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This is a question that has been touched on here and there, and yet I can't find a good answer.

Suppose I am writing a story set in the Star Wars universe. I don't want to dodge copyrights and trademarks by renaming everything and everyone. I want it to be well recognizable.

I have two options, if I understand it correctly:

  1. Go to Lucasfilm and secure the rights. This may be the proper way to start, but I just don't know if they are going to talk to me at all, or ask me for a lot of money.
  2. Write it as a fan fiction. I know I have to worry much less about copyright issues if I am not publishing my book. This must be an easy way to start.

Suppose I wrote a fan fiction without talking to the copyright holder, and it came out well. Is it possible (or realistic) to "legalize" my work afterwards? Or should I have discussed my story with Lucasfilm Story Group first, and if by then it is off-canon, it would become non-publishable?

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    I think it's a waste of effort. If you're a good enough writer to publish your work and do well at it, you don't need to use someone else's characters and situations. If you're not, it won't help you. – Zeiss Ikon Aug 29 '17 at 18:19
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    The closest thing we have to a published fan-fiction is the Fifty shades of Grey, and it's trash. – Mephistopheles Aug 29 '17 at 18:21
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    @RedactedRedacted Objectively, that's an opinion. You're certainly entitled to yours. Others apparently disagree. (Nota bene: I haven't read 50 Shades of Gray, so I can't comment either way on its quality.) – a CVn Aug 29 '17 at 18:22
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    Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath's Phoenix Star Trek novels started as fanfic, in the early 1970s. Then again, unlike much fanfic, they were actually well plotted, well written, and respected the characters and setting. – Zeiss Ikon Aug 29 '17 at 18:34
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    Fan fiction is best approached as a way to learn how to be a good writer, not as a publishing project. There's nothing wrong with imitating your heroes, but don't expect it to garner (or even be considered for) the same respect and rewards as originality. – Chris Sunami Aug 30 '17 at 14:41
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In some ways you're in luck if you want to write fan fiction in the Star Wars or Star Trek universes --because the copyright holders actually solicit authors to write in those universes. Some well-known authors have made good livings writing officially licensed books in those universes. Of course, the bar is probably pretty high to actually write a licensed book, but that's true for any publishing. (As Jason Baker pointed out, you need to have already built your reputation as an author before being invited to write a licensed Star Wars book.)

Unpublished fan fiction is a bit of a legal gray area, but generally most people don't care (or even notice) unless you're actually making money. In the case that your unlicensed, unpublished fan-fiction does becomes popular on its own, and you decide you want to publish it, you'll probably need to do what Twilight fan fiction writer E. L. James did with her work 50 Shades of Grey, and rewrite it to remove all copyrighted references before publication. I don't know if there were any legal maneuvers behind the scenes to disentangle it from Twilight, but neither its origins as fan-fiction, nor its defanficification seem to have hurt its popularity at all. It probably helps that the plot, themes and setting had already diverged so widely from the source.

If you are actually hoping to turn a profit from using someone else's characters and settings by name, without permission or compensation, you are stealing intellectual property and are in the moral and legal wrong. Furthermore, you'll be creating something that no legitimate publisher would ever touch, even with a ten-foot pole. At least do the minimum, and rename the characters and settings --that's what thousands of successful authors did with all their Lord of the Rings rip-offs. If your story can't stand on its own without people thinking of the original, then it really is parasitic on someone else's hard work and creativity.

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    @Alexander That is an unlisted wall! – a CVn Aug 29 '17 at 18:16
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    @Alexander If it can't stand on its own, without people knowing it's Star Wars then it shouldn't be published for a profit. I'm not big on fan fic myself, but plenty of people enjoy it, and everyone pretty much ignores it as long as it isn't being sold. – Chris Sunami Aug 29 '17 at 18:20
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    @Alexander As someone who has read a story set in the Roman Empire where every character was made up, no, I doubt it would be odd at all. Then again, we knew it was the Roman Empire and we knew the actual historical people existed. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Aug 29 '17 at 18:40
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    @Alexander A living person didn't invent the Roman Empire, and doesn't have the right to expect to be compensated for the hard work and creative effort put in to creating a world that you want to exploit. – Chris Sunami Aug 29 '17 at 18:44
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    Since the OP specifically called this out, it might be worth noting that Lucasfilm doesn't accept unsolicited submissions for Star Wars works; they have to ask you – Jason Baker Aug 29 '17 at 21:49
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Counterquestion: would you consider it okay for someone to "borrow" your car without asking you, and then offer to pay you if you or the police catch them? Get permission first, or don't play in the big kids' sandbox.

If you write a Star Wars fanfic, and it gets popular, all that means in terms of licensing is that the lawsuit will cost you more. If you're selling it for money, then the more so. Don't take E.L. James as a good example (the fact she made a couple billion dollars is immaterial; you've got a similar chance of that buying Powerball tickets). Save yourself a lot of effort, and do it right the first time.

  • Counter-counterquestion: would you consider it okay for someone to borrow your bicycle if it is sitting out unlocked, with a sign of your own making "all right to borrow but you must return it to this location within two hours", as long as people abide by the condition? (Compare Chris Sunami's mention that the copyright holders for the Star Wars universe actually solicit works set in that universe.) – a CVn Aug 29 '17 at 18:18
  • @MichaelKjörling Those IP owners solicit proven authors to write stories in their setting. I've personally known three writers who've sold Star Trek novels -- they didn't waste their time writing before they had permission. Why put months into a novel you'll never be able to publish without writing it again from the ground up? – Zeiss Ikon Aug 29 '17 at 18:22
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    The key word is solicit - I doubt they listen to pitches. – Michael Aug 29 '17 at 19:06
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So... yes, you can "publish" a Star Wars fan fiction. As long as you do not profit from it and make it known that it's not a real authorized work of Star Wars.

This is done all the time and there are communities on the internet that are dedicated to publishing fan fiction. Before the internet, there were fan magazines where fan fiction was often published (I don't know about the magazine's profit resources... they may have been free or received after membership dues were paid... It's an old art and I just don't know how the model works).

If you want to make money off of this, than pitching Lucas and Disney is the way to go, but if they accept, they do have creative control over the product and may force you to add or drop things you don't want. Normally, they are contracted to write a story that the creative team wants to tell, not looking for new stories. So while they may like your work, they may hire you to write the "Jar Jar Binks Holiday Special" and give your work no time of day.

If you're interested in writing stories for Star Wars, though, it may be prudent not to send them your work. Greg Weisman (a screen writer famous for Gargoyles, Young Justice, Spectacular Spider-man (animated)) and other cartoons advises don't send them your work for their products. Many people hiring writers won't look at fan fiction because this opens them up to copyright lawsuits... they may hold the rights to the product and can sue you if they feel you're profiting on that... but that's your story and you hold that copyright (copyrights go to the creator of a work, and if you are hired you will have a thing in your contract saying you sign all your copyright work done for the company over to them) and you can actually sue them. Even if Star Wars can show they were planning something similar before you sent in your stuff, it's a messy legal battle they don't want and it's reasonable that you could win (Copyright infringement is a civil offense in the States, not a criminal one, so the standard of proof is a lot lower in assessing your claim. If you published first, there could be a preponderance of evidence that it was stolen.).

Rather, if you want a Job writing Star Trek, send your fan fic to Star Wars folks and write a Star Trek fan fic for Star Wars job seeking. It demonstrates your style and your ability without any messy copyright stuff. Star Trek borrows very little for a Star Wars story to say it was stolen... despite the rivalries, the two franchises have little in common beyond space ships.

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Sometimes it is. I think there have been a few rare occasions where fan fiction was published. Over a decade a go, a fan wrote a treatment for a Superman film. Warner Bros. was interested and flew him out to LA. It didn't go anywhere. There was also a Trekkie who wrote an outline for a concept he called "Star Trek Beyond", not to be confused with a movie sequel. Paramount brought him in to pitch and apparently loved what they heard. They decided to go with what became "Star Trek: Discovery:.

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Yes its quite OK to publish. As long as you have your disclaimer that this is a not for profit work. You are entitled to play in others sandboxes. You may want to look here for some info on copyright derivative works and your rights there in. copyright has a few provisions to help you out specifically.

  • This is probably dependent on local law, can you at least specify what country you're talking about? – FFN Nov 24 '17 at 17:27
  • Ah sorry I was quoting US copyright law. – Jetrois Dec 4 '17 at 18:31

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