Here’s a little behind the scenes for you: the JUVEN Press blog team meets every month to share ideas, updates, and chat about our articles. Often our conversations wander into tangents about books we’re reading, social issues we care about, or hypothetical articles we could write. This, readers, is an article spawned from one of those conversations. This is: Who Owns a Story?
It’s an easy question on the surface. The author owns a story, right? After all, it’s their name on the cover. But is it really so cut and dry? By the time a story is in a reader’s hands, on their phone, or in their ears, it doesn’t belong to the author anymore. And I say this because as you read a story, your thoughts, visualizations, and stream of consciousness form the story. You and I will never read a book the same way. And isn’t there something magical about that?
Some authors feel like once a book is out of their hands, they don’t own it anymore. Like after publication, the story belongs to the reader, and whatever the reader wants it to be, it is. I don’t have a book published, but I feel like I would fall into this mindset too. Sure, I am writing my story for myself now, but it won’t be mine once someone else reads it. I don’t want it to be mine anymore. I want it to change into whatever the reader needs it to be. I want them to feel like it is for them, like they’ve found a home.
The problem is I don’t feel this way with stories that aren’t mine. I look at a book on my desk and yes, I own the physical thing, but I don’t feel like the story is mine. The book gave me a story, but it still feels like the author’s work. So how to get around this conundrum? Let’s find another answer.
Sometimes books generate fan bases. Popular series you know and love generate fan art, aesthetic boards, ship names, fanfiction—you name it. Surely once this happens the author doesn’t own their story anymore, right? And while we’re on the topic, fanfiction is a sticky issue. Does fanfiction belong to the fic writer, or to the author of the original content? Is it even legal? Well, yes. Writing fanfiction falls under fair use copyright law as long as it is adaptive—“adds value”—and is non-commercial. To learn more about fanfiction, read Fanfiction—The Writer’s Playground on JUVEN Press.
So who owns the fanfiction? Ask a fic writer and they’ll probably say they own the fic, but not the original story. And this makes sense. Fanfiction is a partnership between the original story and the fan writer.
And here we’ve landed on another answer: co-ownership. Both reader and author have a part in creating the story. But what about when a fan base chooses to own the story in a different way from how the author intended ( *cough* Harry Potter *cough*)? In a video about the Potter fandom, YouTuber Verity Ritchie discusses ownership of a story, that “nothing of this scale and cultural relevance can belong to just one person.” There’s so much fan content out there, stuff that completely diverges from the source books and isn’t making any money for the author, that in this way Harry Potter belongs to the fandom.
However, if we’re going to talk about all the people who could own a story, there’s one entity we’re leaving out. Depending on the contract, technically neither the fans nor the author own a story—the publisher does. And they are the ones making the most money from a story, depending on how many copies sell of course. Grrr capitalism.
But what about self-published indie authors, you may be asking? Self-publishing is a different beast. Authors have total control of their work, namely legal ownership. And this can be an alluring factor for this publishing route, but does it mean that self-published stories belong less to the reader? Ask an indie author, and they’ll probably say no. Self-publishing gives them freedom over their work, and just like any author, they crave dedicated fans.
I hate to end on one of these, but it’s complicated. There is no single owner of a story, but I think the best definition lies somewhere between all of these. It depends? I think the most correct answer is co-ownership between the author and the reader, but what do you think? Do you feel like a story is yours after you finish it? How do you feel about your own writing? Let us know what you think in the comments down below!
is a writer based in North Carolina. She attends writing classes of all kinds at UNC Chapel Hill and has a particular fondness for sharp imagery. In her free time, she drafts her own novels.