50 Shades Of Copyright Infringement — How The Broken Copyright System Renders A Story Illegal

For all of the scandal and outrage over the modern pulp fiction 50 Shades of Grey, the true issue of the novel, and subsequent movie based on it, turns out to be something far more mundane than the torture chambers and Stockholm syndrome — the book is a flagrant violation of copyright laws.

For those unaware, 50 Shades of Grey, by E.L. James, began life as Master of the Universe, written by E.L. James under the online handle Snowqueen’s Icedragon, a written exploration of Stephenie Meyers Twilight saga adjusted for the idea of the central male figure being a human billionaire instead of a 114 year old vampire. Commonly called “Fan Fiction” or “fanfic” for short, these kinds of stories are written by well-meaning fans of the original piece, and utilize elements, characters or settings created by the original creative team, often times without approval. Many write unique pieces only sharing the most basic elements, while others lift whole sections of the source material in order to create their own works. This is called, in copyright, “derivative works,” and renders these pieces as the property of the original creative force. And, it also means that Ms. Meyers can decide who can make these works, to grant her approval, or no.

By being an unauthorized derivative work, Master of the Universe was, by itself, unable to be copyrighted, and is technically illegal. According to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, or DMCA, such online works were to be judged as if physical, and each copy which was downloaded or shared could be penalized. To resolve this, E.L. James went ahead and rewrote the book, it is claimed, changing the names attached to it, changing Edward Cullen to Christian Grey, for example, before bringing it forward to publishing.

Vintage, a division of Random House, proclaimed that the book was an original, and unique piece of work. As such, it could be afforded the full protection of copyright, and was not a derivative work at all.

In analysis, however, the finished 50 Shades of Grey was found near identical to the original Master of the Universe. This is bad for Ms. James, as this does not demonstrate a significant effort to revise away the original source material. However, worse for her, when her book was run through tools designed to find plagiarism, it was found not only to be similar in content, but identical to the original Masters of the Universe material, with only minor word substitutions.

Compare these two paragraphs:

Masters of the Universe:

As I leave the city limits behind me I begin to feel foolish and embarrassed. Surely I’m over-reacting to something that I’m imagining…. Okay, so he’s very attractive, confident, commanding, so at ease with himself. But on the flip side he’s also arrogant, and in spite of his impeccable manners, he’s very autocratic, and cold… well on the surface, and an involuntary shiver runs down my spine. He may be arrogant but then he’s accomplished so much at such a young age, and I can tell he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, why should he? I am irritated again that Rose didn’t give me a brief biography.

50 Shades of Grey:

As I leave the city limits behind, I begin to feel foolish and embarrassed as I replay the interview in my mind. Surely, I’m overreacting to something that’s imaginary. Okay, so he’s very attractive, confident, commanding, at ease with himself – but on the flip side, he’s arrogant, and for all his impeccable manners, he’s autocratic and cold. Well, on the surface. An involuntary shiver runs down my spine. He may be arrogant, but then he has a right to be – he’s accomplished so much at such a young age. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but why should he? Again, I’m irritated that Kate didn’t give me a brief biography.

Near identical. And this is regular for the entire piece. This, per copyright law, would denote that the copyright for the piece belongs not to E.L. James, but to Stephenie Meyers under existing laws covering derivative works.

This is even uglier in that once the name changes were done, there truly is nothing to tie 50 Shades of Grey to Twilight aside from some plot elements which are universally found throughout literature. If the original fan fiction were not known, nobody would be able to tie the two works. But, as it is known, per the copyright laws in the United States, it renders the entire work, including the latest movie, absolutely illegal unless granted license by the creator of Twilight. But, Ms. Meyer has shown no interest in even reading the material.

Historically, Ms. James’ book would qualify as “Fair Use” under copyright law. By having removed all original material, it would render the new piece as a unique element unto itself. But a drive to strengthen corporate copyright has been underway for decades. Recall the complete copyright theft of the Verve’s song, “Bittersweet Symphony,” to the Rolling Stones after they used, under license, a 5-note sample of a cover of a Rolling Stones song which itself was a cover of a traditional gospel song, “This May Be The Last Time,” brought to prominence in the 1950’s by The Staple Singers. That is the way modern copyright works, and under that, if Ms. Meyers pushed, she could literally take over all rights to 50 Shades of Grey, a piece she wrote no words on, or gave any help with.

The sad state of copyright in the United States now makes it difficult if not impossible for independent works to even meet the light of day. If the rights for Twilight were owned by a large publishing house, and not held by Stephenie Meyers, it is highly likely that E.L. James would be facing the same kind of humiliation Richard Ashcroft of The Verve felt when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) gave the songwriting Grammy Award for Bittersweet Symphony to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.