As a writer, I am also (full disclosure) an avid reader. I usually read everything from obscure books by unknown authors to soup can labels. Until I read a review of the book in The Huffington Post UK by Andrew Smith, I studiously avoided Fifty Shades of Grey, the mega-popular worldwide bestseller by E.L. James. After I read the online version, I found myself interested in the story of the book and how it seemed to become a poster child for viral marketing, creative collaboration, and co-creation.
That led me to some research, and I read another great piece in The New York Review of Books Blog by Emily Eakin, “Grey Area: How ’Fifty Shades’ Dominated the Market.” It introduced me to what is known as fan fiction.
Fan fiction is an online social network of fans of a particular work of fiction that can be books and movies — or, as I call them “boovies,” when they end up made for each other — where the fans can comment upon and offer up their own version of the original story. It’s sort of a combination of commentary and co-created crowdsourced fiction about another work of fiction that usually takes the main characters (in this case, from the Twilight series) into a prequel, sequel, or some other parallel fictional universe.
This is not another review of the book (enough already); it is what might be a preview of one of the first great copyright battles of the eBook Age, and a cautionary tale about collaborative works in general, especially when they become an international publishing phenom and set the record as the fastest-selling paperback of all time.
It is becoming a more widely known backstory. Fifty Shades of Grey began its literary life as a free series called Master of the Universe (aka MotU) under the pen name “Snowqueens Icedragon” (aka “Icy”). It was originally found on the fan fiction site devoted to another blockbuster series of novels, The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer.
Note to Reader: I kept trying to download a PDF version of the original MotU using Google. Until recently, it was apparently available on The Wayback Machine and a number of other sites and has, for reasons not stated, disappeared. (If anyone reading this has a source, please let me know!)
Each installment of MotU was posted, and readers shared what they liked and did not like about the work. After MotU was taken down from the Internet, where it was obviously co-created in collaboration by ultimately thousands of readers, it reappeared as the published copyrighted version titled Fifty Shades, and the rest is publishing history.
There has been a wide-raging controversy on the Internet among readers, fan fiction fans, even the publishers, about whether Fifty Shades is too close a copy of the previously published fandom version. If you want to see (literally) a chapter-and-verse comparison, and read the best article I could find on the copying issue, read “Master of the Universe versus Fifty Shades by E.L James Comparison” by author Jane Little on her DearAuthor.com blog. It’s an eye-opening piece that in my mind shows a clear relationship between the two works. The revised versions of the first two books in the series are, according to the software comparison program Jane Little used (Turnitin), “89% the same.”
That in itself is not at the center of the controversy. What is important is that the original was the creation (editorial comments, suggestions, and recommendations) of not one person but many.
So, to be clear, the issues are neither self-plagiarism (new oxymoron) nor paying homage to another series. The issue is one writer using the input of many co-creators and ultimately claiming copyright of the final work, even if it is “89% the same.”
As The New York Review of Books Blog summed it up, quoting one of the MotU readers: “89% for an essay against another would get you kicked out of class in college, but with a fan fic you retitled the reward is a publishing contract.” That’s the numerous shades of grey at the new intersection of ebook co-creation and copyright law.
(Note: For the most definitive outline of the legal issues, please read “Grey Area: How ’Fifty Shades’ Dominated the Market” and as well as a brilliant piece by Tim Parks, “Does Copyright Matter?”
Source: “Fifty Shades of Great? Why Everyone Should Read Fifty Shades of Grey,” The Huffington Post UK, 08/15/12
Source: “Grey Area: How ‘Fifty Shades’ Dominated the Market,” NYR Blog, 07/27/12
Source: “The Lost History of Fifty Shades of Grey,” GalleyCat/Mediabistro, 03/27/12
Source: “Master of the Universe versus Fifty Shades by E.L James Comparison,” DearAuthor.com, 03/13/12
Image: Screen capture of 50Shades.com from The Wayback Machine via Mediabistro, Dec. 2010