Scarlett Johansson is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with a French author, who she claims stole her image for a character in his latest novel, to the tune of just over £41,000. The lawsuit has been the subject of much debate regarding artistic freedom, the right to privacy and questions of just how much control people in the public eye have over their images in the modern age. Johansson and her lawyer claim the book by Grégoire Delacourt, which centres on the life of a woman blighted by the attention brought to her thanks to her resemblance to a famous actress, is a “fraudulent and illicit use of her name, her fame and her image”.
The case is still pending but it’s put in a particularly interesting light now that Simon & Schuster have paid a 6 figure sum for the rights to a Wattpad published One Direction fan-fiction. Interestingly enough, the Publisher’s Weekly story regarding the acquisition doesn’t mention the origins of Anna Todd’s After series, although it does talk about its 800million views and Wattpad’s recent deal with UTA to represent film and TV deals. Clearly there’s money to be made here regardless of the legally contentious ground covered.
The strange thing is this isn’t the first One Direction fan-fiction to receive the pull to publish (P2P) treatment. Emily Baker’s Loving The Band was bought by Penguin and published in 2012, although it sank without a trace. Fan-fiction for “original” publication is nothing new these days thanks to the success of far too many Twilight fics receiving the treatment, originally with publishers set up explicitly for this purpose before being picked up by the traditional houses. The question of legality has been asked many times regarding the success of books like Fifty Shades of Grey and Beautiful Bastard that have their origins in fan-fiction and many readers have been put off buying such stories. It’s an issue for many readers who are also active in fandom because fic is an explicitly fan based non-profit activity. Many authors, such as Anne Rice, hugely oppose fan-fiction and it’s not hard to see why these days with creative copyright becoming increasingly diluted through this kind of profiting from something very clearly rooted in the works of others. How much of EL James’s work is Stephenie Meyer’s?
It’s different with Anna Todd. She’s profiting from the cult of celebrity rather than a readily available literary product. One Direction’s fanbase are a powerhouse and it’s very appealing for a publisher to see that and wonder how to make it a commodity. Fans like to get close to the objects of their adoration, and that desire is even stronger as a young person. We all had an actor or musician who we fancied the pants off and read fan-fiction about (guilty as charged, and no I am not telling you who my personal choice was). Part of it has a fantasy element, no doubt about it, and it’s clear to see that element within After, especially since the female protagonist bears a strong resemblance to the author.
I personally have no issue with real person fic (RPF) because at its heart it’s just fans having fun and the vast majority of people aren’t taking it that seriously. But After has crossed a huge line of ethics that’s beyond fans having fun. This is more S&S’s issue than Todd’s. After all, who wouldn’t jump at a publishing deal when offered 6 figures? It’s a major change from the days when publishers sent out cease & desist letters to fan-fiction writers. Now they send out contracts.
Will One Direction’s lawyers fight back? Given how many readers this thing has had and how much money they’ve put out to its author, there’s arguably a serious case to be made for compensation. If you can’t put Harry Styles’s face on a pencil case without proper copyright then why blatantly use his image in such a way? Even if the characterisation is nothing like Styles and the names are changed, the fact that S&S paid so much for an advance clearly shows they see the profit of celebrity more than the product itself (which is pretty terribly written and reads like the prose of a very young teen, not a 25 year old), which is all down to the singer and not the author. If the book does well, it’ll probably be because of the story’s fanbase, which once again has its roots in One Direction. There’s a very distinct connection between One Direction and After, and even if S&S try to erase it, the fanbase will flock to it in spite of that because they know the connection. The internet’s not going to let them forget either.
Johansson’s case may end up having bigger ramifications than she intended. I doubt any of this will stop publishers from plundering fandoms for a quick buck and I doubt it’ll stop a few authors of fic from offering up their work for the highest bidder. Maybe a true bestselling pop culture milestone will come from it, but don’t be too surprised if certain people in the public eye decide to reassert that their life is not for sale.