When fans of Star Trek or Harry Potter write their own stories or make their own films or music set in those universes, are they hurting the original art or its creators? Or are they in fact making new art and adding something positive to the world?
It’s no secret that the best stories inspire us to become storytellers ourselves. As award-winning author and journalist, activist for intellectual property rights and electronic freedom, and former fan fiction writer Cory Doctorow notes in “In Praise of Fanfic,”

“The Pygmalion story didn’t start with Shaw or the Greeks, nor did it end with My Fair Lady. Pygmalion is at least thousands of years old — think of Moses passing for the pharaoh’s son! — and has been reworked in a billion bedtime stories, novels, D&D games, movies, fanfic stories, songs, and legends.
“Each person who retold Pygmalion did something both original — no two tellings are just alike — and derivative, for there are no new ideas under the sun.”

Good for Business

Fan fiction in its most contemporary sense can be dated back to the publication of the first Star Trek printed fanzine, Spockanalia, in 1967.

Why did Star Trek jumpstart modern participatory fandom? Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, appreciated that fan creativity wasn’t only fun for the fans, but it was also good for business. In exchange for his acceptance and encouragement of fan organizations and activities, those same fans followed and supported his franchise.

A famous fan-powered letter-writing campaign saved the original Star Trek show from cancellation after its second season. The remarkable success of fan-organized Star Trek conventions in the 1970s led directly to the rebirth of the franchise in feature films and new television series.

Good for Art

The same fan creativity that’s good for business can also be good — very good — for art.

The aforementioned Star Trek fanzine Spockanalia, for example, inspired another group of fans to stretch their own artistic wings, writing and illustrating fan fiction and publishing a Star Trek fanzine of their own, StarDate. The result of this creative apprenticeship? One of the producers of StarDate became a professional artist, and three became professional writers. One of the latter, in fact, became one of the most acclaimed authors in the field of speculative fiction: Lois McMaster Bujold.

Bujold has won four Hugo Awards, three Nebula Awards, the Mythopoeic and Skylark and Forry Awards, and a number of additional honors, as well as a widespread and devoted audience among science fiction, fantasy, and romance readers.
Today Bujold is a self-proclaimed fan-friendly author who has used the insights gained from fan fiction to develop strong ties to her fan community; to scrutinize in particular the question of sex and readership in fiction; and to articulate her theory of the “unsung collaborator,” which has been credited with reinventing the reader-response theory of literature. (Reader-response theory suggests, in short, that a text isn’t an object but is instead a process, one that requires both the creator’s and reader’s input in order to reach completion).

In my essay “From Both Sides Now: Lois McMaster Bujold and the Fan Fiction Phenomenon” (published in 2013’s Lois McMaster Bujold: Essays on a Modern Master of Science Fiction and Fantasy), I discuss in depth how Bujold’s early fannish creativity informs both her professional work and her understanding of storytelling itself.

In a way, creative fans do what other entrepreneurs do: they see opportunities for contribution, and they build on what others have done, inventing and experimenting and ultimately producing something new. Fans of a given text might choose to add scenes that were originally missing, or flesh out the back stories of previously underdeveloped characters, or “fix” turns taken by the narrative that they view as problematic or unsatisfying.

They might reimagine the tale, relocate familiar elements in unfamiliar settings or circumstances, or harness preexisting story elements to focus on different concerns or themes. Fan works transform and respond to original texts, and if they’re successful, they enrich the original project in the act of quenching the thirst of fans for something more or different or better.
And as Bujold notes in her 2005 essay “Here’s Looking At You, Kid…,” this not only works for the fans themselves, but it also can be useful for the original artist, providing her an opportunity to “see inside readers’ heads, that otherwise inaccessible stage where all this art takes place.”

Fandom doesn’t just produce the occasional Lois McMaster Bujold or Cory Doctorow. By its very nature, fandom also pushes the boundaries of the medium to which it responds.

George Lucas’s support of fan writers wasn’t always seamless (as Will Brooker explains in his 2002 work Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans), a fact that has rebounded against him and his franchise in the past, but his — and now Lucasfilm’s — steady support of fan-film creators has inspired generations of fans to exploit and experiment with — and create — the latest technology in visual storytelling. It’s no wonder that in a number of cases yesterday’s fan filmmakers have become today’s professionals, applying their cutting-edge ideas and practices to their field.
Perhaps the clearest example of fan innovation can be found in the Harry Potter community. J.K. Rowling’s novels became cultural touchstones at the same time that a critical mass of the population moved their lives online; Rowling recognized this, and on her original official website (later replaced by Pottermore.com), she honored a fan site each month. Fan fiction, art, and film flourished in cyberspace.

So, too, did something new: Harry Potter fan music, better known as wizard rock (or wrock).
For the first time, fans could inexpensively and quickly write, perform, record, and distribute music to an already primed and eager international audience. Fan podcasts, websites, and EP clubs sprang up to help Harry Potter readers find the Harry Potter-themed bands best suited to their tastes.

When the wrock sensation led to live concerts and music festivals in multiple countries, Rowling’s blessing and Paramount’s subsequent “gentleman’s agreement” made it possible for these fan musicians to indulge their inner entrepreneurs, selling tickets, touring, and offering their own merchandise.

This was good for the Harry Potter franchise. It was also good for art, as young songwriters, singers, and musicians across the world — some not yet in their teens — gained exposure, experimented with their craft, grew as creators, and gained practical experience in producing and distributing their art. Unsurprisingly, some of these amateur musicians have applied what they learned in their fandom apprenticeships to professional careers. Two full-length feature film documentaries explore the wrock phenomenon: We Are Wizards and The Wizard Rockumentary: A Movie about Rocking and Rowling.

Good for Everyone

Are fan works still controversial? In some circles, yes. The pro-fan Organization for Transformative Works feels the need to address the questions of fair use, copyright, and legality in its FAQ. According to the OTW’s Vision Statement, its members “envision a future in which all fannish works are recognized as legal and transformative and are accepted as a legitimate creative activity.”
But award-winning author, poet, and literary critic Catherynne M. Valente suggests that such a future isn’t far from reality in her blog post “Fan the Flames”:

This argument is already over. It is a generational one. You’ve got a whole host of authors coming into their own who grew up with fanfic as a fact of life, or even committed it themselves. Who have been messing about with creative commons since forever. A whole generation who sees fanfic as, not a nuisance, but a mark of success, a benchmark.

That’s good for business; that’s good for art; and, most of all, that’s good for the business of art.