Do lawyers rush in where fans have unabashedly tread? As fantasy and sci-fi fiction have become big dollar properties — especially if they make the leap from pages to screens (online and big) — there’s been a burst of literary litigation especially surrounding franchise properties. Serial works such as Harry Potter and Twilight have created cult-like followings, with fan fiction and “fanzines” emerging left and right. Generally speaking, these fan-created works coexist peacefully with the originals, serving in many instances to increase fervor and respect for the originating creation. But this isn’t always the case, as yet another bit of litigation involving the popular Darkover sci-fi books reminds.
In a recently filed complaint, the trust that owns and controls copyrights, marks and other commercial rights to the sci-fi series has taken aim at an author asserting she created derivative works without permission. The Darkover series has been in continuous print since 1962, with most of the books written by original author Marion Zimmer Bradley, best known for her tome, Mists of Avalon. The Darkover series is named for the fictional planet of its setting and the series follows a core of distinct characters. The works have shown staying power among readers and has built a big fan base. Since Bradley’s death in 1999, the Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Works Trust has operated as the trust for the series, with Ann Sharp acting as trustee.
But in 2006, the trust asserts, fan fiction author Mary Battle published Molly of Darkover, setting her book in the “Darkover universe” and employing the same characters in the Darkover series without trust approval. The trust says it learned about Sharp’s book, it sent a take down notice to publisher Lulu Press, which complied. Battle then contacted the trust, it says, to seek its publishing permission, which was denied. In 2007, Battle published Women of Darkover, which expanded upon and included Molly of Darkover in its entirety.
It’s worth noting that the trust filed its Darkover trademark application on Aug. 10, 2009, and was granted it on March 23, 2010. In September, 2011, it then sent take-down notices to “all websites selling Defendant Battle’s Darkover novels.” However, Women of Darkover is still available in certain corners of the web. The trust’s suit against Battle — whose response has not made it to the web yet — asserts both copyright infringement and trademark infringement. A key component of the Darkover complaint is the trust’s assertion that Battle’s novels are of “inferior quality,” raising at least two questions: 1) Where does fan fiction stop and infringement begin? and 2) Would there be a complaint if the trust felt the disputed works were of equal or superior quality to the original?
Within the fantasy-sci fi genre, of course, author J.K Rowling not only has amassed a great literary-cinematic fortune, she also has shown a pronounced pugnacious legal approach to those who so much as dip a tiny toe into her Harry Potter franchise, even if they are among the adoring. Ask copyright mavens and they still cluck their tongues, for example, over the legal tussle between Rowling and Steve Vander Ark, a school librarian and fan who created any encyclopedic lexicon of the events and characters in the author’s seven Potter books; the author praised the fan site the librarian launched — until he sought to convert it into a print work, which prompted a lawsuit aimed at the would-be publisher and considerable legal consternation as to whether the courts aimed to curb literary reference and guide books. The contretemps was of sufficient note that it earned its own Wikipedia page. Meantime, George R.R. Martin has attracted media notice for taking an entirely different tack with his die-hard fans: He engages them, via social media, a blog and a robust site run in Sweden by one of his chief aficionados, who may be one of the few folks on the planet who can keep straight the estimated thousand characters in the “Ice and Fire” fantasy and its best known book, Game of Thrones.