Amazon has announced that soon it will be selling fanfiction in a new venture called Kindle Worlds. Royalties will be split between the fanfic writer and the entity that owns the work the fanfic is based upon. Getting paid for doing something that you already love doing for free sounds like a great deal, but the fine print of the arrangement should make writers hesitate.
I'll be the first to admit that a few intellectual property classes in law school do not make me an expert on copyright law, but from a lawyer's perspective, Kindle Worlds could be a step in solving a long standing problem. The legality of fanfiction has been in debate for some time. The fanfic itself is a separate creation and the writer should have a copyright on their work, but the characters and world are protected by copyrights belonging to other parties. Writing fanfics based on works in the public domain is an easier issue.
The basic problem with fanfics, and also fan art, is that the fan is publishing works with characters that do not belong to them without the owner's permission. Multiple law review articles have been written on how fanfiction and the law intersect. Writers most often include a disclaimer that no copyright infringement is intended but whether that makes it okay is still up for debate. Kindle Worlds could solve that legal gray area. The fanfics sold through Kindle Worlds will be limited to source materials for which Amazon has a licensing agreement with their owners. So far, licenses have only been announced for three properties owned by Warner Bros. Television Group's Alloy Entertainment: Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and Pretty Little Liars. This process could be compared to the legal principles of patent licensing.
While the lawyer in me is intrigued by the possibilities presented by Kindle Worlds, the writer in me wants to run for the hills. All writers would love to be paid for our works, but with the strings attached to selling your fanfiction through Kindle Worlds it seems unlikely the payments will be worth it. For fanfics longer than 10,000 words, Amazon will pay 35% of the royalties to the writer and the rest to the license owner. Stories 5,000-10,000 words long will result in royalties going to the license owner and 20% "digital royalties" going to the writer. No word on what exactly that means.
Where things get things get really iffy is when you look at who gets the rights to the elements in the fanfics. Amazon says the writer "will own the copyright to the original, copyrightable elements (such as characters, scenes, and events) that you create and include in your work, and the World Licensor will retain the copyright to all the original elements of the World." That sounds great but reading farther paints a not so rosy picture. If in your fanfic you create a kickass original character they have to stay there. By submitting your story to Kindle Worlds you "are granting Amazon Publishing an exclusive license to the story and all the original elements you include in that story." You can't use that character in stories for any other world and other Kindle World authors for that show can use your new character to their hearts' content. You may officially own the copyright to that character but they're not really yours anymore.
The scariest ramification for writers submitting fanfics to Kindle Worlds is that you have no control over the use of your story elements. Amazon Publishing acquires all rights related to publishing for your story. This means that your story could end up in anthologies and foreign language translations through Amazon without your knowledge and potentially without you being compensated. Also, the owner of the licensed media acquires rights to "use your new elements and incorporate them into other works without further compensation to you." You could see the concept of your story as an episode on television and you won't get paid or even get credit.
If you write fanfiction for the love of fandom, or if you think you might want to change it into an original piece and go the Fifty Shades of Grey route someday, you might want to think twice before submitting your fanfics to Kindle Worlds.