Copyright Law and the World of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

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The world of Fifty Shades of Grey is one that many individuals have become acquainted with since the introduction of the books and the subsequent movie. For some readers, this story is an introduction into an entirely new genre of romance, while for others it is more of a conversation starter. With the popularity of the work, also comes the scrutiny and the desire to learn more about where the story originated. In order to fully understand the background to this world, one must understand where Fifty Shades of Grey came from and the reason that copyright laws are a major aspect of the work as well.

One reason that copyright is important to this particular book stems from its origins as Twilight fan fiction. The original piece written by E.L. James started out as an unauthorized work of fan fiction based on Stephenie Meyer’s series. In the initial story, which was then called Master of the Universe, the characters retained the names Bella and Edward, the same names as the primary characters in Meyer’s books. The premise of the work was to see how the story would change if instead of Edward being a vampire that was decidedly celibate, he was turned into a human businessman with more lustful appetites. The story became so popular that it garnered James a book deal.

The problem then lies with the fact that Meyer holds a copyright to her Twilight series, which grants her some very exclusive rights to determine who can in turn create a derivative of that work. The type of copyright that Meyer holds is one known as the derivative work right. Essentially anything that is created based on the original work needs approval from the owner of the copyright. This copyright is also the reason that in order for the Twilight series to be turned into movies, the film company needed to get permission from the author to even adapt the books for the big screen. This would then seem to mean, that in order for the world of Fifty Shades of Grey to even become its own work, based on the copyright law attached to Twilight, James would need permission from Meyer.

Although James did rename the characters in her story from Bella and Edward to Anastasia and Christian, she did not actually rewrite the story itself. While the publishing house that printed the Fifty Shades series says that these stories are original books and can no longer be considered fan fiction based on the Twilight series, there is still some question as to whether this is true or not. When the news first broke that Vintage publishing, an off shoot of Random House, had picked up the Fifty Shades series for publication, book blogger Jane Litte decided to do her own research on the situation at hand. Litte ran the stories through three different comparison engines or anti-plagiarism programs and determined that there was a substantial amount of text that seemed to be identical to the original copyrighted works by Meyer.

In the case of the Fifty Shades series, James has never been granted a license by Meyer to create a story that is derived from the Twilight series. This then calls into question copyright law, which indicates that a story that is unauthorized as a derivation of another copyrighted work, cannot receive its own copyright. It is important to note that the Constitution sees a copyright as a form of protection used to promote the progression of knowledge. Knowledge grows as individuals develop and build upon the ideas that surround them. While some might question why it is important to discuss the laws of copyright in relation to Fifty Shades of Grey, it is a novel that has sparked conversation and debate. The novel is essentially expanding people’s knowledge and has allowed for people to discuss relationships and sex in a more open manner. Although the story started out as fan fiction, it has become a discussion piece in current culture and should therefore not be limited by copyright laws, which would see the work limited because of its origins.

While there are some who disagree with just how far this particular copyright extends, others might still question whether the Fifty Shades series does infringe on Meyer’s work. In the case of the world of Fifty Shades of Grey and the question of whether it violates a copyright law, the legality of the work has not been called into question. Meyer has in fact said that the work has too much smut for her taste and has not taken any sort of legal action against James. Although Meyer has never given her permission to James for a derivative work to be written, she has also not taken any action against her. Instead this is a work that builds upon an already strong foundation and deserves its own recognition for that feat alone.

Opinion by Kimberley Spinney


Washington Post

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