Over the course of my life-time, I will only buy a certain number of couches. Every couch I buy from Ikea, is one I’m not buying elsewhere, and every couch I find on the side of the road is one I’m not paying for at all. This puts all couch sellers in competition for my couch buying dollars. And the same goes for food, shoes, bedsheets, and most other commodities.
This children, is called Capitalism. And its invasive and inescapable.
Under capitalism books are also commodities. But books (and other media) don’t really work the same way as other commodities, because the only limit on the number of books I might buy is my personal income (and to an extent, my bookshelf space). The fact that I’ve bought and read Harry Potter, does not reduce the likelihood of me reading any other book, even any other book about a wizard school. I might by new Harry Potter books before other wizard school books, but if anything, reading and loving Harry Potter makes me more not less likely to read something similar later.
And for this reason, when authors get scared of other author’s success, I think they’re being silly.
Now, according to the rules of Copyright Law, fanfiction is different. The idea, broadly, is that if I publish fanfiction for profit not only am I writing a story which will enter capitalist pseudo-competition with other stories, but I am borrowing, and profiting off someone else’s ideas and hard work. And that’s no good. Because of this, fanfiction has historically been strictly not-for-profit, and has inhabited a legal grey area.
In general, I think the concept of copyright law is a good idea. Authors should retain rights to their own ideas. They should be able to stop other people from stealing them and profiting at their expense. And that, is really what copyright is for, in spirit. A copy of Harry Potter really is in direct competition with the original, just like Sears and Ikea compete to sell couches.
But does fanfiction really compete with original works?
Well, not really.
Have you ever read fanfiction from a fandom you’re not in? I wouldn’t recommend it. 99% of the time its dull and unintelligible, because you’re missing huge chunks of information. Unlike an original work, that stands on its own, fanfiction tends to assume you’ve read the original work, so it ditches the world-building that would go into an original novel. Drabbles, missing scenes and other short works are extreme examples of this. And some fanfic genres are explicitly dependent on their original works, most fluff, hurt/comfort and to a certain extent PWP works draw heavily on the emotions already established by their original work. Those Steve/Bucky recovery fics are not as gripping to someone who doesn’t know who Steve or Bucky are.
So if anything fanfiction competes less with an original work than other original works. I might decide that I’ll check out this Harry Potter thing after I run out Tamora Pierce books to read, but I’m not going to do the same with Harry Potter fanfiction.
There are two kinds of fanfiction that this doesn’t apply to. The first is AUs, which often really do function as fully independent works if you change all the names. But you can already publish those if you actually change the names. That’s how we ended up with Fifty Shades of Grey.
The second, which is a stickier situation, is full-scale retellings. We already publish these on works that are out of copyright, Sherlock and Elementary are both good examples and they may be the limit of my non-competition theory. If Arthur Conan Doyle were still alive then both of these works really would be in direct competition with his novels. They draw on is concepts and characters, but they’re all stand alone works. So I guess total retellings might be limit of my hypothetical fanfic friendly copyright laws.
If anything, I think the real loss, if fanfiction became a profitable industry, would be to fandom, not to the publishing industry. Fandom can be a strange and fractious place, but it can also be a place to develop writing skills, get encouragement, try new things, and generally to play. But if we all suddenly have the option to publish; that is, to stop playing and start working. I fear that we’d lose the ability to write without worrying about who was reading.
Because that is how capitalism works too.