Many thanks to Jintian for summarizing the whole HP plagiarism debate in her blog for those of us who don’t have two hours a day to follow glass_onion when it gets rowdy. Well, you know I’m going to have an opinion. Let me just get out the soapbox…
I give Harry Potterdom a free pass. Let them rip off Buffy. Let them query-replace whole novels. (I recommend Emacs for ease of query-replacement.) Let them steal other people’s fanfic, even. Go ahead, rip me off.
It was Jintian herself, in the case of real people fic, who implied that people who live in glass fandoms shouldn’t throw stones - yet the stones are flying now. So the question that occurs to me is not why plagiarize? but why dost thou protest so much? Aren’t we all just the bottom-feeders of the literary ocean? We “original” fanfic writers use unoriginal characters in our own unique ways. The HP plagiarists use unoriginal characters and unoriginal lines in their own unique ways.
We are artisans, not artists - if you value originality so highly, why not write in a genre that emphasizes it? Insisting on originality in fanfic seems like trying to have your cake and eat it too - you want the ease and accessibility of fandom, plus the glory of having been “original”. I don’t think there’s room in this town for the both of them.
Plagiarism is a term of disapprobation that can only apply in a context where originality was expected in the first place. This isn’t Martin Luther King Jr.’s dissertation, people, this is fanfic. We frown on originality. We abhor the Mary Sue. We shy away from the Delta Fleet. Fanfic is not literature, and cannot be judged by literary standards.
Fanfic is like a troop of Girl Scouts gathered around a campfire, singing the traditional campfire songs (my favorite was always “Green and Yellow”, the tragic tale of a camper who ate a poisonous snake he’d mistaken for an eel), improving the verses that wanted improvement, and adding in original verses. Maybe those verses would get picked up by other scouts and passed on as the One True “Green and Yellow”, or maybe they’d be forgotten, like so much ephemeral J/C flufffic. One thing’s for sure, though - no girl scout would cry plagiarism if she heard her new verse (What color flowers do you want, Jesse my son? / What color flowers do you want, my beloved one? / Green and yellow, green and yellow - mamma come quick ’cause I’m very very sick and I wanna lay down and die…) coming from the next campfire over.
Fanfiction is an open-source movement. Maybe some people don’t want their source spread around, but the common-law history of copyright and the longer history of mankind telling tales around campfires is on the side of the alleged plagiarists. This is what it is to tell a tale - to take the best bits (including the best zingers) of tales you heard before and put them together in a way that pleases your audience. Harry Potter, the fandom, has rediscovered the art of storytelling, and it shall not be taken away from them.
If Joss doesn’t want to be quoted, he can stop broadcasting his best lines. As for the sacrosanct published authors, no one owned their lines until the printing press, and someday soon they’ll be common property again. No desperate clinging to printing-press laws can hold progress off forever. The future will be open-source; the future will be fanfic.