Dehydrated books, or how to make money off of fan fiction and unauthorized sequels

Imagine that this evening I follow a friend’s link to a new Harry Potter book, one that essentially replaces “The Sorcerer’s Stone” in the canon with a Year 1 adventure that’s darker and closer in tone to the final few books, but that wasn’t written or authorized by J. K. Rowling. The link I follow leads to a description that never mentions Potter or Rowling–it’s just a generic fantasy plot, and the author is described as an amateur writer whose previous fanfic has been highly rated by readers. I buy it for a couple of dollars.

The story I bought is essentially unreadable for now, because it’s been “dehydrated”: there are just uniform placeholder terms where proper nouns and unique descriptions should be. But I knew this when I bought it. I launch a simple, open source program built to handle complex search-and-replace functions, and it connects to a public domain website where various templates are stored. From that site it retrieves a “Harry Potter” template that a fan has made, and uses it to replace all the placeholders with names and places from Rowling’s saga, then produces a final .epub file.

Now I’ve got a new, unauthorized Harry Potter book.

Because lots of people use this system, the markup language is fairly uniform and growing more so, and it therefore produces a largely error-free final version. There are a couple of errors big enough to impact readability, and later when I have time I report them as bugs to the template website, so that someone else with more time or interest than I have can make adjustments to the template, or so the author can see them and correct her original text.

A wholly formed and unauthorized Harry Potter novel would clearly be a violation of U.S. copyright law, but the process is decentralized so that neither the author of the new work nor the template website is responsible for the final creation of the infringing work. In fact, other templates are available that would turn the story into a brand new work with original characters and places, or that would let a reader personalize it with friends and local places. If you’re feeling perverse, you can apply a Vampire Chronicles template and giggle at Lestat, Louis and Claudia as mystery solving young wizards vampires.

I’m not sure it could be done today. It might be too complicated to implement a markup language that would decisively erase any infringing content but allow accurate replacement from any number of third-party templates. It might demand a strict writing style or format that would prove too limiting artistically. It might simply be considered too deliberately infringing in intent to survive legal scrutiny, especially in countries like the U.S. where copyright power rests in the hands of large corporations who have an interest in locking away content forever. On the other hand, BitTorrent has legitimate uses and has managed to survive these many Internet years.

But my intent is to point out that there are existing and undiscovered applications of technology that will completely explode the existing copyright regime. It might come much sooner than we think, and make the ebook explosion look like a firecracker.

I’m a little surprised that original authors haven’t already started engaging directly with fanfic authors to extend their own fictional series, although I suppose the looming shadow of the Copyright Specter tends to sour most of those sorts of relationships before they can be developed. (Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson come the closest with The Mongoliad, but their terms of service force you to transfer away all rights for anything you contribute, which reduces the collaboration back to the zero sum game of the status quo.)

Am I really advocating for advances in copyright infringement? I think so; after growing up in a world where the majority of my shared public culture is under corporate lock and key, I’ve started to become a copyright punk.

I’m against the current implementation of copyright law for cultural reasons, because I think it’s reached a point where it’s become detrimental to our shared heritage. There are millions of humans who will be born, grow up, produce new creative works on the shoulders of past artists, and die, all while “Gone with the Wind” remains under copyright and locked out of the public domain.* In 2007 a filmmaker can create an original work that incorporates 80-year-old public domain blues recordings, then be unable to sell her film because of licensing issues for the underlying compositions. Other songs disappear entirely because copyright forbids distribution, even though the rights holders abandon those works and fail to properly preserve them. TV shows and movies don’t use the Happy Birthday song because of a (disputed) copyright claim on it, so a living artifact of our present culture regularly fails to be accurately represented or preserved in other works. And right now, a fanfic sequel to “The Catcher in the Rye” (set 60 years later but using the same character) can’t be published in the U.S. because J. D. Salinger successfully sued to prevent it.

If some person or group can manage to bypass copyright by pushing the actual act of infringement to the private citizen level, where no company (hopefully) has the right to witness or record it, then it could be truly disruptive. The next move in the copyright wars would be for corporations to buy legislation that makes the necessary software illegal, but in the end that might be a good thing: I remain hopeful that the more abusive copyright law becomes, the higher the likelihood that it will finally trigger some badly needed restructuring.

* Alice Randall’s “The Wind Done Gone,” published in 2001, retold the events of Mitchell’s novel from the point of view of a slave, but Randall had to remove all direct references to Mitchell’s world and still had to appeal an injunction before she could finally publish the book. It made it to print in part because the publisher incorrectly categorizes it as a parody.

reposted from Booksprung

1 Comment

  1. […] idea, IMO, and it’s one I’ve heard before. Chris Walters wrote about a similar idea once or twice a couple years […]


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