Jonathan Band talks about “fifty shades of fair use” and how E.L. James found wealth and fame after filing off the serial numbers and rebranding her fan fiction:
Fifty Shades of Grey, which is being released this Friday just in time for Valentine’s Day, is sure to be one of the top grossing films of the year. Depending on your point of view, fair use is to blame — or thank — for the existence of the Fifty Shades franchise.
The movie is based on the three erotic Fifty Shades novels, which have dominated (pun intended) book sales for the past three years. Over 100 million copies of the novels have been sold, the first novel of the series has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 140 weeks, and the novels have been translated into 51 languages. And to make sure that no dollar is left behind, Target just began distributing a line of Fifty Shades sex toys to coincide with the film’s release. Similarly, Vermont Teddy Bear is offering a Fifty Shades of Grey Teddy Bear, featuring smoldering eyes, a suit and satin tie, a mask, and mini handcuffs.
The British author of the series, E.L. James (a pseudonym for television executive Erika Mitchell), originally wrote the trilogy as fan fiction of Stephanie Meyer’s popular Twilight series, and posted it in installments on the fan fiction site FanFiction.net under the title Master of the Universe. Some of the readers complained that it was too racy for the site, which tries not to host adult content, so James moved it to a website she created, FiftyShades.com. At some point the popularity of the story must have convinced James of its potential commercial value, so she eliminated the potentially infringing references to Twilight characters and plotlines while retaining her original bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism themes. She divided this revised version into three novels that were published as e-books by an Australian virtual publisher.