rip out chapters from Slaughter House Five to replace them with fan written work; or they might publish an “undiscovered” Vonnegut manuscript; or they could even dig up Vonnegut's corpse to tar and feather it with pages of fan fiction. All are about equally likely.

Which leads to the question: how does the mere existence of tributes to an author's inspirational power damage the text's that already exist? Does Gnomeo and Juliet diminish the elegance of Shakespeare's original? Or does Cruel Intentions profane Les Liaisons dangereuses? Perhaps Phantom Menace's Coruscant reduces Asimov's Trantor?

Maybe the difference is that there is “no goddamn way anyone is going to write a story staring Kurt Vonnegut's characters as well as Vonnegut did.” Bricken is right, Vonnegut is a great author; however I hope we both agree that Shakespeare is at least a bit better. Would Bricken argue that Kurosawa's Ran or Verdi's Lear do not measure up to the original's greatness, or, if not that, demonstrate the fecundity of Shakespeare's text? Should Robbins, Bernstein, Laurents, and Sondheim have been prevented from creating West Side Story because it might not be as “good” as Romeo and Juliet?

Could the salient difference be that modern fan fiction will be uniquely bad, that “somebody [will] write about Billy Pilgrim turning out to be Gossip Girl, okay?” Letting aside the fact that ol' Gnomeo is probably a greater drop off than any fan fiction could be, why exactly does Bricken assume that Vonnegut fans will model their prose after Gossip Girl fan fiction rather than, say, Vonnegut? Even if some authors are fans of both, I'd bet they could clearly distinguish between the two style. Most importantly, no one is going to force him to read the bad stuff.

Bricken concludes that anything in the classic literature and fiction section should be off limits to fan fiction2. But who gets to decide what counts as “classic”? Should Iain Banks' science fiction be available while Iain M Banks' mainstream work not be? Stephen King has written some pretty pulpy novels; does that mean his work deserves less protection? Obviously this effort soon descends into absurdity. And, as referenced in the footnote above, there is no protection for works published before 1923, which leads to even more illogical conclusions. I guess Agatha Christie's third novel demands to be excluded while her first two meekly acquiesce to others' use.

I started the rant intending it to be a jumping off point into a broader discussion of copyright ethics. However, as I burrow more deeply into the its history, I discovered it would take much more than a single post. So to be continued3.

  1. Scare Quotes in the original.

  2. Hurry up, someone get an injunction against Pride, and Prejudice, and Zombies!

  3. In the meantime, you can amuse yourself with this chart to help you determine a work's copyright status.

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