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How free are we to write a story that is set inside another universe, that doesn’t necessarily mention anyone or anything specifically about said universe?

For example, let’s say that I want to write a story set inside the Harry Potter universe where I won’t actually mention anyone or anything, just simply allude to things:

“Oh, yeah,” Steven replied. “I remember that guy. Weird dude. Black hair, glasses. Didn’t he—?” Steven gestured to his forehead.

“Yup,” Bobby said nodding. “Big scar on his forehead. Pretty sure it was a lightning bolt.”

“That’s right!” Steven exclaimed.

OR

For a story set in the Star Wars universe (again, without any actual reference to characters or names). Instead of the “Imperials”, using nouns like “Rulers” or “Overlords.”

“Don’t do that, Steven,” Bobby said, furrowing his brow. “Them damn, dirty Overlords will be on our ass in no time.”

Steven looked down at the strange blueish milk, and decided Bobby was right.

Would anything like this simply be considered a “parody” or a “derivative” and publishers would be okay pursuing? Or is alluding to characters, things or places to help drive a story, the copyright/trademark territory we must steer clear of?

Ps. Obviously it is hard for completely official legal advice for every situation, but I’d still like to know what your thoughts are

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This is the sort of thing where it is generally fine for non-commercial fiction (fan-fiction), while most agents and publishers won't touch it with a 10-foot pole to actually publish.

The issue is, honestly, not only a legal one. There is simply the issue that you will be inherently derivative, and therefore considered 'lesser'. Whether that's fair or not is a matter for debate, but it is the fact we are dealing with.

Instead, I'd try to focus on what makes you want to write in these particular settings, and then use that to build your own original setting. Nothing is ever truly original, but the strength of much fiction is obfuscating that fact.

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  • Thanks so much, Weckar. I really appreciate your input – Tetris Boy Oct 23 '19 at 9:49
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Even if I'm not really a fan of the stories, I always take Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight as best example for exactly this question. Fifty Shades of Grey was originally a Fanfiction of Twilight. But in the end, it ended up, like it did now.

Also, I'm helping a close friend to write his first book, that based of as a Final Fantasy Story of his own. The most important thing in cases like this are: Keep your text away from things, that belong to others.

You can write in the same world of course, but the whole problem is: Everyone will know what is up, if you use special trademarks of the series. A reference to Harry Potter will be clear, if your guys will mention the dude with the lightning scar on the forehead. There it is crystal clear, that you are mentioning Harry Potter (because the lightning scar on the forehead is his trademark). If you left off the lightning shape, it would be totally different, but no one could be sure that you mean exactly him. The same with the spells. If you are writing about the Harry Potter world, there is the common thing, that the spells are the same, all over the world. So either you need to invent new spells to use for your characters, or you have to use the existing ones, what would lead to copyright issues.

If you are planning to write something like that and plan to publish it for money: Don't ever mention anything from that universe.

If you plan to write a FanFiction, you can use the whole work as your playground. But you can't sell it, cause it would lead to copyright issues.

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    The classic Twilight becomes Fifty Shades was on my mind when I completed the first draft of my story. But after that, I realised that certain themes and tones that I kept quiet in the background, helped drive certain behaviours or plot points, and didn't necessarily push it into its own realm. Thank you for your insight and response – Tetris Boy Oct 23 '19 at 9:58
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Writing within an established universe may be fine, especially for drafting. If you start out with some borrowed characters or concepts, that makes it easier to do the parts YOU want to do uniquely, and then as you write it may become your own.

It's like having the 5-paragraph essay structure -- not great for in-depth collegiate papers, but a great starting point, and a good way to cope with essay exams.

Some writers DO focus on "tie-in" and "licensed" works within a franchise. Often at SF cons there may be a panel on the pros and cons of working with that structure and maybe how to get started. (Keith R.A. DiCandido often is on these panels -- I met him at Balticon before I knew he wrote the Trek "Core of Engineers" sub-series -- and here's his mostly-updated bibliography, organized by world/franchise.)

I don't know the path to become one of these "official" in-universe writers (apparently it must involve not sleeping, as he does cons most weekends AND several weekly columns AND all these books and other published works, and he's polite and active on social media), but I have bought some writer's independent works because I like their franchise works, and vice-versa.

Harry Potter would be tricky, as JKR is still producing works in that universe (although she had a collaborator for the play) and has been known to issue Cease & Desist letters to fansites focused only on HP. (Fanfiction.net and ArchiveOfOurOwn seem to be safe.) I proposed a book to a publisher I know about "Lessons from Harry Potter" (for educators to write about things one can learn from the series - so strictly analytical essays, no in-world writings), and he refused it stating concerns about JKR's litigiousness.

U.S. Copyright law is typically lifetime+of+Author + 70 years for all works after 1978: other guidelines applied from 1920s-1970s (often involving renewals which frequently lapsed), but typically, in the U.S., anything pre-1924 is fair game. (Original Oz books!)

Very modern works (21st century) may have a CopyLeft, Creative Commons License with Remix/Derivative works options, etc. Cory Doctorow frequently has released his works on CC and believes that it's essential to all creation: https://craphound.com/news/2016/12/08/everything-is-a-remix-including-star-wars-and-thats-how-i-became-a-writer/ (a link to a podcast where he discusses those topics.) Doctorow's website used to more prominently display "Pay What You Want" and "Share What You Made" and other CC options.

I just wanted to provide an alternative to simply "No, don't do it."

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You should read George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman (1969) and it's sequels, in which the "memoirs" of the fictional schoolboy bully from Tom Brown's schooldays by Thomas Hughes (1857) tell of his involvement in many famous 19th century historical events.

Fraser thus puts Flashman in the middle of real historical events in the real universe and also in the fictional universe of Tom Brown's schooldays by Thomas Hughes. Fraser could do that legally because historic events are not copyrighted and because the copyright of Tom Brown's schooldays (1857) expired before Flashman (1969) was published 112 years later.

It is a good idea to restrict the fictional universes you use as setting for your own fiction to those which are in the public domain.

Works are in the public domain if they are not covered by intellectual property rights, such as copyright, at all, or if the intellectual property rights to the works has expired.1

Every work first published before 1923 has been in the American public domain since 1998. Since January 1, 2019, works from 1923 have also lost their copyright protection2. After that literature, movies and other works released 96 years ago will enter the public domain every January 1 until 2073. From 2073 works by creators who died seven decades earlier will expire each year.3

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_domain_in_the_United_States1

And most other countries have similarly long copyright terms.

So the fictional universes you can publish stories in without legal problems are limited to those created in the 19th century and earlier and those published early in the 20th century.

I note that the last few novels of famous science Fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) involved characters traveling through a multiverse that included Heinlein's own fictional settings and some of those of other writers.

In The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985), for example:

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls may be regarded as part of Heinlein's multiverse series, or as a sequel to both The Number of the Beast1:145 and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. During a meeting of the Council of the Time Scouts, representatives from every major time line and setting written by Heinlein appear, including Glory Road and Starship Troopers, and references are made to other authors' works as well.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cat_Who_Walks_Through_Walls2

I don't know anything about the potential legal problems with Heinlein mentioning the works of other writers, but I suppose that being one of the most famous science fiction writers of all time may have helped getting any permission that Heinlein needed.

I suppose that if you want to write a story about a magical kid going to a school of magic you might want to read not only Harry Potter books but also earlier and less successful and famous books with similar settings.

The Worst Witch is a series of children's books written and illustrated by Jill Murphy. The series are primarily boarding school and fantasy stories, with eight books published. The first, The Worst Witch, was published in 1974 by Allison & Busby,1 and the most recent, First Prize for the Worst Witch, was published in 2018 by Puffin Books, the current publisher of the series. The books have become some of the most successful titles on the Young Puffin paperback list and have sold more than 4 million[citation needed] copies.2

There have also been Worst Witch television shows, etc.

And some of the stories mentioned here would also be useful to a writer of stories similar in some ways to Harry Potter:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Potter_influences_and_analogues3

And if someone wants to write a story similar in some ways to Star Wars they should remember that the genre of Star Wars could be described as science fiction, science fantasy, space opera, planetary romance, etc., etc. And so they should think of reading classic works in those related genres.

Space opera: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_opera4

Planetary Romance: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planetary_romance5

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  • I will put Flashman on my list. Thank you for taking the time to write such a lengthy response – Tetris Boy Oct 23 '19 at 9:50
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In general, the answer is no. There is no way to ensure that you will not be successfully sued for the theft of somebody else's intellectual property, violating copyright, and have to pay not only all your profits from that but additional monetary damages as well.

You say you won't use any names, you won't name any places, but that is not a formula for success. A jury of humans will decide if you are ripping off somebody else's work, there is no specific technical test for you to pass. In your Harry Potter example, it will be quite obvious to members of the jury that you ARE referring to Harry Potter, and therefore trying to make money off of JK Rowling's original work, and are therefore in violation of copyright and possibly trademarks (the lightning scar). If your universe contains "light swords" exactly like Star Wars light sabers, you may be in violation of their copyright and trademarks.

Stay away from other people's works, there is no interpretation other than you are trying to make money by stealing their work, their imagination, their intellectual property. It is theft, trying to use something of value (often $billions in value, like Harry Potter) to make money without paying for it.

And because whether you stole it or not is up to a jury and their human judgment, there is no technicality that is going to get you off. And finally, before you think it wouldn't be worth their time and money to go after a little guy, be aware that if they know about you (say because some dummy published your work) and they don't go after you, they can lose their rights to their billion dollar franchise, so they go after everybody.

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    It's hard when the goal would not really be to make money (obviously it's something that would help you continue to write), yet "playing" inside certain universes and creating alternate stories outside of the main storyline—e.g., seeing what a regular wizard gets up to at a different school, fully aware of Harry Potter, but he and his school don't give a damn about him and the news around him—would be the fun part. But "piggybacking" off other success to create stories is the big issue that I now understand. Thank you for your response – Tetris Boy Oct 23 '19 at 9:53
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Another example that I'm fond of is acknowledging a work of fiction as a work of fiction within your own universe. This is frequent in the humor of "The Orville" where characters not owned by the series owners will frequently get discussed, and one of the regulars, a literal minded alien from a culture that loves literature will frequently discuss fictional characters as if they were real. While not overtly stated, he does think that somewhere in Earth's history Kermit the Frog and Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer were real people and accepted as great leaders of their peoples (and for some reason, Rudolph's dad was considering infantcide for the red nose... though it's more of a problem of his own culture that he was projecting). Another member of his species thinks that Dolly Parton was a powerful poet of Earth's historical Feminist Movement (The joke turns meta in that what's wrong with the assumption isn't that the character is wrong... she's arguably right but the audience isn't likely to think of Parton in that light).

Personally, I once used this in a Star Trek fan-fic which opened with the Captain, who was out of uniform (in a get up with black pants, a white shirt, and a black open vest) when he got called to the bridge, is already in a fowl mood and we learn it's because the Ferengi who sold him the holonovel he was currently playing through lied that it was the rare version where his character got to shoot first (while not saying anything, it's clear he was playing Han Solo on the Holodeck recreation of Star Wars. His love of the franchise had been made known in the past) and in another RP campaign I ran, I had a shuttle pilot training sim on the holodeck set to be blatently the Trench Run from A New Hope... of course, this being Trek, the Holodeck malfunctions and now they have to do the Trench Run or die... and the one character who wasn't involved was desperately trying to give them an edge by throwing in a number of scifi references... the shot that finally gets Vader off the characters tails was fired by Kirk's Enterpise, Captained by Kirk (who was given lines by our best bad Shatner impersonator... it's a table of nerds playing Star Trek role play, you have your pick of Shatner impersonations) who decided that this was so far off the rails that his first officer was the always logical Commander Chewbacca (and we had an impersonator for that too).

Some sub-genres are so prolific that they almost require some shout out. Vampire fiction will almost always have the clueless soon-to-be-victim pulls out a thing that is supposed to ward off vampires only for the vampire to roll his eyes and point out that that trick only works in [insert a snarky description of another popular vampire series that included that rule] and this real life. One memorable one was the Buffy The Vampire Slayer comic which introduced a masked villain named Twilight around the same time the book series was first published. While coincidence, it did allow Buffy to quip that the villain's name sounded like a lamer version of her vampire romance... which turned out to foreshadow the identity of the villain (specifically, the vampire in her own vampire romance).

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