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Are Worlds Bigger Than Their Creators?

In recent weeks the Dragon Page’s Cover to Cover podcast has discussed the issue of authors writing books in another author’s world, specifically
“zombie novels” where the original author is dead. The specific case that started the discussion was the news that there would be a new Null-A novel by John C. Wright. The World of Null-A is a novel by A E van Vogt which was published in 1948. That novel was actually a revised version of van Vogt’s 1945 magazine serialization.

Shared Worlds

In movies, television and comics it is largely expected that other writers will play in the original author’s universe. That’s just the way those businesses work. The properties are owned by the companies, not the individuals.

Books are different though. While there are a number of examples of “shared worlds” (Thieves World, Wildcards etc.) those are exceptions. Generally an author retains the copyright to his work and has a say in whether there will be any sequels or not. So long as the author retains copyright they can decide whether to let anyone else play in their yard.

Life After Death

It gets more complicated after an author’s death however. Copyright laws vary around the world, but generally speaking the copyright passes to the author’s estate. For example any works published after 1978 will stay in copyright for 70 years after the author’s death. At that point the author’s estate can decide whether to have other authors write further books in a series.

Of course eventually copyright expires and then the world and all associated characters become game for anyone who wishes to play with them.

Why Not?

Writers use elements of Arthurian legend all the time. Lately Peter Pan’s copyright just expired and it didn’t take long for authors to start taking advantage of that. Is it a bad thing if writers are given new building blocks to play with?

Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen weaved together a number of out of copyright characters and elements into a masterful new story. Is it in fact to society’s benefit for these worlds to continue after an author’s death?

Certainly in the case of fantasy and science fiction it could be argued that there are a lot of people who are fans of a particular world or set of characters that would love the opportunity to read more about them.

Diluting and Crowding the Market

There are downsides to this though. One argument against it is that it can dilute the original property. Certainly there’s a risk that the new material is far poorer than the original that inspired it. But while that might damage it’s monetary worth, it doesn’t affect it’s literary merit.

Another argument is that turning these universes into a franchise of sorts hurts readers because it crowds new novels and new ideas off the bookshelves. Certainly the shelves on a lot of booksellers are quite limited and this is a real risk. The mid-list has been in trouble for years though. This might actually allow struggling authors to make a little more money than they currently do. We already have franchise novels after all, look at Star Trek and Star Wars for the most obvious examples.

They’re Doing It For The Money

Probably yes. But the same could be said about the majority of books published each year. It’s a business, both for the publishers and the authors. If it wasn’t they’d all be publishing this stuff on blogs.

And The Anwer Is?

When I started listening to the discussions, my feelings were quite clear. Obviously the author should have the final say in how his/her world and characters were used. It was so simple. That was until I started thinking about Arthur Conan Doyle and HG Wells and how no one complains about their characters being used by other authors.

Is it somehow morally okay because the author has been dead for 70 years? If so why?

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Eoghann Irving is amongst other things the creator and Editor of Solar Flare. He has a life long interest in all forms of science fiction and fantasy and a pressing need to share this interest with anyone who will listen. Find out more at his personal website

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