To me, the issue of what is plagiarism is pretty clear, even in fanfic. I feel like I know what is off limits in my view of fandom and I have good boundaries. Plagiarism is using someone else’s words and passing them off as one’s own.
Fanfic isn't plagiarism chez moi - we all acknowledge that the characters aren't ours and we don't try to pass anything off as original that isn't. If I use lines from the X-Men movie in my X-Men movieverse fanfic, I'm not plagiarizing.
In my fiction I have Scott say to Charles when Charles is dying, “I’ll take care of them for you,” for example. He says that in the movie when he thinks Charles is dying. It seems reasonable to me that Scott would say it again when Charles really is. I use a few other lines in that way, and I assume that people familiar with the movies will realize that I didn’t make those lines up any more than I made up Scott’s optic blasts. I'm taking canon and adding to it; that's what fanfic is about.
What about legality? Well we are definitely in a legal grey area. executrix gave a wonderful talk at Con.txt about fanfic and the law and what I took from it, mostly, is that there’s so little case law that not much is really clear from a legal POV. For the record, if anyone from Marvel or Fox asked me to take down my stories, I would and it wouldn't be necessary to threaten legal action. It would be enough that the creators of the source text said they didn't want us doing this. That they don't say that says, to me, that they are neutral or tacitly positive. I think we help them sell a lot more comics and movie tickets.
OTOH, if I were to take lines (or pages of text) from some other source (other than the canon I’m writing fanfic about) and use it in my fanfic as if I’d written it I would be plagiarizing. I wouldn't do that and I don't really like it when others do. I think I can honestly say that any line my characters speak that isn’t in the movie is one I made up or one I heard a real person saying and thought would fit. This is called either pillaging your friends’ lives for fiction or having an ear for dialogue – I prefer the latter.
I do think people can accidentally take lines from other sources just because they heard them, liked them, internalized them and forgot where they came from. OTOH, when it’s not a line here or a line there but wholesale copying of chunks of text from other sources, I don’t find it ethical. I wouldn't pillory someone who does that; I don't feel like it's a crime against humanity. I don't like it, though, and do think that kind of thing is ethically wrong, whether the person is taking text from a published work or television program or from another fanfic writer’s story. That's all very clear to me.
But a whole lot of what happens in fandom isn’t plagiarism of other sources but just inspiration from other sources. That’s what fanon is about – someone comes up with an idea and it catches on. Eventually you don’t necessarily know who originated it; it’s just kind of there in the ether. It’s also quite possible for two people to independently come up with the same idea about a character. As penknife points out, there are just so many possible variations, for example, of Erik and Charles Play Chess and Have Subtext-laden Conversation during the Game. So A might feel like B took her idea for that, but maybe they both just had similar ones.
Me, I’m not bothered about who takes my ideas. I love fanon and love to see how different people use a concept in different ways. I’m mostly flattered when I see something that I think I originated being used in other stories, and particularly when it becomes so widespread that I think people who never read my stories are using it. It makes me feel influential. I’m also just interested by the whole idea of inspiration and how little we know about it. I’ve sometimes realized long after I wrote a story where a particular idea originated. I’m sure I’m not the only author – fan or otherwise – that happens to.
In X-Men fandom, there are things I am quite sure I originated, things that I think I originated, things I know I got from others, and things I don’t know where they came from. Here are a few of each:
Things I Know I Originated That Have Spread:
- Cyclops having certain verbal peculiarities, in particular answering “Okay?” with “More than okay.” I looked through my first series when I decided to write more and looked for things that I’d had Scott say, in order to pick a few to be kind of catch phrases of his, in order to make his voice more distinct. Logan’s verbal patterns are really in evidence in the movie, but Scott speaks so little that he was kind of a tabula rasa. I came up with “More than okay” and made it a standard thing he says. It’s something I have him say often, and also a couple of times when another character says it, someone will comment that he must have been spending time with Scott. It became really common in X-Men movieverse, and I’m quite sure that at least some authors thought it came from the comics, not me.
- Cyclops having a history of teenage prostitution. I did look into this and I’m quite confident I was the first to write it, although Scott as a hustler in the pool sense (which I don’t write) was quite common in comicsverse well before the movie. It’s implicit but not stated in my first series, explicitly mentioned in my second (December 2000) and explored in detail later. There was a huge crop of Scott-as-teen-hustler stories starting in 2001, and I got a lot of letters from readers saying “So and So stole your idea.” I had a stock answer (“I don’t own teenage prostitution, nor would I want to”) and was not bothered by the fact of others using the idea, whether or not they got it from me. I did look back to see if I could find any before mine, and afaict there aren’t any. I don’t like what a lot of writers have done with this concept. I used it as a partial explanation for why he is so enamored of a conventional life – he has memories of fear and degradation from a time in his past when that’s all he could do to survive. My description of his time as a hustler is informed by the experiences of real life men who worked in sex trade as teenage throwaways. A lot of writers, by contrast, eroticize and (even worse, to my mind) romanticize a hustler period of his. But I don’t mind anyone using it, and if they did get the idea from me, great. As I said, t makes me feel influential.
- Logan having paralytic drugs but no anesthesia during the surgery when they put the adamantium in. An anesthesiologist friend of mine told me, a long time ago, about mistakes in anesthesia where a patient is paralyzed but not anesthetized and feels the pain of the surgery but can’t say anything. It was quite horrific to hear about and since it’s canon that Logan had horrific things done to him, I had the idea of them doing this to him on purpose. It’s also probably inspired by one of the nightmare scenes in the movie where you see him very still but with his eyes open and looking terrified. I could imagine him paralyzed but aware as I looked at that. I think others may have been inspired by that scene, by my fiction, or both, but I’ve seen it crop up a few times and I’m pretty sure mine was the first.
ETA thdancingferret told me in comments that this idea comes from the comics. Not only that, it comes from a comic book series I've read, remember quite vividly, and had nightmares for weeks when I first read it. It's the Weapon X series and it gave me lots of great ideas for torturing poor Logan. For those who've read my series Canadian Nights, Logan's nightmare about the wolves comes directly from that series of comic books. And so, apparently, does the idea of Logan having paralytic drugs without anesthesia, which I was sure came from hearing from my friend Dr. J.J. about doctors who have done that by accident. So this illustrates my point that we don't know where our ideas come from often!
Things I Think I Originated That Have Spread
- Logan having a “vanishingly short refractory period” and that being related to the healing factor. I’m not sure I’m the first on this one because I think it could have shown up in het comicverse fiction that I haven’t read, but I think I started the trend in slash and in movieverse.
- Scott having accidentally killed his father when he came into his powers. I think this one is probably mine because it’s not consistent with comicverse canon, so it would seem that it’s new with movieverse and new with me, but I’m not sure. Certainly the idea of mutants as dangerous, particularly when coming into their powers, is a basic one to the X-Men concept, so this is the kind of thing that I think could come up independently.
Things I Know I Got from Someone Else (not necessarily the originator of the idea)
- Scott as having been a Boy Scout. A lot of comicsverse writers refer to him as a “boy scout” in a figurative (and generally derisive) sense. I think it fits in with his character and I like to use it in part for that. I also really resent the homophobic nature of the BSA, so I gave him his first gay experience on a Boy Scout camping trip.
- Xavier having set up a charitable foundation and he and some of the X-Men being trustees of it. I first read this in a story by minisinoo. I don’t know if she originated it or if it’s canon or fanon, but I like it and have used it a lot.
Things I Know I Got From Somewhere Else But Don’t Know Where
- Scott having impaired vision, specifically being unable to see in color and having poor night vision. This is an idea that was kicking around fandom for a while, I think. I don’t know if it has a comics canon basis or not. I really like it, think it’s emblematic of a lot about his character, showing how his power is such an ambiguous gift. I feel like I just kind of picked it up from the ether, but there may be someone out there who invented it.
- Scott as assistant headmaster of Xavier’s Academy. It makes sense since he’s Charles’s second-in-command as Field Leader that he’d have a similar role at the school. It kind of emphasizes the parallelism between the X-Men and the school. I like it; I think I picked it up somewhere but I have no idea where.
- Telephonic telepathy – my telepathic characters can read minds over long distances provided they establish a vocal link first, through talking on the phone. Otherwise they have short ranges where telepathy works. I think I got this from a comic book but I’m not sure.
I’d love to hear from anyone who reads this:
- What concepts do you think you’ve originated in fanfic?
- Which ones do you know where you got them from?
- Which just kind of is out there – not in canon but in so much fanfic that no one knows where it started?
Oh, I will get back to Gay Parenting 101. I’ve got one more legal post to do, and then one on choosing a school supportive of gay families.