Amazon Publishing said on Wednesday that it will begin paying royalties through its Kindle Worlds publishing platform to writers who publish (and manage to sell) stories set in worlds first described by other authors. The company has obtained licenses for several popular book series owned by Warner Bros. Television Group's Alloy Entertainment division.
Kindle Worlds offers writers 35% of net revenue as a royalty for the sale of fiction based on the characters and settings in a few popular books. Licensed series include: Gossip Girl, by Cecily von Ziegesar; Pretty Little Liars, by Sara Shepard; and Vampire Diaries, by L.J. Smith, with more to come, according to Amazon.com.
Rights holders, of course, get paid too. Amazon declined to disclose the details of its arrangement. But presumably rights holders will be getting more than they would win through copyright litigation, which has on occasion been the way fan fiction was dealt with in the past.
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Technologists have been pressing for the reform of copyright law for years, arguing that it's ill-suited for the kind of information sharing enabled by the Internet. Though legal reform moves slowly, the market has adapted with alternative content licensing schemes like Creative Commons and with compensation schemes to assuage potential litigants.
Amazon's approach bears some similarity with YouTube's Content ID system, which allows rights holders to monetize infringing content through ads, as an alternative to demanding the removal of content.
Such flexibility appears to be necessary because fan fiction is so abundant.
But Kindle Worlds isn't simply surrendering to the inevitable. Beyond the promise of a new revenue stream, Amazon suggests its fan fiction platform adds value by magnifying social engagement with fans (who will presumably become even more avid in their consumption of the licensor's content), and by helping to curb fan fiction excesses (by limiting sexually explicit fan fiction through contractual guidelines, for example) that might harm brands.
Within such ambitions there's a warning for would-be authors. Kindle Worlds is not a platform designed for free expression; if anything, it's designed as a marketing mechanism for rights holders. The Content Guidelines ban: pornography or sexually explicit content; offensive content; illegal or infringing content; poor customer experience (bad design); excessive use of brands; and the mixing of content from different licensed Worlds. Imagine the rights and privileges of authorship, without most of the rights and privileges.
In the Amazon Publishing forums, Amazon's embrace of fan fiction has elicited a mix of optimism and skepticism. One person, posting under the name Teresa Cleghorn, defended fan fiction from the scorn of those who find such works unreadable and amateurish.
"Being a paid professional in the worlds of arts and crafts does not mean you should look down on amateur efforts," Cleghorn wrote. "There was a time before television that families wrote for each other and for entertainment. I see this as a means to make entertainment more participatory again."
Another forum participant, posting under the name Ms. Mayhem, sees Kindle Worlds as harmful to authors of original material.
"Sooner or later, no one will write anything original anymore," Ms. Mayhem wrote. "It'll be like Idiocracy, and we will all starve because all restaurants will be Taco Bell, all books will be Twilight, all movies will be Lord of the Rings, all television shows will involve hijinks related to men getting punched in the nuts, and we will water our crops with Gatorade. Civilization falls."