Fan fiction generally occupies a gray area of the law - widely tolerated under "fair use" for noncommercial sharing, publication, and performance, but almost never acceptable for profiting from. This is because the original works are protected by copyright.

Despite this, there are quite a few fictional universes that have fallen into the public domain because the copyrights on the original fictional works that defined them have expired. Examples include the Cthulhu Mythos, the world of Sherlock Holmes, and Ruritania. The universes of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and of Robin Hood and his Merry Men predate modern literary copyright and have likely never been protected.

From the perspective of writing, can a new work of fiction based on and set in the universe of a previous public-domain work be considered fan fiction, and how would such a work be distinguished from a non-fan fiction derivative work?

For some examples, suppose I want to write new stories set in Anthony Hope's Ruritania. Perhaps I want to do a massive multi-universe crossover where the March sisters team up with Dracula and the Mad Hatter to stop Sherlock Holmes and the Snow Queen from salvaging the wreckage of Captain Nemo's Nautilus submarine in Ruritania and using it to resurrect Cthulhu and conquer the sky city of Laputa from the Sheriff of Nottingham and the Lady of Shalott. I cannot get (or be refused) permission to fanfic from any of the authors because they are literally all dead and I wouldn't legally need that permission anyway.

To be clear, this is a conceptual question about the nature of fan fiction and not a question seeking advice on copyright.

Part of me says that yes, any attempt to do this constitutes fan fiction, but I also note that this would render literally half of Disney's film catalog as fan fiction of 18th and 19th century works. I seriously doubt that saying "Oh, Frozen is just a Snow Queen fanfic" would sparkle with them.

Alternately, is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) a commercialized fanfic taking advantage of copyright expiration to make a profit or an ordinary non-fanfic derivative literary work? Would such a distinction even have any meaning in the writing world?

For an additional example, suppose 500 years from now, the rest of the previously-exempted pre-2170 works finally enter the public domain, and a publisher bundles together some 1970's Kirk/Spock yaoi fangirl fics and publishes them. Are these stories no longer fanfic because it is now legal to commercialize unauthorized Star Trek derivative works or do they remain fanfics because they were originally intended as such?

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    I'd say that the amateur nature is an important part of what characterizes fanfic. To take the first line from wikipedia: "Fan fiction or fanfiction is fictional writing written in an amateur capacity by fans, unauthorized by, but based on an existing work of fiction." So a professional derivative work would not be fanfic. (On the other hand, the border between professional and amateur is fuzzy. Especially now that self-publishing is a viable professional route.)
    – user54131
    Sep 24, 2022 at 20:09
  • @towr that's interesting. I've been thinking about it from the opposite perspective, that fanfic remains amateur because of copyright and this legal restriction defines fanfic. In other words, unauthorized Harry Potter writers avoid publishing commercially because doing so would invite legal action and thus receive the label of fanfic on their works, while anyone writing a story based off The Call of Cthulhu is a full-fledged Cthulhu Mythos writer. Sep 24, 2022 at 21:00
  • @towr or, suppose I write some Ruritania fics to use as bedtime stories for my niece, then later decide that they are good enough to bundle together and submit to a publisher as Robert Columbia's Fantastic Tales of Swashbuckling Nobility: In the World of Anthony Hope's Ruritania. Am I a fanfic writer or not? Sep 24, 2022 at 21:09
  • There is no useful, bright-line definition of "fan fic" that does not turn on "uses material under copyright." Yes, there are a lot of uses of the term outside that context, including writers who say that anything that uses anyone else's material is writing fanfic, but they aren't precise enough to distinguish between one work and another.
    – Mary
    Sep 25, 2022 at 3:37

1 Answer 1


The reason Frozen is not a Snow Queen fanfiction is not that Snow Queen is old enough to be public domain, but that Frozen relates to Snow Queen in a different way than a fanfiction would. (That is, apart from the fact that "fanfiction" is the term for a literary work, while Frozen is a movie. Let's leave the form aside.)

Fanfiction expands on a story (canon) that is known to both the author and the audience, and will be perceived in its context - or at least is made with that expectation. For watching Frozen, the Snow Queen is completely irrelevant. It's a different story that doesn't happen in the same world. Frozen is a variation on a theme, not a fanwork.

On the other hand, the story you're outlining... well, I'm unfamiliar with several of the source material, but it does sound like fanfiction. Taking established characters in established worldbuilding and sending them on a new adventure - that's what fanfiction does.

Fanfiction is old. And I mean old. Paradise Lost is a fanfiction (of Genesis). Aeneid is a fanfiction (of Iliad). Who knows how much of what we know as Arthurian canon started out as fanfiction.

Copyright protection is not the demarkation line.

Professional writing is not the demarkation line. Ask Neil Gaiman, proudly calling the Hugo-winning Study in Emerald a fanfiction. See here: https://twitter.com/neilhimself/status/936059562863550471?lang=en

The demarkation line is being an apocryphal expansion on an established canonical story, acknowledged by both author and audience.

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