From Pariah to Prize-Winner: The Laborious Legal Journey of Fanworks


Twitter user @bewarethefish jokes that they are reading “Hugo winning fiction” in reference to AO3 winning a Hugo Award.

Even if you’re not a rabbit or a bear, situations like the one in this video happen all the time. 


“Fanfiction,” or works written by fans about a piece of entertainment, can be a sensitive issue. Recently, it has become fairly common to write and share fanfiction on the internet. The road to this point has hardly been smooth.  


People have questioned whether writing about someone’s else’s work, world and characters infringes on the original creator’s intellectual property. That debate, along with the resulting lawsuits, has shaped fanfiction over time and determined its standing today.


Understanding Copyright


Creators want ownership of their creations, so it makes sense that ideas of copyright have been around for a while. Consider Article 1, Section 8(8) of the original United States Constitution


“The Congress shall have Power . . . [t]o Promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” 


Since the founding of our country, copyright laws have existed to protect someone’s original discoveries and works. In 1790, an author could claim ownership of a work or idea for fourteen years. 


Now, copyright usually lasts throughout the author’s life and an additional fifty years beyond that. According to Harvard, Congress is even considering the addition of another twenty years to that time frame (


The U.S. Copyright Office explains, “Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.”


“Copyright . . . protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.”


These laws in the United States exists to defend creators’ ownership of their creation. Its protection extends all the way from poetry to architecture, and notably, artistic works are a primary area of focus. Novels and movies fall under the government’s protective copyright blanket. Although not mentioned here, television also counts.  


Novels, movies, and television shows –– these just so happen to be exactly the forms of entertainment that inspire thousands of “fanfics.” The Harry Potter series alone has over two hundred thousand fics on Archive of Our Own (AO3). 


Understanding Fanfiction


The writing and sharing of fanfiction is not a recent phenomenon. Sybil Brinton, a fan of Jane Austin’s work, published “Old Friends and New Fancies – an Imaginary Sequel to the Novels of Jane Austin” in 1913 (The Guardian). 


Fans of Sherlock Holmes have been writing their own “pastiches” about the character since the days of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. J.M. Barrie, whom some may know as the author of Peter Pan, wrote his own play about Holmes, albeit not without first asking for Conan Doyle’s permission. 


What was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s response? In true Doyle fashion, he replied, “You may marry [Holmes] or murder him or do whatever you like with him” (The American Reader).


Clearly, fanfiction has been around for a long time, even if that label had yet to be created. Our modern conception of fanfiction, however, most likely began around the late 1990s. 


1998 saw the creation of (FFN), which in the following years would become arguably the largest fanfiction archive on the internet (Penlighten). A trip on the WayBack Machine reveals that, as early as 1999, the website contained over twelve hundred fan works.


These days, one category of fan works alone can exceed that number. As of the writing of this article, FFN contains over two hundred thousand works about the Twilight series and over eight hundred thousand about Harry Potter.


In the late 1990s and early 2000s, FFN reigned supreme alongside LiveJournal (LJ). Created in 1999, LiveJournal is a website where users can post any kind of creative work.


Naturally, fanfiction writers flocked to this exciting new website.


“From roughly 2002 to 2007, a core part of discussion-heavy fandom and writing communities existed entirely on LiveJournal,” writes self-reported “fandom expert” Aja Romano in “The Decline of a Social Media Platform: Tracking LiveJournal’s Demise.”


“. . . LJ was the central fandom hub due to the ease of combining community discussion with fanwork,” Romano continues.


Important to note is both Romano’s use of past tense in describing LJ’s popularity and the title of their article. They write not about LiveJournal’s continued success, but rather about its decline


Indeed, LiveJournal and saw a sharp decrease in users beginning in the mid-2000s. Information science professor Casey Fiesler charts this decline, along with data about several other sites, here


The websites’ popularity only continues to decrease with time. Even when there are spikes in the number of users for each site, neither manages to reach its former glory. 


The question remains: What happened? 


The SpecWriter Massacre: Fans Feel Targeted


To this day, users are forbidden from posting fanfiction about the works of authors such as Anne Rice, Robin McKinley, and J.R. Ward. The site even bans fanfiction about the Archie comics, which is ironic given the nature of Riverdale, a show that is essentially fanfiction about that very franchise. states on its “Guidelines” page, “Fanfiction respects the expressed wishes of the following authors/publishers and will not archive entries based on their work.” 


“Expressed wishes” can refer to a variety of things depending on the author in question. In the case of Anne Rice, who wrote Interview with a Vampire, tensions between author and fans became undeniably heated. 


On April 8, 2000, the following message appeared on Anne Rice’s website:


“I do not allow fanfiction. The characters are copyrighted. It upsets me terribly to even think about fanfiction with my characters. I advise my readers to write your own original stories with your own characters. It is absolutely essential that you respect my wishes.”


Anne Rice did not simply state her negative opinions on fanfiction; shortly after this post, she contacted her attorneys to deal with the issue. Popular fanfiction writers soon received Cease and Desist letters if they had written fanfiction about Rice’s work. 


Many fanfiction writers, fearful of a potential lawsuit, opted to remove their works from the internet. This ended up being a prescient move, given that FFN would eventually start forcibly removing works involving Anne Rice’s stories. 


In 2001, Rice’s attorneys contacted and demanded the removal of all fanfiction of The Vampire Chronicles. FFN, as evidenced by the guidelines that remain to this day, complied. 


Because fanfiction was at the time known as speculative, or “spec” work, this mass exodus of certain fanworks became known as the SpecWriter Massacre (The Seekers of Atlantis). 


Rice is not the only author to take issue with fanfiction and prompt mass banning on FFN; the website currently lists twelve different banned fanfiction subjections in its guidelines. 


J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, was one of the first authors to publicly support fanfiction, stating previously that she has been “very flattered” by it (Reporter). However, when Vander Ark tried to publish an unauthorized lexicon for the Harry Potter universe, Rowling took him to court in 2008. 


The mid-2000s was a turbulent time for fanfiction. Around the same time that FFN was taking up the copyright crusade, LiveJournal was engaged in the scandal of Strikethrough, in which they banned dozens of users for “illicit and unlawful content” involving works that dealt with sensitive subjects such as sexual assault.


Because LiveJournal did not have an effective means of seeking out this specific content, they ended up banning fanfiction writers who had written about sensitive subjects in a completely fictitious setting (The History of the Web).


Fanfiction writers were quickly becoming frustrated with all the obstacles they were encountering, and their primary issue was that of their content being censored. They started seeking out a new home for their work, and one website in particular rose to meet that demand.

Archive of Our Own and Fanfiction Today


These frustrated authors created Archive of Our Own in 2008 as a direct result of the war on fanfiction. Ironically, its creators initially announced the project in a LiveJournal post, writing:


“We need a central archive of our own . . . Something that would NOT hide from google or any public mention, and would clearly state the legality of our hobby up front, while not making a profit off other people’s IP [intellectual property] and instead only making it easier for us to celebrate it, together, and create a welcoming space for new fans that has a sense of our history and our community behind it.” 


Archive of Our Own, a project of the non-profit, fan-run Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), would go on to become the go-to fanfiction archive for new generations of writers. It does not censor writers and incorporates a filtering system so people can sort fanfiction according to personal preference. 


AO3  tirelessly defends the legality of fanfiction. In its most recent newsletter, the organization announced that its legal advocacy team submitted proposed changes to U.S. copyright law as recently as March of this year.


The long journey that led to the creation of AO3 and the OTW’s campaign also resulted in AO3 winning a Hugo Award in 2019. The mood among fans was definitely celebratory that day as they reveled in AO3’s success.

The course of fanfiction development has not been a steady one, to say the least. Years of copyright claims left fans feeling frustrated, which led to a few fans forming the Organization for Transformative Works. 


The OTW,  perhaps the most popular fanfiction archive among new generations of fans, strives to reform copyright law and defend the legitimacy of fanworks. 


There will likely be authors in the future who take issue with the legality of fanfiction. Due to the long history that led to AO3, fanfiction writers now have their own advocates in court.