Is your borrowed character free? Or do you need to pay a fee?

Fan fiction can be a great way for an author to break into the publishing industry. Editors are more likely to take a risk on a debut author if the story has familiar elements that have already proven popular with readers. Of course, the novel still needs a fresh, original take to make it marketable. But when you borrow a character, whether it’s the ghost of Scarlett O’Hara, or Gregor Samsa as a more appealing butterfly, you first need to know whether the original work you’re borrowing from is in the public domain. If it isn’t, then you probably need to pay a licensing fee to the rights owner.

Sometimes, that’s a bit tricky to figure out. Last week author Leslie Klinger sued the Conan Doyle Estate over the right to use Sherlock Holmes as a character in a collection of new Sherlock mysteries inspired by the originals. As it turns out, most of the original Holmes stories were published prior to 1923 and are now in the public domain. But 10 stories remain in the control of Arthur Conan Doyle’s family. To find out more, check out my post over at Lamplight & Ink.

For the most part, when an author’s estate asks you to pay a licensing fee, the easiest thing to do is pay it. And that’s probably what your publisher would recommend. Klinger is stepping up to the plate with the hope that other Sherlock-inspired creators won’t have to shell out extra cash when it’s not necessary.

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