Erotic Novel ’50 Shades Of Grey,’ Fan Fiction And Copyright

Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic novel that started out as Twilight fan fiction and that will now be re-published by Random House’s Vintage, raises interesting questions about crowdsourcing and copyright.
Vintage paid seven figures to republish E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey trilogy, which was first published in book form last year by a small Australian publisher. Before that, the trilogy appeared in a slightly different form, under the title Master of the Universe, on fan fiction site
Sarah Weinman at Publishers Marketplace reported yesterday (subscription required) that Vintage publisher Anne Messitte called 50 Shades of Grey and Master of the Universe “two distinctly separate pieces of work.”
Today Jane Litte, who runs the popular romance blog “Dear Author,” compares 50 Shades of Grey to Master of the Universe using a variety of Internet tools, and finds that the works are quite similar — 89 percent the same, according to plagiarism-detection tool TurnItIn.
“With the success of Alternate Universe fan fiction and the successful leveraging of that fandom into seven-figure economic rewards, the influx of fan fiction into professional publishing is likely to begin at greater levels than previous,” Litte writes. She says it’s important to state a book’s provenance: “It’s an indicator to readers that they may have encountered this before and it gives the fandom that propelled the author to success a nod. At the very least it’s courteous. At the most, it’s truthful advertising.” She’ll be running a series of posts on fan fiction and copyright, and I’m looking forward to reading them.
The fact that 50 Shades of Grey is extremely similar to Master of the Universe, a work that was previously free online, is not the only issue here. To me, the fact that Master of the Universe was once free and available isn’t that problematic: Many people who are reading the book now would never have encountered it in its previous form online; there’s value in packaging something into a print or e-book (people still pay for print copies of Pride and Prejudice even though that’s a public-domain work free in its entirety on the Internet); and honestly, if a publisher can get readers to pay, more power to ’em.
For me, one question is: How similar is 50 Shades of Grey to Twilight (not very unless Twilight contains a major bondage and sadomasochism element that I missed)? All sorts of works take inspiration from other works — everything from the movie Clueless (based on Jane Austen’s Emma) to books like Wide Sargasso Sea and The Hours. (Twilight is a lot more recent than Jane Eyre and Mrs. Dalloway, of course — its author is still alive and writing — and that makes things a little more complicated.)
More importantly, as more fan fiction gets monetized in book form, will other copyright issues arise? At “Dear Author,” commenter Merrian writes, “What we risk missing is considering and building some consensus about what is fair use and what is the ethical way of going about using fan fiction outside the realms of creating and making it because work that arises in fandom’s often has a collaborative and shared conception.”