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Marion Zimmer Bradley vs. Fanfiction

Most writers, both commercial and fanfic, have heard some version of the Marion Zimmer Bradley “cautionary tale” regarding fanfiction.  In one version, Bradley was a generous, nurturing author who encouraged fanfiction until a greedy fanfic author tried to sue her, torpedoing a book in the process.  In another, Bradley had was preying on helpless fanfic authors, using their ideas to perpetuate her publishing empire.

If we’re going to toss this story around every time we talk about fanfiction, it would be nice to have a few facts to go with the fourth-hand accounts, guesswork, and rumors. Michael Thomas and opusculus have both posted about the MZB incident lately, and provided inspiration and starting points for my own write-up. But I wanted to dig deeper, and to avoid the wiki-style sources which in my opinion aren’t as reliable for this sort of thing.

To put my own biases out there, one of my first sales was to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine.  I later sold a story to Sword & Sorceress XXI.  In addition, I’m published by DAW, which also published Bradley’s work.  I’ll leave it to you to read and decide whether this influences my research and write-up.

First hand statements are in red.  I’ve included links wherever possible.

The Background:

Bradley allowed and even encouraged fanfiction in the beginning.  From Bradley’s 1980 introduction to The Keeper’s Price, the first Darkover anthology (page 14): “[I]n a very real sense, I regard myself not as the “inventor” of Darkover, but its discoverer. If others wish to play in my fantasy world, who am I to slam its gates and in churlish voice demand that they build their own? … Why should I deny myself the pleasure of seeing these young writers learning to do their thing by, for a little while, doing my thing with me?”

Bradley even edited the fanzine Starstone with her husband Walter Breen.  (Though to me, this blurs the definitions a little.  Is it really fanfic if the creator is the one editing the magazine?  What about something like the Star Wars anthologies Kevin J. Anderson edited?  Some would say no, because these are licensed works, explicitly permitted by the copyright holder.  Others would say it’s still fanfiction.  Me, I’m gonna save that argument for another day.)

Years later, a fan named Jean Lamb published a short novel called “Masks” in the fanzine Moon Phases.  (Possibly issue #8 in 1986.)  Lamb confirms this in a newsgroup posting from 3/19/2001.  And here’s where things start to get messy.

The Conflict:

In a letter Bradley allegedly wrote to Writers Digest in March of 1993, she explains, “one of the fans [Lamb] wrote a story, using my world and my characters, that overlapped the setting I was using for my next Darkover novel. Since she had sent me a copy of her fanzine, and I had read it, my publisher will not publish my novel set during that time period, and I am now out several years’ work, as well as the cost of inconvenience of having a lawyer deal with this matter.”1

Lamb’s version of events is different: “I received a letter offering me a sum and a dedication for all rights to the text. I attempted at that point to _very politely_ negotiate a better deal. I was told that I had better take what I was offered, that much better authors than I had not been paid as much (we’re talking a few hundred dollars here) and had gotten the same sort of ‘credit’ (this was in the summer of 1992).”

Finally, here is Mercedes Lackey’s version.  Lackey worked closely with Bradley, and for that reason I count her as a valid primary source.  “Marion had begun to write a Darkover book about Regis Hastur. She liked the ‘take’ a particular fan author had on the situations and asked to use that spin on things for her book in return for the usual acknowlegement in the front of the book. She had done this before with other fan authors.”

Bradley had indeed borrowed from fans and other writers before.  From Elizabeth Waters: “Back in 1977 I wrote a Darkover story about Hilary Castamir. One of my friends knew MZB and passed it on to her, and she rewrote it into ‘The Keeper’s Price.’ Eventually it became the title story of the first Darkover anthology.” The story is listed in the Table of Contents as a collaboration between Bradley and Waters.

The Facts:

As far as I can tell, the following is not disputed.

  1. Bradley originally encouraged fanfiction.
  2. Bradley read Jean Lamb’s story “Masks” in Moon Phases.
  3. Bradley contacted Lamb, offering payment and a dedication in exchange for rights to use the ideas from “Masks” in the Darkover novel “Contraband.”
  4. Bradley and Lamb were unable to reach an agreement, and “Contraband” was cancelled.
  5. Bradley changed her policy on fanfiction, stating that she would no longer allow it.

The Unknown:

I’ve read various accounts and speculations, but have been unable to find definitive answers to the following questions.

  1. Who was the first to hire a lawyer, Lamb or Bradley?
  2. How much time and work was actually lost on Bradley’s part?
  3. How much was Bradley planning to use from Lamb’s work?
  4. What exactly forced the cancellation of “Contraband”?

That last question bothers me.  Several statements suggest the book was already being written.  If Bradley and Lamb couldn’t come to an agreement, that’s one thing, but I don’t see how that could ruin the entire book.  If you don’t have rights to use someone else’s story, then you continue to write your own.

One possibility comes from the editor of Moon Phases, Nina Boal, who wrote, “Marion did offer Jean a special dedication and also $500. Jean refused this, saying that she wanted a byline for the novel. Jean also became convinced (erroneously) that Marion intended to plagerize [sic] from her fan-written work about Danvan Hastur.”

Whether this was actually the case or just a fear on Bradley’s part, I can understand where the potential for legal complications and accusations of plagiarism could be enough to scuttle the project.  However, this is speculative on my part.

My Conclusion:

The MZB incident has been used for years as a caution to authors against allowing fanfiction. Looking at what facts I could find, I don’t believe this is valid.

I’m not saying authors should or should not permit fanfiction, but in this case, I believe the real problem arose not from the fact that Bradley allowed Darkover fanfiction, but from two other, very specific issues:

  1. Bradley was an active participant in Darkover fanfiction, editing a fanzine and reading unlicensed, fan-written works.
  2. Bradley tried to buy the rights to use a fan’s story.

You can argue whether Bradley’s offer was unfair or Lamb’s response was unreasonable. Without knowing the specifics, I couldn’t say one way or another. (Knowing human nature, my guess is there’s probably blame enough for both sides, if you’re worried about that.)

The lesson I take from all this is to avoid potentially putting myself in Bradley’s position, and that means not reading fanfiction of my work. Sure, most fanfic authors I’ve met and spoken to have been wonderful people … but it only takes one.  So if someone likes my work enough to write fanfiction, I find that flattering. But I don’t want to know about it.

  1. I’ve heard claims that DAW killed the project. I’ve also spoken to Betsy Wolheim at DAW, who states that this was Bradley’s decision, not DAW’s.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 156 comments — Leave a comment )
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May. 26th, 2010 01:23 pm (UTC)
I talked about it with Betsy, too, and can confirm that she said it was Bradley's decision, not DAW's. I can also say that there was a lot more going on, but it was mostly personal interaction stuff of the sort that makes it fairly clear this was an isolated situation--not a dire warning against fanfiction.
May. 26th, 2010 01:24 pm (UTC)
BTW I've reached the halfway point in Red Hood's Revenge and am LOVING it.
(no subject) - jimhines - May. 26th, 2010 01:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
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May. 26th, 2010 01:24 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this, Jim. Interesting.
May. 26th, 2010 01:35 pm (UTC)
Cool--I've seen bits and pieces of this online, but nothing that summed the situation up like this and considered both sides. I'm very curious about all the iffy details, but it seems unlikely we'll ever find out.

I completely agree with your conclusion too. As I think you know, I'm totally in support of fanfic, but I don't think I'd read fanfiction of my work, either. Or at least not until I finished the series completely. Not only to avoid these kinds of concerns, but also to keep myself from a) getting upset because they're doing it wrong! b) getting upset because they're doing it better than I am! and c) getting (subconsciously) influenced by someone else's approach/ideas.
May. 26th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)
I'm curious too, but I agree -- unless someone digs up scans of the actual correspondence, I don't think we're going to get much more info on this.

And of course, when you talk about finishing a series completely, do you ever know for *certain* that it's finished? :-)
(no subject) - corinneduyvis - May. 26th, 2010 03:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
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May. 26th, 2010 01:37 pm (UTC)

I think that's the best advice an author can take. Don't discourage your fans, but don't read the fan fiction.

May. 26th, 2010 01:44 pm (UTC)
It sounds to me like once MZB had approached Lamb to use her idea and give her credit, and Lamb refused the terms, that MZB probably had no choice but to cancel her project, not for legal reasons, but reasons of propriety. She would have no plausible deniability regarding stealing Lamb's idea, even though there would have been nothing illegal about it (ideas are not copyright). In short, it doesn't sound like this was a legal mess so much as just a mess. Not reading fanfic is one way of avoiding some of this, but I wonder how much protection that would really give you in case of some kind of plagiarism suit. If the story is published in a fanzine, then there's an argument to be made that it was out there and available to you. Perhaps it's better for authors to look for other legal protections, as well, such as incorporation and liability insurance. Already publishers are routinely forcing us to sign indemnity clauses. (Note that a plagiarism suit based on someone else stealing your idea is a frivolous suit almost by definition, but that doesn't mean it's not a lot of trouble and expense for the one defending.)

Ultimately, in the case of MZB, it sounds like she lost a bit of control of her creation and got burned. On the other hand, I think her sales and her original Darkover novels got a huge boost from all of the author-sanctioned fanfic and shared-world, authorized anthologies. Would she have had the same kind of success if she hadn't nurtured a fan writing community? I don't think so. Being a writing mentor was part of MZB's brand.
May. 26th, 2010 01:50 pm (UTC)
I've heard the "ideas can't be copyrighted" argument a lot, but what does that actually mean? My interpretation of various fairy tale characters is an idea. My worldbuilding is an idea. My storylines are ideas. All of it starts with ideas. Sure, if you want to write about a goblin underdog, there's no reason you can't go ahead and do that. But if your story gets too close to Goblin Quest, then eventually "you can't copyright ideas" falls apart as a defense.
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May. 26th, 2010 01:45 pm (UTC)
Thank you for laying out the facts, since it's such an oft-cited case.

And, as a fanwriter I'm perfectly cool with the source authors never reading my work. (Heck, the idea makes me totally nervous, since they would be the people who could tell me 'you're doing it wrong' and actually be 100% right.) At least with fanart, there's less of an issue -- both because issues of taking ideas is harder, since more transformation is required, and because many authors don't draw.
May. 26th, 2010 01:51 pm (UTC)
I absolutely love seeing fan art :-) I peek in over at DeviantArt from time to time to see what people have done with my goblins and princesses, though I rarely comment. I figure that might be a littel weird...
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(no subject) - jimhines - May. 27th, 2010 12:36 am (UTC) - Expand
May. 26th, 2010 01:51 pm (UTC)
That's fascinating. It's one of those stories you always hear about but usually veiled references rather than actual details. Thanks for that.
May. 26th, 2010 02:07 pm (UTC)
Seconded. Whenever the fanfic brouhaha rears up there's generally a mention of MZB but I never knew the particulars. Thanks, Jim!
May. 26th, 2010 02:10 pm (UTC)
*g* Thanks for the shout out.

Those are pretty much my conclusions. I'm thinking about stopping at Boston University one of these days to see if I can find anything else in the Bradley archives.

May. 26th, 2010 02:19 pm (UTC)
If you do, I hope you'll let us know what you find!
May. 26th, 2010 02:24 pm (UTC)
I wonder how much MZB's declining health at that time was also an issue. And how much she still wrote herself or had co-written.

The <a href="http://fanlore.org/wiki/Marion_Zimmer_Bradley#Ghostwriters_and_Co-Authors>fanlore-article</a> goes a bit into that.
May. 26th, 2010 02:28 pm (UTC)
I'm not interested in getting into her stroke or declining health, as I don't believe it's relevant. I don't think speculating as to *why* she chose to try to buy rights to fanfic ideas is going to add much to this discussion.

Not trying to be snippy. But there's a fair amount of ugliness and gossip out there, and I don't want to get into that here.
(no subject) - gwendolen - May. 26th, 2010 02:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
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May. 26th, 2010 02:41 pm (UTC)
I think it probably suffers some of the same problems you get with self-publishing, in that the author is not always the best judge, so you're getting everything instead of just the stories that make it past the gatekeepers. (Though as I understand it, there is a fair amount of feedback in the fanfic community, and some places are better than others about ratings and promoting the better stories. Those more active in the fanfic communities could talk about this much better than I can, though.)
teal deer warning - cofax7 - May. 26th, 2010 03:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
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May. 26th, 2010 02:53 pm (UTC)
1. Bradley was an active participant in Darkover fanfiction, editing a fanzine and reading unlicensed, fan-written works.

2. Bradley tried to buy the rights to use a fan’s story.

May. 26th, 2010 02:53 pm (UTC)
I wrote out my research of the facts of the case a couple weeks ago too, actually. Link here, if you're interested. I'm rather less generous towards her, but then I'd just finished reading through her depositions in order to get an idea of how cognitively impaired she seemed. And after that, I just wasn't feeling very generous towards her at the time.

One of the things I do think is very necessary to point out in this case is that MZB almost certainly wasn't writing herself at the time. After the stroke she had in 1989, three years before this all happened, all the evidence I can dig up suggests very strongly that she was no longer capable of writing. I think in the end, that was a large part of why this case became so very messy, since a ghostwriter contacting for permission to use a fanfic author's work strikes me as just asking for messiness to ensue, while the original author contacting...has some potential, but doesn't strike me as asking for a mess in quite the same way.

But man, the more I think about this case, the more messy and unfortunate it all looks. It's just an incredibly sad case all around, really.
May. 26th, 2010 03:14 pm (UTC)
Check the second paragraph of my post, where I link to your write-up.

I don't see the stroke as relevant. Whether it was Bradley herself who wrote the letter to Lamb, or someone with the legal right to pen the next Darkover novel ... either way, it was a rightsholder contacting a fan. We don't know the details beyond that, and I don't think it changes anything.
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Um...to *you* - sherrold - May. 31st, 2010 12:53 am (UTC) - Expand
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May. 26th, 2010 03:23 pm (UTC)
Interesting story, Jim. Thanks for the research.

Are you sure you're not a scientist? ;-)
May. 26th, 2010 03:28 pm (UTC)
I blame the psych degree. It was a research-oriented program, so there was a lot of practice with this stuff.

Also, I just like science :-)
May. 26th, 2010 03:35 pm (UTC)
You should be on "Myth Busters"!

Edited at 2010-05-26 03:35 pm (UTC)
May. 26th, 2010 03:37 pm (UTC)
I wish! :-)

Have you seen the First Novel Survey write-up I did?
(no subject) - dr_phil_physics - May. 26th, 2010 04:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 26th, 2010 03:36 pm (UTC)
Thank you for laying that case out so nicely! ^_^

It would seem to me (from looking at this) that if an author wanted to edit and have some control over fan-created content in their sandbox, they should be paying the contributors some nominal fee to keep the legal-ese trolls happy and to keep their hides out of hot water.

If one doesn't feel like doing that, then simply avoiding fan works seems like the best policy all around and the easiest for authors to adhere to. Most fan-fic writers I know (self included) don't want to get anyone in a bad legal spot and are ok with keeping that aspect of their author love away from the author.

What makes me grumpy is authors trying to control reader reaction after their book is made public. Fan fiction is no more or less valid than any other reaction to a text.

How much was Bradley planning to use from Lamb’s work?
What exactly forced the cancellation of “Contraband”?

Two very interesting questions, that I'm sure have very interesting answers. I wish I knew. I was under the impression that it takes quite a bit to cancel a book... but my experience with books is reading them, not the publication. I could easily be wrong.
May. 26th, 2010 03:37 pm (UTC)
Very interesting, Jim.
May. 26th, 2010 03:46 pm (UTC)
I gather much of MZB's fanfic activities took place before the internet was a big thing, and I wonder how it would have affected her outlook on it, since the internet makes it so much easier to distribute and proliferate. I suppose it's neither here nor there to wonder, but it is a different world now.

Alas, a key player is no longer with us and cannot speak for herself on this issue.
May. 26th, 2010 04:45 pm (UTC)
"Alas, a key player is no longer with us and cannot speak for herself on this issue."

Yes, that. Which means the best we can do is speculate. I'd be curious to know if any of the original documents were still around, such as the original letter which was supposedly sent to Jean Lamb, but trying to guess the details of exactly what happened ... well, it's guesswork.
May. 26th, 2010 03:56 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for researching this and writing this up, Jim. I love facts, presented as objectively as possible.
May. 26th, 2010 03:57 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for working this out and posting it.
May. 26th, 2010 04:11 pm (UTC)
Great bit of research here.

I do think that any writer who gets published professionally has to think at least provisionally about the implications of the existence of fanfiction for their work, and come up with a policy for how to deal with it.

One thing I would like to do is create a story with a shared universe that is specifically intended to be a fanfic source. Both to see the results and to determine the viability of such a thing, because even a few moment's thought reveals that it could quickly get messy. If someone writes something using such a shared setting, and publishes it, and someone else writes fanfic of *that*, whose jurisdiction does it fall under? Mine? Theirs? No one's?
May. 26th, 2010 04:47 pm (UTC)
It's interesting to look into shared world fiction, things like Thieves' World and Wild Cards. I've talked to a few of the authors, and it's fascinating to hear how the contracts, ownership, and various rights all work. My sense is that it requires an awful lot of careful planning and very specific contracts, at least commercially.
May. 26th, 2010 04:13 pm (UTC)
Nice write up.

I've heard of the case, but you added some things I hadn't seen before. It seems like with so many questions regarding the legalities involved in fan fiction that someone hasn't contacted a lawyer to find out more about this issue.

There are certainly enough non-legal opinions floating around about the whole thing.
May. 26th, 2010 04:49 pm (UTC)
"There are certainly enough non-legal opinions floating around about the whole thing."

Yep. I know a few people who are lawyers or work with publishing law, but for the most part, I get very skeptical when people start explaining what the law says about fanfiction and such.
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May. 26th, 2010 04:15 pm (UTC)
Dude, you're like the Mythbuster of publishing. Should I get you a little black beret to wear while you write these posts?
May. 26th, 2010 04:49 pm (UTC)
That would be sweet! Now I want to get a beret and do a Mythbusters LJ icon :-)
(no subject) - tsubaki_ny - May. 26th, 2010 05:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 26th, 2010 04:18 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this, Jim. Very interesting read. Also, thanks for your numerous postings about issues surrounding self-publishing, as it wound up coming in handy this morning at my day job (I recognized the name of a publisher from a post you made some time back.)
May. 26th, 2010 04:30 pm (UTC)
I agree with your conclusions. What caused the problem was that MZB read and was involved in the fan community too heavily.

Having written and read fanfiction, one's perception of a character, world and situation can be very pliable. I often walked away from reading fanfiction with a new take on something that was different than I'd had before and often slightly different from the source material.
May. 26th, 2010 05:25 pm (UTC)
You've answered a question I've long had
Decades ago (at this point), I was on a Lois McMaster Bujold email/chat list. LMB, who stopped by on occasion, asked the group to put FANFIC in the subject header to steer her away from unintended reading of fanfiction. She didn't disallow fanfiction (she wrote Trek fic herself) but had been advised to steer clear of reading fanfiction of her own works.

A discussion ensued and someone mentioned that there was this story of someone who wrote a MZB fan story and lawyers and lawsuits and whatever. Then Jean Lamb, a member of the group, piped up and said that she was that author and that, yes, it involved the writing of fanfiction and MZB and that the lawyers involved in the case had told her she was not permitted to say anything more about the matter. (Of course, we may have been in a time line near the event back then and time heals all wounds, right?) Of course, this made me curious.

So, thanks for the post and for clearing up, in some small way, the mystery of this.
May. 26th, 2010 05:30 pm (UTC)
Re: You've answered a question I've long had
Oh, interesting. That would explain why I didn't find more out there from Lamb's point of view. Considering how often this comes up, I was curious why she hadn't written more.
Re: You've answered a question I've long had - sueo2 - May. 28th, 2010 01:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: You've answered a question I've long had - sueo2 - May. 28th, 2010 02:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
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