Anne McCaffrey, Fanfiction, and Copyright

by the author

As you may have heard, Anne McCaffrey, author of the popular Dragonriders of Pern and Harper Hall series, passed away on the 21st of November. I usually mourn when a favorite author dies, but this time, I’m ambivalent. Like many others, I was intensely fascinated by the world she created: the high drama of protecting a planet from a mysterious and devastating force; the unique bond between a dragon and its rider; the medieval-esque society with its guilds and halls, juxtaposed against traditional science fiction elements of space travel and the colonization of new worlds — it was a mix of ideas that I had never encountered before.

I was so fascinated that I wanted to participate. When I was 11 years old, I created a new account on Yahoo! and joined a role-playing group for the Dragonriders of Pern. These groups were mostly made up of teenagers writing participatory fanfiction. Someone, usually the host of the group, would be the head of the “weyr,” and everyone else would write characters for the hatchings. The host would decide who wrote the most compelling characters, and assign the dragon colors according to McCaffrey’s hierarchy: the best female character would be matched with the gold and the male with the bronze, and so on down the line. (Imagine my delight when my character won the first gold dragon..!)

Unfortunately, Anne McCaffrey herself got wind of these role-playing games, and decided that they were in violation of her copyright.[*] She and her lawyers began sending cease and desist letters and reporting the groups to their various hosting sites (Yahoo!/Geocities and Angelfire were the big ones). Nearly every single group got shut down, and there were more than a few terrified kids left wondering if they were about to get slapped with lawsuits.

I am not a lawyer, but I know that we were not reproducing any of McCaffrey’s writing; no money was being exchanged; and, as far as I can remember, nobody was using her characters. If what we were doing was illegal — and the law is unclear — I fail to see how it could have hurt Anne McCaffrey in any way.

All of us were hurt and disappointed. Perhaps she didn’t realize this, but in a sense, we looked up to her. She was doing what we wanted to be doing — writing powerful, intriguing stories. But instead of giving us encouragement, or even leaving us alone to play our harmless games, she threatened legal action against some of her biggest fans and turned us off her writing forever. I will probably always remember her as someone who expended a lot of time and effort bullying kids who found her work inspiring.

I haven’t written any fanfiction in years — since that incident, actually — but I think it’s a useful endeavor for people who want to write but don’t yet have the maturity and experience to develop their own worlds. World-building is hard (especially in sci-fi/fantasy), and being able to borrow someone else’s for a time is a good way to learn some of the tools of the genre without getting bogged down.

And for that matter, stories are for sharing. I completely agree that authors should be able to protect their creative work. I don’t think piracy should be legal or accepted, because creating good fiction is work and people deserve to be paid for their work. But fanfiction isn’t piracy — if you’d like to see some truly excellent work that would probably be considered fanfiction today, check out this author named William Shakespeare. Troilus and Cressida is one of my absolute favorites, but he totally nicked the whole story from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde — which I think Chaucer nicked from Boccaccio — who nicked it from Benoît de Sainte-Maure, who got the idea from Homer…

[*] Fans will know that Todd McCaffrey, Anne’s son, has been writing the Pern books for some time. I honestly don’t know who was behind the letters. This post is about “Anne” because they were sent in her name.

Edit: She did end up allowing fanfiction! Please read my update here!