Fifty Shades of Copyright Infringement?

In Discussion by Dennis Abrams

At Addicting Info, Nathaniel Downes makes the case that “Fifty Shades of Grey” is based on “is a flagrant violation of copyright laws.”

By Dennis Abrams

A stepping stone to great literature? Perhaps not...

A stepping stone to great literature? Perhaps not…

With a record shattering box office take of more than $90 million in its first four days of release, 50 Shades of Grey is once again headline news. But at Addicting Info, Nathaniel Downes makes the case that the book the film is based on “is a flagrant violation of copyright laws.”

First, a brief history of the book. In its initial iteration, E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Gray was known as Master of the Universe, written by James using the online handle Snowqueen’s Icedragon, as a fan fiction version of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight saga – with the lead male figure transformed from a 114 year old vampire into an all-too human billionaire. (Fan fiction, for those not familiar with it, are stories written by fans of the original story, using various story lines, characters and settings, often with large amounts of sex thrown into the mix.)

As Downes writes, “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.” This also means, according to Downes, that it is Meyers who has the power to give her approval (or not) for these works.

Because Master of the Universe was, according to Downes, an “unauthorized derivative work,” it could not be copyrighted and was, “technically illegal.” Citing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, he points out that since online works are judged as if was a physical book, and so every copy, either downloaded or shared, could be penalized.

So get around this, James rewrote the book, “it is claimed,” changing things up, turning Edward Cullen into Christian Grey, making enough changes for her publisher Vintage to state that the book was “an original and unique piece of work,” given full copyright protection and not “a derivative work at all.”

But is that really the case? Downes compared paragraphs from Master of the Universe and Fifty Shades of Grey:

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.

As Downes points out, the two paragraphs are nearly identical, which he says, continues to be the case through both pieces. Which would, under copyright law, seem to indicate that the copyright for the piece “belongs not to E.L. James but to Stephenie Meyers under existing laws covering derivative works.”

But once the name changes were completed, there was nothing except plot elements (found throughout literature) to link 50 Shades to Twilight. But since the original fan fiction is known and available, according to U.S. copyright laws, it “renders the entire work, including the latest movie, absolutely illegal unless granted license by Twilight’s creator. And to date, Ms. Meyer has shown little interest in getting involved.

(In fact, in 2012, she told MTV News, “I haven’t read it. I mean, that’s really not my genre, not my thing,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve heard about it; I haven’t really gotten into it that much. Good on her — she’s doing well. That’s great!”)

Traditionally, Downes says, 50 Shades would fall under the category of “Fair Use” under copyright law since the original material had in fact been removed, making the new piece “a unique element unto itself.” But for decades, there has been a move to strengthen corporate copyright.

Downes uses as an example what he calls the “complete copyright theft” of the song “Bittersweet Symphony” by the Verve, but given over to the Rolling Stones because of the use, under license, “of a 5-note sample of a cover of a Rolling Stones song which itself was the cover of the traditional gospel song, ‘This May Be The Last Time,’” made famous by the Staple Singers in the 1950s. But that, he points out, is how modern copyright law works, which means that, should Meyers decide to push the issue, “she could literally take over all rights to 50 Shades of Grey, a piece she wrote no words on, or gave any help with.”

As he concludes:

“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.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.