Is Fan Fiction Illegal Because It Is a Form of Plagiarism?

Categories: Fiction

Fan fiction, as defined by Rochelle Mazar in her essay on fan fiction, is “the product of unauthorized writers taking characters and settings from television shows, movies, comics, or books and writing stories about them”. Fan fiction is easily defined as such, because it is simply unauthorized writers using other authors’ works to create their own pieces in some way, shape, or form. The not-so-simple part of fan fiction is the “unauthorized part”; is fan fiction allowed? This raises questions of legality, morality, and straightforward plagiarism.

I would like the chance to prove to you, using Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, why I believe that fan fiction is perfectly acceptable, legal, and a positive attribution to the literary world. Fan fiction is legal and acceptable because intertextuality makes it impossible for originality and for anything other than imitations to exist; there are too many methods of imitation to call one form (fan fiction) illegal without outlawing every single one; and fan fiction improves literature by furthering stories and keeping the love for works alive.

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Originality is impossible. I can guarantee that any idea that any individual can invent in his/her head has already been thought up. Humans have been talking, walking, writing, reading, and existing for over 5 million years. Because all thoughts have already been thought, in 1966 Julia Kristeva came up with a word to explain authors’ lack of originality: intertextuality (Simandan). Intertextuality is the idea that all texts are based off of texts before them. This describes the notion that when an author comes up with a story, idea, plotline, etc.

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, he or she is using knowledge in their heads from other stories, ideas, plotlines, etc. that they have read/seen in the past. An example is Michael Chabon’s A Final Solution. Chabon’s novel is a piece of fan fiction work based off of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. Chabon uses Doyle’s portrayal of the Holmes character, plot lines, and other Doyle ideas to create his story. The title is even a reference to Doyle’s story, The Final Problem. In essence, Chabon copied him. But intertextuality is inevitable because there are no new ideas to be had. So if intertextuality is unavoidable, then how is fan fiction (and The Final Solution) any different from every other work of literature? Frederic Jameson does a good job of proving my point in his introduction of pastiche in his article, Postmodernism. “The disappearance of the individual subject, the increasing unavailability of personal style…” (Jameson). He is simply saying that there is no longer individuality or personality, because nothing is original due to the large amount of literature and ideas in the world today. If there is no originality, everyone creating literature and other things are using up old ideas, not their own new ones. This is exactly what fan fiction writers are doing. Writing fan fiction is no different from every other piece of work in that they all use imitation and unoriginal ideas. So Chabon’s novel is just as legal as any. A few places in Chabon’s novel indicate that the main character, referred to only as “the old man”, is Sherlock Holmes himself. For example, the reference to the railroads throughout the book mirrors the constant presence of trains/railroads in Doyle’s stories (Chabon 2,91). Doyle’s story His Last Bow reveals that Sherlock retired in the country and took up bee keeping with a passion and Chabon’s old man character loves keeping his bees (Chabon 77) (Conan-Doyle). And even more obvious, the old man wears a tweed coat and hat like the stereotypical Holmes did in Doyle’s stories; “a great bat of brown tweed… it was a man, the old man…” (Chabon 88). Upon writing a book, an author is using concepts he/she has learned from reading and learning other works; in the same way, writers of fan fiction use other works to base their writing, pictures, and ideas off of. How can one argue that fan fiction is plagiarism of other works when originality is impossible?

There are many words used to describe imitation of a work; fan fiction is merely one of them. Imitation does not necessarily equal plagiarism. Pastiche is another example. Fredric Jameson in his article Postmodernism says that pastiche is “the imitation of a peculiar mask” and uses the word “mimicry” to explain the concept throughout the article (Jameson). So pastiche is a just an imitation of other works. If one is to call fan fiction plagiarism or illegal because of its imitative nature, pastiche is to be deemed illegal, as well. A third example of an accepted imitation of literature is parody. “Pastiche is like parody… but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry…” (Jameson). Jameson argues that pastiche and parody are both mimicries; the only difference being that parody’s purpose is satire. Therefore, imitation is the objective of both pastiche and parody. Once again, if fan fiction is to be called plagiarism due to its imitative properties, then all literature under the categories of pastiche and parody are illegal as well. Making all imitative works of literature illegal would wipe out the entire literary realm. Michael Chabon wrote a short response to the idea of fan fiction and its legality: “All enduring popular literature has this open-ended quality, and extends this invitation to the reader to continue…” and mentions that “through parody and pastiche… We proceed, seeking out the blank places that… our favorite writers…have left for us” (Chabon). He argues that fan fiction, along with pastiche and parody, is a wonderful mechanism for readers to pick up where their favorite stories left off to continue the adventures, just as Chabon himself did with Sherlock Holmes. Fan fiction, pastiche, and parody are all methods for creating literary works and making the world of literature more enjoyable for readers and writers, not attempting to claim an un-original work as one’s own.

Though some people look down on fan fiction as being a negative entity, it actually improves the literary realm. Chabon says that he was motivated to write his first piece of fan fiction by “those magical gaps…that Doyle left for us” (Chabon). Fans of popular literature want to continue the story for the simple reason that they love it; they want to know what happens next, just as Chabon wanted. Fan fiction is a way to further the story, so readers do not have to stop enjoying it. Doyle stopped writing about Sherlock Holmes after His Last Bow declared that Holmes was retired and was taking up beekeeping (Conan-Doyle). Chabon wanted to know, and he wanted others to know, what happened to Holmes post-retirement, so he wrote The Final Solution to give Sherlock one last hoorah as a detective. Such a gift to literature should not be looked down upon or viewed negatively just because it was based off of another piece of literature. Rochelle Mazar wrote an article on fan fiction, and discusses the legality of the subject. “Characters go in and out of style, and certain characteristics get applied to characters so often…” (Mazar 1146). An example is the mystery genre in general and, more specifically, Sherlock Holmes. There are certain elements of mysteries that have become very common, but the use of these elements does not constitute plagiarism. For example, most mysteries involve a main character, a sidekick/helper, and some crime to be solved. This is simply how mysteries, especially mystery novels, are developed. Many stories use the same features of mystery, but they are not necessarily illegally plagiarized. Growing up, I read children’s mystery novels all the time; examples include Cam Jansen, Jigsaw Jones, and Encyclopedia Brown. These novels (especially Encyclopedia Brown) followed a very typical mystery novel outline. They had detectives, a best friend helping the main character, a crime, and suspects; usually important evidence was hard for the reader to seek out; the end result was always a win for the main characters, and the bad guy was caught. The same can be said for Sherlock Holmes stories. Encyclopedia Brown even wore a tweed hat and coat, and carried a magnifying glass, inferring that his character was modeled after Sherlock Holmes. These were simply imitations meant for children to enjoy reading and to introduce young kids to the concept of mystery novels, but they were not attacked for plagiarism – the same way that Chabon and other fan fiction writers should not be accused of illegal copyrighting.

Many common mystery elements appear in Chabon’s novel, as well. In most mysteries, the detective is one step ahead of everyone else. Sherlock was always ahead of the reader, Watson, and other characters and was portrayed as exceptionally intelligent because of it; he was always noticing minor details that others did not to discover the answers. The old man does the same: “he had read the trend of the inspector’s thoughts; no, that was impossible…read his face, then…” (Chabon 23). As the characters in mysteries typically have a sidekick, Chabon further infers that his old man character is Holmes by bringing the idea of Watson to the forefront of readers’ minds. “He took out his glass…it bore around its bezel an affectionate inscription from the sole great friend of his life”, insinuating that Holmes/the old man’s best friend/Watson gifted him the magnifying glass (Chabon 29). So even though these are all imitations of the mystery genre and of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, they are not plagiarisms. If these components did not exist in mystery novels, they would not be considered mysteries. They are not illegal or plagiarized simply by being a part of a large, general category. Without these “imitations”, the mystery genre would not exist; fan fiction is a gift to literature.

Maybe some people will argue that fan fiction is illegal because it is an imitation of previous works of literature. But I suggest they really examine what they consider fan fiction, imitation, and illegality to be, because I believe that they are very wrong. Fan fiction is legal and good because pure originality is impossible due to the mass expanse of literature past and present; it is not plagiarism and there is a difference between plagiarism and fan fiction; and fan fiction makes the realm of literature a better place. Instead of patronizing fan fiction authors, we should be celebrating them.

Works Cited

  1. Jameson, Frederic. “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review 1.146 (1984). New Left Review. Web. Oct. 2014. late-capitalism
  1. Simandan, Voicu. “Julia Kristeva’s Concepts of Intertextuality.” A Romanian in Bangkok. Voicu Simandan, Dec. 2010. Web. Oct. 2014.
  1. Chabon, Michael, and Lindsay Faye. “Chabon on Sherlock and Fan Fiction.” Addicted to Sherlock Holmes. Tumblr, 2012. Web. Oct. 2014.
  1. Conan Doyle, Arthur. “His Last Bow (story).” Baker Street Wiki. Wikia, Web. Oct. 2014. Last Bow %28story%29
  1. Mazar, Rachel. “Chapter 45: Slash Fiction/Fanfiction.” International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments. By Joel Weiss. Dordrecht: Springer, 2006. 1141-150. Print.
  1. Chabon, Michael. The Final Solution: A Story of Detection. New York: Fourth Estate, 2004. Print

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Is Fan Fiction Illegal Because It Is a Form of Plagiarism?. (2021, Sep 24). Retrieved from

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