In light of recent allegations and compelling evidence that e-book author JJ Massa has plagiarised a story from fanfic author Amanda, it is inevitable that the rather insulting and snotty question of "Is borrowing from fanfic wrong when the fanfic itself includes borrowed elements"? comes up. (And yes, I've seen it come up!) As a writer who has written both fanfic and original stories, and who has myself been a victim of plagiarism, allow me to offer my own take on this situation by stating that plagiarism is, well, plagiarism.
Legal definitions aside, which I'll get to in a bit -- in fanfic, characters may have been borrowed from another universe, but in the case of an AU (Alternate Universe) like the piece that Amanda appears to have crafted, the setting, plot, relationship dynamics, writer-invented characters (please refrain from the Mary Sue discussion here, folks) and most certainly the prose, belong to the author. And so long as said author is not making a profit off said work or claiming that they invented the original canon, it is perfectly legal. Hell, in the event that said author works their fanfic into the basis of an original story, using it as a springboard for their own ideas, so long as they only expound upon their own original elements, minus fandom specifics, and explore basic timeless themes that countless others have explored before and will explore again, then it's still that author's own original work. For instance, you can't write about the Jedi versus the Sith, (which in turn was George Lucas' take on the Japanese classic Seven Samurai) but you can still explore the timeless theme of good versus evil with your own representative groups so long as they aren't swinging lightsabers and answering to "Anakin" and "Obi-Wan" or something suspiciously close. Another example, for fanfic skeptics who are having trouble following my logic, would be that one might offer their own take on the classic Cupid/Psyche or Beauty/Beast theme, but you can't copy lines from the screenplay for the animated Disney version of Beauty and the Beast and then say oh hey look I wrote a new story!
I've chosen the analogies of both Star Wars and Beauty and the Beast here, as they were both defining influences on my first novel, Secrets Revealed. I freely admit that the basic, timeless tenets of my novel were culled from a few chapters of a Beast-inspired Vader characterization I wrote a few years ago on my own time. Throw in my twisted dungeon and kidnap fantasies, my ode to the classic "bodice ripper", some marital issues I was going through at the time, my recovery from a two-year depressive episode, my egotistical desire to outdo Anne Rice's Beauty Trilogy, and the evil influence of Kayleigh Jamison's then-WIP Svetkavista that I was proofreading for her, and voila, there is a prime example of "where do authors get their ideas". Any of my works are a combination of seemingly disparate influences blended with personal experiences, and any other author (as opposed to a plagiarist) will tell you the same. On top of that, we must then polish and refine our work, from making sure we used "you're" instead of "your" to ensuring our overall plot is cohesive and no tire tracks show in the background. When we writers say we put our blood, sweat, and tears into our work, we aren't just waxing poetic. It is a painstaking and masochistic labor of love, and I personally was no less exhausted, or exuberant, upon recently completing my fourth novel as I was my first.
So...influenced by another's work? Sure, we all are! Shout-outs to a defining influence? Go for it! Parody? You are protected by the law on that one so long as you are just mocking the original work. We do, however, run into a problem when one writer's specific combination of character traits and story circumstances are lifted and placed into another writer's story. (Which was what happened when my work was plagiarised.) We have an even bigger problem when the plot flow of both stories can be lined up almost scene for scene, as is the case between Amanda's fic and the Massa book. And we certainly have a problem -- as we see again between Amanda's fic and the Massa book -- when prose is flat-out copied from one work and slightly reworded to fit another. (Yes, I've read both stories in question in full, and no, I'm not exaggerating. They are the same story.) This problem is then magnified when the plagiarist turns around and not only sells the borrowed work for profit, but earns praise from reviewers along with a trusting and loyal following of readers. (I'll offer no statement on whether that last scenario applies to Amanda vs. Massa just yet, but let me say that if Amanda indeed proves she wrote her story first, Miss Massa has some 'splaining to do.) At that point, I don't give a rat's ass if the culprit in question is lifting from fanfic or Faulkner -- it's fucking plagiarism. And plagiarists are the horse thieves of the writing community -- the lowest of the low and the slimy bottom of the scumpond.
Of course some of this is just my vehement opinion. Regarding the legal definition of plagiarism in regards to fanfic, well look no farther than Wikipedia where the legality of fanfic has its very own entry! As for how a judge might view a case like Amanda vs. Massa -- should it go to court -- remains to be seen. But as fanfic becomes less of everyone's "dirty little secret" and more wanna-be book authors catch wind of the fact that some fanfic writers are, *gasp*, actually pretty damned good, I suspect we are going to see more instances like this one that will eventually lead to broader legal precedents.
In the meantime my heart goes out to any author, from the fanficcer to the New York bestseller, who has had their work stolen. Reigning "queen of romance" Nora Roberts, who has suffered plagiarism at the hands of her peer Janet Daily (proof that it can happen to anyone, instigated by anyone, at any level in the industry!) has described the experience as no less than "mind rape", and I will quote and credit Miss Roberts on the only adequate description of how it feels. A plagiarist steals more than just words or receives more than undue profits. They steal hours of hard work, and they receive unrightfully-deserved credit and recognition. Most of all, a plagiarist steals a piece of the creator's soul, and that, in my opinion, is the most unforgivable part of the crime, one for which no amount of money can truly compensate.