Friday, June 28, 2013

Copyright - Playing in Someone Else's Sandbox

There was an interesting discussion over at The Passive Voice regarding Amazon's new Kindle Worlds Store.

For  those who may not know, Amazon has licenses with several copyright holders where freelance writers can submit stories based on the copyright holders' properties. If those stories are accepted, the freelance writer gets 35% of the net revenue for stories 10,000 words or higher. In return, the freelance writer gives up all other rights to the story for the life of the copyright.

Now, the inital stories have been done by some excellent writers, including one of my mentors, Colleen Thompson. Colleen is an award-winning romantic thriller author. She wrote The Jersey Devil Made Me Do It for the Pretty Little Liars series.

The established writers in the inital program, like Colleen, J.R. Rain and Scott Nicholson, were approached by Amazon for the project. Make no mistake that their contract terms are not the same as Joe Shmoe off the street.

The official Terms and Conditions haven't been posted yet, but here's Amazon's rough breakdown.

One thing you have to remember--if you participate in Kindle Worlds, you are essential playing in someone else's sandbox. What this means is that Alloy Entertainment still owns the copyright to its characters. (No, Sara Shepard, the author of the Pretty Little Liars books does not. Alloy Entertainment hired her on a work-for-hire basis.) Basically, Alloy is having you all try out for them.

Why do I suspect is that Alloy Entertainment approached Amazon about this "opportunity"? They recently fired L.J. Smith of Vampire Diaries fame because the execs want Elena to end up with Stefan and L.J. wanted Elena to have her HEA with Damon. So what better way to find docile, compliant little writers, willing to accept non-negotiable terms than through a KDP clone, who will think this is a great idea?

Despite my snark, is this really a bad idea? Maybe, maybe not. A lot of it depends on what your career goals are. On one hand, writing for one of these series could expose you to a whole new audience. (There's a reason why Amazon would approach a top romantic thriller author to write a YA mystery story.) On the other, that's a lot of writing time to give up, especially if you write a novel for one of these "worlds."

Why do I call this whole thing playing in someone else's sandbox? It reminds me of little kids.

Billy invites Jimmy over to play trucks in Billy's sandbox. Jimmy builds a sandcastle with Billy's sand and truck. Can he take it home? No, the sand and the truck are Billy's. Billy gave Jimmy permission to play with his toys for the duration of the visit.

Translation: The holder of the copyright has control over the intellectual property. He may permit you to use his characters, settings or situations (i.e. his "world"), but he OWNS it. If I wanted to write a short story set in Harry Dresden's Chicago using former police officer Karrin Murphy, then I need Jim Butcher's permission. How each of us is compensated for this short story needs to be negotiated between Jim and me. Well, actually, "our people" will do it.

In the case of Kindle Worlds, there's no wiggle room to negotiate. You take or leave it.

Some folks at The Passive Voice are very upset by Amazon's (aka Alloy Entertainment's) stance. But this isn't the iron chokehold traditional publishers had on writers. We can make a very good living without relying on hand-outs from Alloy.

Clara invites Jennifer over to play dolls in her new doll house. Jennifer brings her own doll with her. Clara does not own Jennifer's doll just because it was in the dollhouse. Jennifer does not own the doll house just because her doll was in it. Clara gave permission to Jennifer to place her doll inside the house for the duration of the playtime.

Translation: If you create a new character for the copyright holder's setting, then you own that character, but not much else. A perfect real-life example is the legal battle between Neil Gaiman and Todd MacFarlane. Todd invited Neil to write a issue or two of Todd's Spawn. Neil invented Angela, Spawn's heavenly counterpart. Afterwards, Todd used Angela whenever he felt like it and didn't pay Neil a dime. In this case, Neil DID NOT give up his rights to Angela when he signed the contract with Todd.

So is this really a bad contract with Kindle World? That's something you have to decide for yourself.

When you consider you're writing for someone else's copyrighted world, not really. Many people are referring to this as monetizing fanfic. After seeing what happened with Fifty Shades of Grey, they are probably correct. (For those not in the know, FoSG started life as a Twilight-fanfic novel called Master of the Universe.) To me, it's really work-for-hire on spec. (And if you don't know what that term means, you REALLY should not be submitting to Kindle Worlds!)

If you feel it's unfair, then walk away. No one's going to give you crap if you do.

But what you have to look at is the entire compensation package, not just the money.Could the fan spill-over to your own work be worth giving up your claims to that little story? If you think you can use it to your advantage, then check out the program.

But most of all, know your copyright! Kris Rusch constantly pushes The Copyright Handbook, and I highly suggest you buy yourself a copy. Know what you can and cannot do with your intellectual property as well as someone else's.

And for the love of Murphy, don't EVER sign a contract you do not thoroughly understand. L.J. Smith learned this lesson the hard way.


  1. Ironically, I just blogged about "Playing in Someone Else's Sandbox" over at Boxing the Octopus talking about my experience writing for Kindle Worlds. As an author, I like the idea that profits are split with the intellectual property owner. It seems fair that everyone should be compensated, since the fanfic author is using someone else's world and characters.

    As for the rest of the contract terms, the individual will have to decide for him/herself whether it's acceptable. (I can't discuss contract terms, but yes, the commissioned authors did have different terms.) But Kindle Worlds does offer a legal way to publish your fan fiction and potentially profit from it. It's a revolutionary idea. Now we'll just have to see if readers will respond.

  2. Hey, Colleen! *wave* Thanks for stopping by!

    I agree splitting the profits between the IP holder and the writer is the way to go. Now, if only CBS/Paramount would join the program, I would have so much fun writing Star Trek stories. LOL

  3. Oh, my gosh, Star Trek would be the holy grail of fanfic IPs if it could be arranged! I do think more and more properties will become available over time if readers prove themselves willing to buy the stories. Would love to see that one, Star Wars, maybe even Firefly become available, but I think all three are pretty unlikely. Esp. the first two because they've done so well selling work for hire novels in those universes.

    1. Yeah, a lot of other licensing possibilities will depend on the response of the public.

      Ironically, I'm reading an SFF anthology. One story was written by one of the Firefly screenwriters, and it was obviously a script that was never used. I was glad the author was able to recycle it since it was a great story.

  4. I remember the Vampire Diaries thing from... a couple of years ago? And I think it was at least a year old when I tripped over it and blogged about it. I'll admit I don't feel sorry for Ms. Smith at all; she signed a contract she didn't understand, which is on her. Learning experience, and all that. And the public kerfuffle she allowed to build up among her fans doesn't make her look good either. [shrug]

    Good point about possible spill-over to your own work from the IP's fans. I've been thinking more in terms of a fanfic writer making some money when usually they'd make nothing. I think it's a great deal if you go in with your eyes open, and if one of the licensed properties is something you enjoy anyway.


    1. The L.J. Smith controversy is back. The first book by the ghostwriter came out at the beginning of the year.

      Of course, my pet peeve is you shouldn't sign ANY CONTRACT if you don't understand what you're losing.

      However, writing for someone else's IP doesn't mean you get the sun, the moon and the stars. It blows my mind the sense of entitlement of some folks.

    2. Yes, and yes. It's a bogglement how many people, in discussions of the Kindle Worlds contract, were all ?!?!?! about how the IP owner would own your story, and could make a movie out of it or whatever. From what I've heard about this sort of thing, that's pretty standard. And even if it weren't, hey, it's in the contract -- don't like, don't sign, go back to posting your fanfic in any of the bazillion fanfic communities around the web. There's no money in it, but if you're a good writer you'll be buried in positive feedback, which isn't a completely bad deal.