Marion Zimmer Bradley vs. Fanfiction
Most writers, both commercial and fanfic, have heard some version of the Marion Zimmer Bradley “cautionary tale” regarding fanfiction. In one version, Bradley was a generous, nurturing author who encouraged fanfiction until a greedy fanfic author tried to sue her, torpedoing a book in the process. In another, Bradley had was preying on helpless fanfic authors, using their ideas to perpetuate her publishing empire.
If we’re going to toss this story around every time we talk about fanfiction, it would be nice to have a few facts to go with the fourth-hand accounts, guesswork, and rumors. Michael Thomas and opusculus have both posted about the MZB incident lately, and provided inspiration and starting points for my own write-up. But I wanted to dig deeper, and to avoid the wiki-style sources which in my opinion aren’t as reliable for this sort of thing.
To put my own biases out there, one of my first sales was to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine. I later sold a story to Sword & Sorceress XXI. In addition, I’m published by DAW, which also published Bradley’s work. I’ll leave it to you to read and decide whether this influences my research and write-up.
First hand statements are in red. I’ve included links wherever possible.
Bradley allowed and even encouraged fanfiction in the beginning. From Bradley’s 1980 introduction to The Keeper’s Price, the first Darkover anthology (page 14): “[I]n a very real sense, I regard myself not as the “inventor” of Darkover, but its discoverer. If others wish to play in my fantasy world, who am I to slam its gates and in churlish voice demand that they build their own? … Why should I deny myself the pleasure of seeing these young writers learning to do their thing by, for a little while, doing my thing with me?”
Bradley even edited the fanzine Starstone with her husband Walter Breen. (Though to me, this blurs the definitions a little. Is it really fanfic if the creator is the one editing the magazine? What about something like the Star Wars anthologies Kevin J. Anderson edited? Some would say no, because these are licensed works, explicitly permitted by the copyright holder. Others would say it’s still fanfiction. Me, I’m gonna save that argument for another day.)
Years later, a fan named Jean Lamb published a short novel called “Masks” in the fanzine Moon Phases. (Possibly issue #8 in 1986.) Lamb confirms this in a newsgroup posting from 3/19/2001. And here’s where things start to get messy.
In a letter Bradley allegedly wrote to Writers Digest in March of 1993, she explains, “one of the fans [Lamb] wrote a story, using my world and my characters, that overlapped the setting I was using for my next Darkover novel. Since she had sent me a copy of her fanzine, and I had read it, my publisher will not publish my novel set during that time period, and I am now out several years’ work, as well as the cost of inconvenience of having a lawyer deal with this matter.”[1. I’ve heard claims that DAW killed the project. I’ve also spoken to Betsy Wolheim at DAW, who states that this was Bradley’s decision, not DAW’s.]
Lamb’s version of events is different: “I received a letter offering me a sum and a dedication for all rights to the text. I attempted at that point to _very politely_ negotiate a better deal. I was told that I had better take what I was offered, that much better authors than I had not been paid as much (we’re talking a few hundred dollars here) and had gotten the same sort of ‘credit’ (this was in the summer of 1992).”
Finally, here is Mercedes Lackey’s version. Lackey worked closely with Bradley, and for that reason I count her as a valid primary source. “Marion had begun to write a Darkover book about Regis Hastur. She liked the ‘take’ a particular fan author had on the situations and asked to use that spin on things for her book in return for the usual acknowlegement in the front of the book. She had done this before with other fan authors.”
Bradley had indeed borrowed from fans and other writers before. From Elizabeth Waters: “Back in 1977 I wrote a Darkover story about Hilary Castamir. One of my friends knew MZB and passed it on to her, and she rewrote it into ‘The Keeper’s Price.’ Eventually it became the title story of the first Darkover anthology.” The story is listed in the Table of Contents as a collaboration between Bradley and Waters.
As far as I can tell, the following is not disputed.
- Bradley originally encouraged fanfiction.
- Bradley read Jean Lamb’s story “Masks” in Moon Phases.
- Bradley contacted Lamb, offering payment and a dedication in exchange for rights to use the ideas from “Masks” in the Darkover novel “Contraband.”
- Bradley and Lamb were unable to reach an agreement, and “Contraband” was cancelled.
- Bradley changed her policy on fanfiction, stating that she would no longer allow it.
I’ve read various accounts and speculations, but have been unable to find definitive answers to the following questions.
- Who was the first to hire a lawyer, Lamb or Bradley?
- How much time and work was actually lost on Bradley’s part?
- How much was Bradley planning to use from Lamb’s work?
- What exactly forced the cancellation of “Contraband”?
That last question bothers me. Several statements suggest the book was already being written. If Bradley and Lamb couldn’t come to an agreement, that’s one thing, but I don’t see how that could ruin the entire book. If you don’t have rights to use someone else’s story, then you continue to write your own.
One possibility comes from the editor of Moon Phases, Nina Boal, who wrote, “Marion did offer Jean a special dedication and also $500. Jean refused this, saying that she wanted a byline for the novel. Jean also became convinced (erroneously) that Marion intended to plagerize [sic] from her fan-written work about Danvan Hastur.”
Whether this was actually the case or just a fear on Bradley’s part, I can understand where the potential for legal complications and accusations of plagiarism could be enough to scuttle the project. However, this is speculative on my part.
The MZB incident has been used for years as a caution to authors against allowing fanfiction. Looking at what facts I could find, I don’t believe this is valid.
I’m not saying authors should or should not permit fanfiction, but in this case, I believe the real problem arose not from the fact that Bradley allowed Darkover fanfiction, but from two other, very specific issues:
- Bradley was an active participant in Darkover fanfiction, editing a fanzine and reading unlicensed, fan-written works.
- Bradley tried to buy the rights to use a fan’s story.
You can argue whether Bradley’s offer was unfair or Lamb’s response was unreasonable. Without knowing the specifics, I couldn’t say one way or another. (Knowing human nature, my guess is there’s probably blame enough for both sides, if you’re worried about that.)
The lesson I take from all this is to avoid potentially putting myself in Bradley’s position, and that means not reading fanfiction of my work. Sure, most fanfic authors I’ve met and spoken to have been wonderful people … but it only takes one. So if someone likes my work enough to write fanfiction, I find that flattering. But I don’t want to know about it.
May 26, 2010 @ 9:59 am
Very interesting. I was a member of the Friends of Darkover at that time and remember the whole issue vaguely. I even wrote a few Darkover-stories for our locla zine/newsletter. I found the whole environment very supportive which at that times was very important for me as my parents weren’t supportive of my writing at all.
I think what people also shouldn’t forget is that MZB – by encouraging fanfiction and giving new writers a forum to, so to speak, test their wings – she also was the first stepping stone to several writing careers.
I just pulled out one Darkover-anthology ( Free Amazons of Darkover, 1988) and there you have names like: Susan Holtzer, Diane L. Paxson, Mercedes Lackey, Elizabeth Waters, Margaret L. Carter, and many more.
And MZB herself wrote Star Trek-fanfiction 😉
I’m also not sure if the fanfiction-writer really would have had much legal standing, after all her story was based on material that wasn’t her own.
I think your approach to fanfiction is the best 🙂
Jim C. Hines
May 26, 2010 @ 10:15 am
Bradley definitely mentored and encouraged a number of new writers, not just via fanfiction, but through her magazine and Sword & Sorceress, among others.
I’m not a lawyer, and couldn’t say what kind of a case Lamb might have had, even if I knew the details.
May 26, 2010 @ 10:26 am
Great write-up, Jim. I’ve heard the “water cooler” version of this story several times over the years. It’s nice to have something fairly “definitive” to counter the urban legends (and yes, I know “definitive” is relative here, but you know what I mean.)
May 26, 2010 @ 10:30 am
Back then I always dreamed about somedays being published in S&S or the Fantasy Magazine.
Jim C. Hines
May 26, 2010 @ 10:31 am
Thanks, David! And I know exactly what you mean. I’m hardly unbiased, but I tried to make it as objective as I could.
May 26, 2010 @ 10:31 am
I suppose regardless of legal standing, the case itself would be costly. It is the sort of issue where it would clearly be all about the word of the two parties when it got to trial. There is probably no way to predict the outcome of such a trial since it would be completely based on testimony. The bad PR is so hard to undo, as is shown by this coming up over and over again.
Jim C. Hines
May 26, 2010 @ 10:33 am
I got my first real rejection from MZB. It meant an awful lot when, years later, I sold a story to her for the final issue of MZB’s Fantasy Magazine.
May 26, 2010 @ 10:40 am
I can image. I guess it would be a little bit like being knighted by one of the Great Dames of Fantasy. 🙂
May 26, 2010 @ 10:42 am
Very interesting read. I’ll admit that I knew nothing about it, but that could be that I’ve just recently stuck my toe into the whole idea of becoming a writer.
I’ve also never been a big fan of fanfiction (from the reading side of things). Maybe it was just what I had access to wasn’t very good and weeding through it was hardly any fun. Granted, I tend to be an overly critical reader, but I blame that on my mom and years of acting as her first draft editor (I was sent to my room once because I solved the mystery on the first page).
I still feel that if you want to write, you should write your own stories in your own world (with few exceptions). You’re an artist after all… be creative!
Jim C. Hines
May 26, 2010 @ 10:43 am
That’s my sense too. I’ve been through the court system once before (not related to my writing). We won, but it was long, painful, and obscenely expensive. There’s no way in hell I’d want to go through that again if I could avoid it.
May 26, 2010 @ 10:43 am
I always find it so sad that this is one of the things so many people remember of her, instead of focusing on her work, the fact that she lead so many people towards fantasy (in my generation Mists of Avalon was often THE book that lead many towards reading more and more fantasy and SF) and that for numerous writers she offered a supportive and encouraging environment.
May 26, 2010 @ 10:46 am
I think you did a pretty good job at it. Although, the quotes selected did put Lamb in a bit of a negative light (in my opinion); however, you let your reader come up with their own decision without forcing your own views on them.
Jim C. Hines
May 26, 2010 @ 11:17 am
It wasn’t something I knew about until I started writing and learning about fanfiction. But when the professional authors start talking about fanfic, MZB comes up fairly often.
May 26, 2010 @ 11:20 am
I think fan-fiction is cool, both when the author supports it and when the author is silent on the issue. Of course, there are problems with this tainting of ideas, more so when the author is active in the fan-fiction communities.
In some ways, I think the MZB’s giving credit is a good thing. It is nice for the author and a lot more cooperative. However, I think if someone is involved with the fan community like this, it would good to have very specific rules about it. For example, saying the most credit that giving ideas like this. So, saying “you will get an acknowledgment not byline” for providing the idea, it makes it more clear.
Also, if MZB lost so much time on it, it actually suggests that Lamp and MZB worked on the idea, agreed to the ideas, MZB wrote the book, then Lamp turned around and decided she wanted more. In that case, it is a good argument for having contracts BEFORE the writing starts. Just to make sure everyone is clear.
But, I can also see avoiding the briar bush entirely by avoiding all fan-fiction.
Jim C. Hines
May 26, 2010 @ 11:26 am
Bradley’s and Lackey’s accounts both state that Bradley was already writing the book. How much she had written is unclear, but I’m not aware of anything suggesting that Bradley and Lamb were collaborating or working together without a contract.
I understand the urge to speculate — I’d love to know what happened, and I have some guesses of my own — but I just don’t know the details.
May 26, 2010 @ 11:26 am
It just seems like such a tricky area that I can’t blame most authors for avoiding it altogether. Like Jim says, all it takes is one to ruin it for everyone else.
May 26, 2010 @ 11:39 am
Indeed, a very interesting cautionary tale. Because whatever side you fall on, there is still some caution to be considered.
Of course, on the other hand, it’s not a caution I need to worry myself over because (a) I’m unpublished and have a roughly 0% likelihood of having to deal with “fanfiction” of anything I write for the foreseeable near-future (with a time-horizon going out several years, at least and on the optimistic side) and (b) I’ve never been interested in writing “fanfiction” myself. I’ve had story ideas that were “inspired” by the stories of others, but I’ve always had a strong inclination to set my stories in worlds of my own devising…
May 26, 2010 @ 12:30 pm
Jim, you hit the nail on the head with this: “Bradley was an active participant in Darkover fanfiction…” Yes, that was, in my opinion, the heart of the problem. I’m a big proponent of fanfiction–sure a lot of it is silly or smut but there are a few luminous ones that not only nail the characterizations of the world and characters but then go on to expand our understanding of them beyond what the cannon did do (or was willing to do, for the sake of keeping its mainstream audience). Also, fanfiction keeps the fandom alive and obsessed in the gaps between books–always important for a healthy and profitable franchise.
But yeah, I think the problem for MZB arose because she was too active in the fandom. When you make an official anthology of fanworks, you’re endorsing them to some extent. Unless you pull a James Patterson and have your protégés sign contracts right off the bat agreeing to put your name in huge letters on the cover of anything they write in your universe, I think it’s too dangerous to show yourself reading/judging/associating in some way with fanfics. Also, most fanfic writers, no matter how popular, are quite aware and respectful of the distance between them/their fanworks and the author/cannon. It was because MZB crossed that line that an unscrupulous fan had the opportunity to lose sight of that gap.
Not that I’m blaming MZB or saying that fan shouldn’t have known better (seriously, way to look a gift horse in the mouth, girl)–it was awesome that she tried to be so nurturing and open to her fans. I respect her much more than the “it’s mine mine mine” authors who are so, I dunno–insecure?–that they actively try to shut down fanworks/strive to be the ONLY voice who gets to tell the story. It’s a two-way street, yo. If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, who cares that it fell, right? Telling your fans that the emotional investments they make in your world/characters are invalid and unwanted is the #1 way to shut down fan enthusiasm of any kind, I’ll tell ya.
So in short, go, MZB for trying to not be That Author, and while I feel really bad about that imbroglio with the fan, I’m thankful we all have an example of what going to the other extreme can do. Like they say in Buddhism–it’s all about moderation.
May 27, 2010 @ 12:46 am
Very interesting break-down and history! Unfortunately, in a litigious world, I think your final take is right on: won’t stop it, won’t read it. Alas.
Lizabeth S. Tucker
June 4, 2010 @ 1:38 pm
My believe on an issue like this is that if the original author isn’t against fanfiction, she or he should still make it a policy to NOT read anything written in the universe they are still playing in. Much as many SF television creators/producers are very supportive of fanfiction, but have a strict policy to not read it until the series is dead and gone, never to live again under their aegis.
Fan Fic or Literary Mash Up? Some Observations « remediating SGU
June 18, 2010 @ 9:29 am
[…] an ‘as long as it doesn’t interfere with me making a living’ policy. Hines even wrote about Marion Zimmer Bradley’s on/off relationship with fan fiction. Lois McMaster Bujold says she’s fan fic friendly while JK […]
August 17, 2010 @ 2:39 am
Unfortunately there is no way of knowing what actually transpired, especially as the recollections of the two involved may also have changed over time. MZB was also embroiled in another, more controversial issue, which actually led me away from her works for a long period of time.
I am of course talking about her relationship with her husband and how much she knew about his activities. I see some parallels with Dyan Ardais, who was a sexual predator. He did not lead a positive alternative lifestyle, as did many of her characters, but rather a sadistic and twisted one. Despite his exposure, he ends up dying as a hero; I will not speculate on how that could fit into her reality.
Jim C. Hines
August 17, 2010 @ 7:27 am
I’m aware of this. As it has nothing to do with the issue in question, I don’t believe it needs to be discussed here.