Parody, satire, and fan fiction are terms often confused and misused in the writing spheres. But when it comes to copyright law, these three forms of creative expression are treated quite differently. Understanding the differences is crucial to determine if your parody, satire, or fan fiction work infringes someone’s copyright or is protected under the doctrine of fair use.
What is parody?
Parody is a creative expression that deliberately mimics the copyright-protected work or style of another author, artist, or genre for comical effect. One easy way to think about parody is to consider it criticism or comment on an original work in a comedic or ridiculing way. Examples of parody would be Pride & Prejudice with Zombies, Bored of the Rings, Alice in Blunderland: An Iridescent Dream, The Da Vinci Cod: A Fishy Parody, the Monty Python franchise, Saturday Night Live skits, Weird Al Yankovic’s music, and my favorite, The Chronicles of Blarnia: The Lying Bitch in the Wardrobe.
What is satire?
Satire is a creative expression that criticizes, comments on, or ridicules the subject of the satire, whether it is a person, a group, an institution, or a society. One easy way to think about satire is to consider it a tool for purposes of making a political or social statement.
Satire doesn’t have to use recognizable elements from a copyright-protected work as the vehicle for its message. But if satire does, it is done not to criticize the copyright-protected work but to make fun of something happening in the world, usually in a humous, ironic, exaggerated, or ridiculing way. Many satirical novels don’t use elements of copyright-protected work. Examples would be Catch -22, Gulliver’s Travels, and Chuck Palahniuk’s novels Choke and Fight Club. Cable shows like South Park and my favorite Black Mirror are also considered satire.
When you compare satire to parody, the targets are different. Parody targets a copyright-protected work. Satire, while it could use elements from a copyright-protected work, targets something other than a copyright-protected work. For example, take one of Weird Al Yankovic’s songs. He uses a copyright-protected song by an artist, then changes the lyrics to make fun of something else (American Pie with lyrics that make fun of Star Wars).
What is fan fiction?
Fanfic is a fictional story written by a fan based on an existing work of fiction using copyright-protected characters, settings, or plots from popular books, movies, or cable shows. Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Captain Kirk and Spock, Harry Potter, Edward and Bella — all have moved fans to channel their inner creativity and write works of fiction with new adventures, reimagined worlds, and creative relationship pairings for their favorite characters.
If you take a quick gander at a few fanfic stories, you will see almost anything goes. Characters are placed in different time periods. Plots are reimagined with new realities. Dead characters are brought back to life. Other characters are knocked off. Relationships are reinterpreted into unlikely love affairs and same-sex pairings, like one of the most popular examples of fan fiction, the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy written by E.L. James.
Fanfic is different than parody because fanfic authors try to stay true to the copyright-protected work that is at the heart of their fan fiction. Parody, on the other hand, makes fun of the original work. But fanfic could turn into a parody or satire. It depends on how the work is written and what elements are used, how far the work diverts from the original, and for what purpose the work is written.
How does copyright law apply to parody and satire?
While parody and satire can both use humor with copyright-protected work to comment and criticize, only parody will find protection under fair use to avoid a claim of copyright infringement.
Satire, on the other hand, if it uses copyright-protected work can be considered copyright infringement under certain circumstances and is less likely to be protected under fair use.
Because satire, unlike parody, can stand independently of a copyright-protected work. There are infinite ways to write a satire that mock or criticize a social issue or person, without using copyright-protected material. Which means there’s no justification for using someone else’s protected work to create the satire. Unlike parody, which must use the copyright-protected work of someone else to even exist.
How does fair use apply to parody and satire?
U.S. copyright law provides a few limitations on the copyright owner’s exclusive rights in their creative work. These exceptions are known as fair use. Generally, something is considered fair use if the use is for the purpose of criticism, parody, news reporting, classroom teaching, scholarship, or research. Fair use is a rather complicated area of law. Often it is hard to figure out what is considered fair use and what is not. There is no bright-line rule.
To determine if the fair use exception applies, courts consider four factors:
- The purpose and character of the use;
- The nature of the copyrighted work;
- The amount and substantiality of the portion used; and
- The effect on the market of the copyrighted work.
In general, if you are using the copyright-protected work for educational, research, commentary, or non-profit purposes, or if you are transforming the work to create a new meaning like parody, or you are using the image in a fact-based context that benefits the public, like a news source — then your use is considered fair use.
But remember, fair use is a defense to copyright infringement, meaning you must be sued to assert fair use. For further information on fair use, see my article on Copyright Permissions.
If you are thinking about creating a parody or satire, the risk-free route would be to get permission from the copyright owner of the original work. But often copyright owners don’t grant permission, because they hate to have their work criticized or made fun of. If permission is not available then make sure you understand if your work is parody or satire, and whether you can rely on fair use protection.
How does copyright law apply to fan fiction?
While fanfic is a popular means for fans to creatively express their admiration for an author’s work and connect with the characters and stories they love, is it technically copyright infringement.
Because fanfic infringes one of the author’s exclusive rights under copyright law: the right to create adaptations and derivative works based on their original content. Fan fiction is a story based on elements from that same original content and is an adaptation or derivative work, too. Thus, fan fiction infringes the author’s exclusive right to create an adaptation.
Fan fiction thrives, even though technically it is copyright infringement, because the author of the original work chooses to allow it. Creators of original content have always been divided on how to handle fan fiction. Responses have ranged from indifference, appreciation, and encouragement, to flat-out opposition. Authors like Neil Gaiman have no objection to fan fiction as long as people are not commercially exploiting his characters. Stephanie Meyer’s approves of fan fiction and has a list of fan fiction sites on her website. Other authors embrace fan fiction but with limitations. J.K. Rowling and George Lucas both will not tolerate pornographic fan fiction about their characters. While other authors like Orson Scott Card and Anne Rice, who once opposed fan fiction entirely, have softened that stance over time to now tolerate it.
If you write fan fiction based on the characters and stories of an author that passionately moves you, make sure your fictional stories are legally compliant. Check out my previous article on fan fiction for guidelines to help you navigate the copyright thicket of derivative works when you create fictional stories about your favorite characters.
Legal Disclaimer: This information is provided for educational purposes only. Consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction for all legal opinions for your specific situation.