Who owns the copyrights of Harry Potter

When fans continue to write stories

Intellectual property rights: Project of the Siegen Collaborative Research Center “Media of Cooperation” deals with copyrights in fan fiction.

"Harry Potter" author Joanne K. Rowling announced in 2016 that after the official end of her epic, there would be a play in London's West End. The fans raced with delight. With this alternative world, Rowling created a reinterpretation of her own work. Fans do something similar themselves, called fanfiction. A fan fiction is a further narration by fans who take the characters to other levels, in other times or in other places. Fans breathe new life into their favorite characters.

Fanfiction is not a niche product. Internet portals such as “Archive of Our Own” or “FanFiktion.de” offer countless stories about so-called fandoms such as Harry Potter, Supernatural or Yo-Gi-Oh. Fanfiction is a mass phenomenon that gained fame at the latest after the book success of “50 Shades of Gray”, because the main protagonists “Anastacia and Christian” were still called “Edward and Bella” in the fan fiction spread on the Internet based on Twilight.

Fans interpret and publish works worldwide and thus express their love for the characters and worlds. But to whom do the rights to such works belong? Do fanfiction writers infringe the copyrights of the original authors? Is the existing copyright still appropriate? Does it have to be adapted to the so-called “remix culture”?

The sub-project “Media Practices and Copyright Law - Social and Legal Framework Conditions for Cooperative and Derivative Works on the Net” of the Siegen Collaborative Research Center (CRC) “Media of Cooperation” deals with these questions. “Using the example of fan fiction, we ask: What actually is originality? What is worth protecting, what is not? ”Explains Dr. Wolfgang Reissmann, research associate in the project. His colleague Kamila Kempfert adds: “Remix, new and reworking are socially recognized forms of expression. The legislature also has to deal with this. "

The sub-project is divided into two pillars: The country-specific review of the legal status quo is the first. The status of international copyright law is examined and sample models are filtered out. "We are investigating how foreign regulatory systems have proven themselves and to what extent they can be a role model for German and European copyright law," says project team member Sibel Kocatepe. In addition to the legal norms, the foreign court rulings in which there are disputes about copyright infringements are also of interest to the researchers.

The second pillar is empirical. It consists of a qualitative interview study and ethnographic in-depth studies. So far, intensive discussions have been held with around 30 fanfiction authors. What are the motivations? What image do the authors have of themselves, others and the authors? Are you aware of possible copyright infringements? What is their perception of the platforms they publish on? What is the practice of writing like? The latter in particular can be found out much better when you are close. That is what ethnography is for. Svenja Kaiser, student assistant in the project, is herself a fanfiction writer. For half a year she wrote in a group that does fanfiction as an RPG. She is currently supporting an author who produces and reads fanfiction for her YouTube channel.

Some authors write alone. Often there is still cooperation with a proofreader, the "beta". Other authors write and are involved in cooperative forms of writing. Digital platforms and tools in particular allow a colorful variety of creative forms of work, even across time zones and national borders. This makes it clear: there is not just one form of fan fiction. The ways to write are just as diverse as the fandoms themselves. What and when the authors write occurs at intervals: Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Twilight up to the BBC series Sherlock. Every fandom has “its time”.

The researchers note that the authors have a great deal of respect for the original authors. If these prohibit creative writing, however, that is no hurdle for most of them to still get creative. In everyday fan life, conflicts tend to be fought among each other. "We interpret this as practically lived 'copyright' and deal with the pronounced and unspoken norms," ​​explains Reißmann. It is also interesting that very few authors know that they themselves often produce legally protectable material.

At the moment, the researchers are mainly concerned with questions of commercialization. Up to now, the maxim in fan fiction culture has been that the feedback from the readers, the reviews, are the only 'currency'. But what happens when the symbolic currency is exchanged for a real one? What if, for example, money is made from advertising on YouTube? “Commercialization will keep us busy in the future,” says Kocatepe. In the case of works of creative creation, the question always resonates: If copyrights are infringed, what (fictitious) damage occurs? In order to ultimately get a comprehensive picture of the various interests of the individual actors, the sub-project will therefore also carry out interviews with platform operators, original authors and publishers in the coming research phase.

The project is one of 16 sub-projects of the Collaborative Research Center “Media of Cooperation” at the University of Siegen. More than 60 scientists research interdisciplinary cooperative practices in the context of the use of digital media, infrastructures and (media) publics.