“The Ruin stirs, and the Five Realms rumble,” a now-archived web announcement read on Thursday morning. “You are cordially invited to join New York Times bestselling and award-winning authors Marie Lu, Tahereh Mafi, Ransom Riggs, Adam Silvera, David Yoon, and Nicola Yoon in Realms of Ruin, a collaborative fantasy epic filled with dark magic, intrigue, and unique characters — launched online in a thrilling new way.”
These celebrated young adult authors shared the announcement across social media, opening a Twitter, Instagram and Discord server for fans to discuss the buzzy new project that would propel the traditional publishing industry into the new territory of Web3, an evolution of the decentralized internet that emphasizes privacy, data ownership and compensation for work — maybe even fan-made creative works.
As the catalyst for this collaborative fantasy epic, these authors would post 12 initial origin stories about their fictional universe, to which they owned the copyright. Then fans would be tasked with writing their own stories, submitting them to the Realms of Ruin universe by minting them as NFTs on the Solana blockchain. If the authors were to enjoy a fan’s story enough, they could declare it part of the project’s official canon.
Within hours, fans confronted the authors in the Discord server with their concerns about the project. If the authors are inviting fans to write fan fiction about a universe they created, who owns the derivative works? Does minting those stories as NFTs affect the copyright of those stories? And how are these concerns exacerbated given that these authors’ target audience is too young to buy cryptocurrency on platforms like Coinbase and Gemini?
Rebecca Tushnet, the Frank Stanton Professor of First Amendment Law at Harvard Law School, aptly summed up the situation. “It’s a turducken of things people don’t understand,” she said. In other words, on top of the usual NFT concerns, the team would also be facing copyright questions and confronting the historical hesitancy from fan fiction writers over monetization of their works in a commercial environment.
Along with a team of nine developers, the six young adult authors spent two months working nights and weekends to bring Realms of Ruin to life. Within hours of its announcement, the project garnered so much backlash that they pulled the plug.
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Fan fiction is a tricky, yet fertile ground for legal questions about copyright and ownership.
Sometimes, top fan fiction writers can even parlay their online success into real publishing careers. If a writer can capture the interest of tens of thousands of readers online, it’s not unreasonable to believe that, with original characters and an original story, they could do the same on The New York Times bestsellers list.
One recent example of this phenomenon is Tamsyn Muir’s “Gideon the Ninth,” published in 2019, which The New York Times called “a devastating debut that deserves every ounce of hype it’s received.” But Muir isn’t secretive that she got her start writing fan fiction. Another unabashed proponent of fan fiction is N.K. Jemisin, a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” awardee who is also the only writer to win the prestigious Hugo Award for Best Novel three years in a row. From a revenue standpoint, E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” series might be the best example of how a writer can start their career by posting derivative stories online — before the series was an international hit, it was Twilight fan fiction.
But monetizing fan fiction through online platforms is a trickier matter. For example, when Tumblr announced it would roll out Post+, a paid subscription product, the company used fan fiction writers as an example of a content creator who could profit from the product. This caused concern among writers who worried that putting a derivative work behind a paywall could land them in legal trouble.
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“My main concern was that [the Realms of Ruin project’s creators] were asking their audience to come in and write a bunch of stuff, and they would then select things to be canon in their world. And the tricky part of this is that they already made this world and copyrighted it,” said Manzano. She said it wasn’t clear if the fan fiction writers would be able to do anything more with their work or if they would be acknowledged or compensated for creating it.
TechCrunch’s source close to the project feels differently. Although the six established authors own the Realms of Ruin copyright (at least according to the archived version of the website), writers can be paid to participate in larger publishing projects where they don’t have ownership in the franchise. Over 850 “Star Trek” novels have been published, for example, but that doesn’t mean that those authors own the rights to “Star Trek.”
Harvard Law professor Rebecca Tushnet — who is a member of the legal team at the Organization for Transformative Works, which runs major fan fiction site Archive of Our Own — said that these questions would depend on what the actual contract is between Realms of Ruin and the writers.
“If they’re giving permission, there aren’t copyright infringement questions, there are ownership questions. And those would be navigated by contract. But the thing that you usually expect is that the people writing the fan works might have limited rights,” she told TechCrunch. Because the Realms of Ruin project was shut down before it officially launched, contract details weren’t available.
“The fan fiction part is probably the least interesting part about this,” added Tushnet. “It’s not unknown for authors to say, ‘I want to authorize you to play in my world, and you can even have some of the money.’ Kindle Worlds was an attempt at this, but it ultimately did not seem to be profitable, and Amazon shut it down.”
Fan creators are generally skeptical of projects like Kindle Worlds since they can seem like thinly veiled ways for corporations to profit off of these communities.
Link to the rest at TechCrunch
PG says that just because you can conceive and code something doesn’t make it a good idea.
Any time a person or entity is publishing something another person has written, there’s a legal issue over ownership of the copyright and what rights the copyright owner is granting or not granting to the publisher.
Fan fiction can be a lot of fun to read and write, but if you get your one blockbuster story idea and give it to someone else to publish someplace in cyberspace or meatspace, there are legal issues involving copyright ownership and what rights the author has granted to others. You don’t want anything hazy with respect to rights to something you’ve written. No hand-waving should be involved.
If you write something really good, haziness and hand-waving could quite possibly mean that everybody is giving a lot of their money to lawyers – many digits between the dollar sign and the decimal point. In some sorts of litigation, whoever runs out of money first loses.
Getting it right at the beginning is much, much easier and far, far cheaper.
9 thoughts on “Inside the Realms of Ruin”
Then, on top of all of the problems that PG rightly points out from the copyright (and much-dicier “idea theft”) legal regimes and the tendency of lawyers to find one’s wallet, there’s a much more fundamental — and ill-developed — legal/economic/artistic question lurking behind monetizing fan fiction: Does monetized fan fiction implicate, or outright constitute, unfair competition? And this sits on top of the artistic question of how much “competition” and “homage” and such can be justified artistically, without regard to legality (a problem taking up substantial shelf space in Don Quixote’s library; it’s not exactly new!).
This is long, long before we get to the subordinate — seldom engaged — question of who would actually have the right and authority to grant permission to monetize a particular piece of fan fiction in the first place. That “subordinate” question is a 200kg flea biting the dog’s tail… ouch! Consider a certain 1960s television series (Harcourt! Harcourt Fenton Mudd! You’ve been drinking again, haven’t you?) that has generated an awesome quantity of fan fiction over the years* and ask yourself whether a particular element might be subject to “separated rights” squabbles. Or whether the publisher of that monetized fan fiction — if it gets its way, about to be spun off to distinct ownership from the studio owner, which is itself a successor in interest to the original studio with some really shoddy recordkeeping over the years — has any right to either grant a permission… or deny it. Not, of course, that I’ve ever been involved in any litigation concerning this stuff. OK, not that I’ve ever been involved in any such litigation that isn’t buried under multiple layers of confidential settlements.
* Snark: Much of which has been commercially published by a Big-However-Many-There-Are-This-Week NYC outfit, and is all too frequently of lower quality than either the worst of that 1960s TV series or the mimeographed/hectographed fanzines of the 1970s. Not all; just far too much, just as those who evaluated Don Quixote’s library lamented.
To each their own (I have a friend who built up a pro career by getting the first True Fans via Holmsian fan fiction) but me, I’m too aware that pastiche is decidedly legal and much more profitable. File off the serial numbers and go to town.
Just ask Marvel (and every other superhero endeavor out there) about their endless SUPERMAN and BATMAN clones. Or Disney about the ORVILLE.
Or 90% of the high fantasy around.
No need to risk a long legal battle, just do the opposite of tradpub: different but the same. 😀
Or go with the public domain, call your Jane Austin fan fiction “Pride and Prejudice Variations” and sell it on Amazon. It looks like there’s a good market.
I like it! Beowulf and Beyond…
Actually, if I were playing in the PD I’d redo WORLDS COLLIDE and add a tbird volume. But I’d file off the serial numbers in case it’s not life+50. 😉
Plus we know a wee bit more about orphan worlds. Bronson Beta needs to be a moon of Alpha. But in general the book fits today’s world just fine.
…endless SUPERMAN and BATMAN clones, both of whom were “inspired” by earlier pulp characters.
Inspired isn’t cloned.
HYPERION, Aquarian, Sentry, etc
Pretty much every comics Universe has its Supes clone. Whether Omniman, Plutonian, Majestic, or any of the dozen imitations they are all riffs on the overpowered physical Superman.
(DC has their own clones too. And as part of thdir TANGENT project they applied the name to a mental overpowered character. Probably to cover those bases, too.)
For BATMAN, look to Marvel’s Nighthzwk (not DC’s western one) and early MOON KNIGHT.
Archetypes are a common storytelling resource (and fair game) but some outfits “borrow” a bit too much and don’t bother to file the serial numbers.
I’m in several author oriented Discord servers and every two months or so we get someone in looking for ‘partners’ to work on a shared world. No worries, the world building is done already! But the book/comics/show needs some help, is anyone interested?
None of these servers, btw, are fanfic heavy. We all give essentially the same answer: We’re too busy working on our own ideas, that we know are OURS, to set aside more time for something with iffy copyright/rights, payout, and a lack of creative control.
The new folks looking for (essentially) ghostwriters, never last long. It’s kind of funny to watch them cycle through the different servers (several share partnership links) and get the same answer over and over.
They all pine for video windfalls.
Especially if somebody else does all the work.
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