“Fifty Shades” of Ethics

 By Erica Misoshnik

Disclaimer: The following post is my personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the thoughts of the Women’s National Book Association – they were simply kind enough to let me post it.

By now I’m sure you have all heard of Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic novel by E.L. James that has taken the country by storm. It’s the sort of book that makes people happy to have e-readers and despite its popularity, is in no way something you would give as a present on Mother’s Day – though the writers of this SNL skit may disagree. It has been featured on ABC news and discussed on The View – even Ellen is up on the trend. There is also a parody being released this summer. So yes, everyone is talking about the salacious novel, but there is something people outside of the publishing world seem to be forgetting…and it has nothing to do with Fifty Shades’ steamy content.

This book started as a work of Twilight fan-fiction.

Fifty Shades of Grey was initially called Master of the Universe and the original Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele were none other than Edward Cullen and Isabella Swan. Master of the Universe was published on fanfiction.net and garnered approximately 37,000 reader reviews before James moved the book to her own site. Those are just reviews, not page hits. Only the authors can see how many total hits they have gotten per story on fanfiction.net, so it is currently impossible to know exactly how many people read the story before it was moved. It has been estimated that E.L. James had tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of fans on fanfiction.net alone.

None of this would be a big deal because there are some wildly popular works of fan-fiction, which have accumulated their own fan bases. (Fun fact: Cassandra Clare, author of the best-selling Mortal Instruments series, was a writer of fan-fiction, too.) But it is a big deal; because none of those writers went on to get 7 figure book deals for their fan-fics.

To be fair, Fifty Shades of Grey is technically an original work. Even Master of the Universe bore little resemblance to Stephenie Meyer’s paranormal young adult romance. In fact, there were no vampires or werewolves, and no paranormal activity of any kind in the fan fiction. Other than the names of the characters, there was virtually nothing else the two stories had in common – with the exception of the Twilight fan base.

Therein lays the issue I personally have with Fifty Shades. It is not that I think there’s an issue of  copyright infringement, since the fan-fic had little to do with Stephenie Meyer’s work apart from the names. Under copyright law, Stephenie Meyer (as the copyright holder) would have to take legal action against E.L James if she felt that Fifty Shades was in violation of said copyright, which she has not done. And, E.L. James is open about her Twilight “inspiration.” Whatever the case, what I think is pertinent is that a huge proponent of E.L. James’ initial success was due to Stephenie Meyer’s fan base.

While the laws are clear that fan-fiction cannot be published for money (though it has been published for charity, with the original author’s express permission) what of cases like Fifty Shades? What happens when a fan-fiction writer changes some names around, adjusts a few details, and goes on to publish with a major house? Anne Jamison, an English Professor at the University of Utah, who recently taught a course involving fan-fiction, brought up a good question about “whether [or not] the explicit, conscious use of another writer’s fan base, via creation of characters known and experienced as ‘versions’ of the writer’s characters, for commercial purposes, constitutes any kind of damage or infringement.”

Personally, I think this falls into an ethical grey area (no pun intended!), but I’m open to hearing debate on the topic. What do you think? Will the huge success of Fifty Shades of Grey pave the road for other popular fan fiction authors to change a few names or places and then publish the work? Is there even an issue at all – or did I just get too invested in my ethics class this semester?

Let me know what you think in the comments!

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