The limits of fan fiction

Science fiction is not the only genre which attracts unauthorized fan fiction – I have a family member who once wrote a great short story using the modern-day characters of the BBC series “Sherlock” — but it certainly attracts its share.

When I was a teenager, there were science fiction fans who published “fanzines,” little mimeographed newsletters. The rise of computers, the Internet, and other technologies has completely transformed the way in which genre fans can express themselves creatively. Now, fans – with relatively small budgets, at least by Hollywood standards – can produce their own short films, complete with special effects.

There have been several fan-produced “Star Trek” series, some of which have quite nice special effects and which have even managed to secure stars from the real “Star Trek” in guest roles.

The increasing sophistication of these products leaves Hollywood studios in a tricky legal position. On the one hand, they want to encourage the enthusiasm of the fan base – those are the people, after all, who the studio will need in order to make its next big movie or TV series a success. But – and this is a gross oversimplification from someone who is Not A Lawyer — there are principles in copyright law that require you to protect your rights consistently or else you might lose the right to protect them at all. That sometimes forces you to go after a relatively-minor infraction, not because the minor infraction is any threat to you, but because you want to preserve your legal rights in case of a major infraction somewhere down the road.

The owners of the “Star Trek” franchise – formerly Paramount Studios, now CBS – have apparently had an unspoken rule of thumb that they would not go after fan films as long as they were non-commercial. I don’t think they actually approved of such productions, but they made no attempt to stop them.

But now, they’re going after something called “Axanar,” a fan production which has raised more than a million dollars on crowd-funding sites. Here’s a promotional video for the project. The promo is done as a faux documentary, although I assume the finished project would be straightforward storytelling. You can see the high level of production value:

This is light years beyond some mimeographed fan fiction story being mailed out to a few dozen friends. This is, in some ways, actual competition for the authorized “Star Trek” movies and TV shows. Sure, the writing probably won’t be as polished and the acting may not be as great. But the gaps between the fan product and the commercial product are closing.

Apparently, Lucasfilm has published and distributed specific rules and guidelines for “Star Wars” fan projects, something CBS (and Paramount before it) has never done.

It’s a tricky situation. A year from now, CBS will be trying to get “Star Trek” fans to sign up for its online streaming service so that they can watch a new Star Trek TV series.  As the owners of the Star Trek copyright, they have the legal right to stop or regulate competitors from using their content. But they will have to step carefully and find a way to preserve their rights without alienating the very fans whose money they will need a year from now.

Write More Good

In the newspaper business, we use a reference called the The Associated Press Stylebook for a wide variety of questions about newspaper style – what to capitalize (and what not to), whether you have to say Federal Bureau of Investigation or can get by with saying FBI, and so on.

A few years ago, some very funny writers got together, calling themselves the Bureau Chiefs, and created a very funny twitter feed called FakeAPStylebook, giving hilariously bad answers to questions of style and usage.

The Twitter feed became popular even with people who’d never seen or picked up an actual AP Stylebook. It led to a book deal – but rather than just collate their Tweets, as some have done, the Bureau Chiefs wrote new material (although I think they worked a few of the original jokes in from time to time), crafting a faux reference book that parodies everything from the AP Stylebook to Strunk and White.

That book is Write More Good: An Absolutely Phony Guide. Now, parodies of advice for writers are not new; the late Michael O’Donoghue, one of the original “Saturday Night Live” writers (he appeared opposite Belushi in the show’s very first cold open) crafted this little gem, which I have in an anthology somewhere. But “Write More Good” is just terrific. I do need to alert some of my readers that there’s Strong Language.

By the way, I’ve had my Kindle about six weeks and this is actually the first book for which I’ve paid full price – sort of. Tuesday’s Kindle “special offer” was a $10 Amazon gift card for $5. I bought the gift card and ended up using it on “Write More Good.” So as far as the publisher is concerned, I paid full price.

I’ve been in the middle of a book on the history of Irish Americans. It’s a good book, but one day when I had only a few minutes to read I thought I’d dip into “Write More Good.” I ended up reading all of “Write More Good,” and it’s only tonight that I can go back to the history book.

The hidden killer

Are you as concerned about the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide as I am?

Go to the web site and you’ll learn that inhaling even small quantities of DHMO can be fatal, and that prolonged exposure to solid DHMO can cause severe tissue damage. And yet, DHMO is an ingredient in hundreds of items in your home. Yes, your home! And the government has little incentive to do away with DHMO, because many of the leading suppliers of DHMO are government-owned!

Go wander around the web site and learn more about DHMO. And, if you can’t figure out exactly what it is, here’s a hint: “dihydrogen monoxide” means that each molecule contains two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

No, naughty moose!

Viewers of “Mad Men” have often noted that the preview of next week’s episode is intentionally vague, often even misleading, and edited in a very unique pace and rhythm.

“On The Next Mad Men” is a blog where episodes of many other TV series are given this treatment, just for laughs and to see what it would look like. “Fawlty Towers,” f’rinstance:


Big, big hat tip to the Mental_Floss magazine blog.

For your viewing pleasure

I’m not exactly sure what to say about this:

Part 1 of a 1973 spoof that has been carved into several parts on YouTube. To see the rest of it, click on the image above and go to the YouTube site instead of playing it here. You’ll see links to the other parts in the right-hand column.

It was one of a series of films starring the hobo character.

Hat tip to my colleague Brian Mosely for pointing this out.