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50 shades of trademark infringement
Bestselling author E.L. James has pledged not to send cease-and-desist letters to creators of fanwork.
E.L. James, the bestselling author of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, raised eyebrows this week when news broke that she had ordered a Coventry housewife to stop branding sex parties with trademarked images from the books.
But it turns out there’s no need to worry—at least for fanfiction writers.
Fans at Metafilter, Oh No They Didn’t, and elsewhere reacted with immediate skepticism and accusations of hypocrisy. As famous as James is for her novels, she’s almost equally well-known for having “pulled to publish” her work of Twilight fanfiction, originally called “Master of the Universe,” an original BDSM erotic novel retitled Fifty Shades of Grey.
So when her agent, Valarie Hoskins, was quoted as saying, “You can’t just hijack something someone else owns,” the irony was obvious.
One of the hallmarks of fanfiction is that it functions on the basis of a free exchange economy. The “secret handshake” version of fandom is that creators allow fanfic because fans aren’t making money off of it, at least not directly; many fans make money from fandom in other ways. If no one gets paid for fanfic, the creators of the original works don’t have any reason to feel threatened by it or to break out their cease-and-desist notices.
Fandom has operated on this principle for years, but the times are changing. James and dozens of other Twilight fans have pulled to publish their works of Twilight fanfic after they garnered large fanbases on Fanfiction.net, Twilighted.net, and other fanfic forums. At least two publishing houses, Omnific and the Writers Coffeehouse, were formed directly from the Twilight fandom, with the goal of publishing popular Twilight fics.
Many fans and critics of fandom feel this practice is dishonest—that it not only threatens the livelihood of the original creator, Stephenie Meyer in this case, but that it exploits fans. Fans begin reading the works of fanfic in good faith that the author will complete their fics. When an author writes to a certain point, builds a fan following, and then yanks the work for publication, many fans resent them.
Certainly E.L. James has had her share of criticism for the decision to publish her fanfiction, though frequent accusations of “plagiarism” are inaccurate. Still, Stephenie Meyer gave her blessing to James’ mega-bestselling franchise, which has now outsold both Twilight and Harry Potter in many countries, and James’ own fandom has been thriving with fanfic of its own.
But fans remained worried, especially since Hoskins told the Coventry Telegraph that James’s representation was “sending out letters every day.” Author Casea Major recently pulled-to-publish the first Fifty Shades fic turned original novel, Devil’s Brand. When Crushable wrote about the phenomenon, Major scourged her website of any mention of the book and its October launch date. Crushable asked, “What had her so spooked she decided to pull Devil’s Brand?”
Could it be James herself? Numerous members of the publishing community told the Dot that Major was rumored to have received a cease-and-desist letters from James. If true, it would be a damning state of affairs for fans of writers who began as fans themselves. An apparently fake tweet purporting to be from the official Twilight movie franchise summed up the sentiment: “Bitch, please.”
We spoke to Hoskins to clarify exactly what sorts of infringement claims James was pursuing, and the news is good: James did not target fanfiction writers or other authors.
“We have not, nor will we, send any cease-and-desist letters to creators of fanwork,” Hoskins said.
“We did not write to Casea Major. We have only written to people who are trying to profit by trading off Fifty Shades of Grey without endorsement or authority (selling T-shirts, mugs, cards, sex parties, that kind of thing).”
The issue, then, boils down to use of trademarked images, not copyrighted characters and ideas. Clearly James, who has been notoriously reticent to talk about fandom or the Twilight fanfiction community, is committed to supporting fanfiction of her own work.
Attempts to contact Major for comment went unreturned at press time.
Note: this article originally mistakenly reported the screencap as a deleted tweet. The tweet appears to be a fake..
Aja Romano is a geek culture reporter and fandom expert. Their reporting at the Daily Dot covered everything from Harry Potter and anime to Tumblr and Gamergate. Romano joined Vox as a staff reporter in 2016.