The upcoming publication of Alchemised, a fantasy romance book that began its life as the Harry Potter fan fiction story “Manacled” by Sen Lin Yu, is part of a relatively small, but curious trend of fan fiction (amateur fiction writing by fans) being rewritten and published as original work.

Perhaps the most famous is Fifty Shades of Grey, which began as Twilight fan fiction called “Masters of the Universe” in 2009, but there’s evidence it may date back to 2007. The great success of Fifty Shades has turned publishers’ attention to the wealth of stories found in online fan fiction archives. These stories sometimes have huge loyal readerships. “Manacled”, for example, is a whopping 74 chapters long with three epilogues. It has a huge ongoing readership since it was published between 2018 and 2019, a readership publishers are hoping to tap into with Alchemised.

However, not all of those readers are ready to celebrate their favourite story going pro.

Fan fiction uses the characters or world from an established, usually copyrighted work of fiction. Romance stories that pair up characters who are not romantically involved, like Draco Malfoy and Hermione Granger in “Manacled”, are probably the best-known type of fan fiction.

But these works come in every shape: from Old English poems about the Starship Enterprise to Downton Abbey’s Thomas Barrow being recast as the butler to Marvel’s Iron Man. Works of fan fiction (“fanfics”) are usually written and shared within a community of creative fans who enjoy discussing and reworking the source material. Within these communities, the act of “pulling to publish” can be highly controversial.

A challenge to fan fiction’s gift economy’

Stories based on existing fiction are as old as storytelling itself. Virgil’s Aeneid, published in 19 BC, draws on the Iliad and Greek myth. But fan fiction as we know it today is tied to our system of copyright law. These laws determine who has the legal right to publish work using certain characters (such as Hermione), places (such as Hogwarts), objects (such as lightsabers) and other elements of a story.

Fan fiction is written by people – fans – who don’t own the copyright for the stories they rework, and don’t have such a legal right. But because works of fan fiction are “transformative” works, that don’t simply reproduce the original but build on and alter it, they fall in a legal grey area. Fans argue that these works should be considered “fair use” for sharing with others.

This fair use argument only holds as long as the works are not professionally published and sold. Anyone selling a work of fan fiction for profit is normally shut down by the copyright owner.

This happened recently to Demetrious Polychron, who was ordered to pay more than £100,000 to the Tolkien Estate for commercially publishing his Lord of the Rings fanfic.

Many fan communities are anxious about such publications because of the fear that the copyright holder would crack down on the community as a whole. The website Archive of Our Own, on which “Manacled” was originally published, is run and maintained by fan volunteers and donations from many such communities.

The amateur, nonprofit and community-based nature of fan fiction has made fandom into what scholars of fandom such as Karen Hellekson call a gift economy.

In this culture, fans create and share their works without expecting pay – the stories are a gift to the community and a part of participating in communal life. The fandom gift economy creates an alternative space where monetary value is replaced by the value of social connection and interaction and for the most popular writers, of high status within the community.

The practice of rewriting a fanfic to be published as an original, known in fan communities as “filing off the serial numbers”, is hotly debated. To comply with copyright demands, the original fanfic is usually removed from the web and lost to the original readers who have made it so popular. Many fans resent the idea of an author taking away work written within the community’s gift economy and replacing it with a commercial product they now have to pay for.

Fan fiction writing and posting can be a highly interactive affair. Long stories, like Manacled, are often posted in chapters and the author receives many reader comments and reactions along the way. To some fans, turning this story into a book leaves them feeling exploited, as though they had served as unknowing test subjects.

Pulling to publish raises the fear of fan spaces becoming more and more commercialised, turning from amateur communities united by love for a story into platforms for would-be professionals to build a brand.

It’s important to say that online fandom is not one community but many, with different cultures and opinions. Some fans are happy to celebrate what they see as proof of quality for the work of a popular member of their community. But as the trend demonstrated by Alchemised develops, it continues to challenge the cultures of fan and other amateur creative communities.

Leora Hadas is an Assistant Professor in Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham.
This article first appeared on
The Conversation.