How to keep a self-published story on Amazon safe?
March 26, 2012 9:27 AM   Subscribe

I'm in the process of formulating a story that would twist a known, beloved children's franchise setting into a violent noir. The eventual goal would be to self-publish an ebook for a few bucks on Amazon, but I'm concerned that the subject matter would get the book pulled due to copyright matters. How does Amazon handle parody and pastiche?

Basically, I want to write a hardboiled noir set on the Island of Sodor involving the death of everybody's favorite little blue engine, Thomas. How many details would I have to change to not be worried about having the story suddenly yanked from Amazon?

Ideally, I'd like to use the given names from the stories, but understand that might not be possible. I'm concerned that minor changes (Thomas to Tim, for example) may not be enough to keep the story up in a pull first, ask questions later environment. But if too many changes are required, that sort of saps the fun of the story and makes me less interested in writing it and taking the steps needed to polish it for publication.

Browsing Amazon, I see all sorts of obvious parodies for sale, but they are all actual books, some with Kindle versions. Have there been examples of authors fighting the take-down of their works and succeeding?
posted by robocop is bleeding to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Your best bet might be to change a handful of details and change the names to something similar. The problem with parody is that there aren't really a lot of hard and fast rules about it - I'd think that only a lawyer could tell you what was okay and what wasn't.

But if it's a pastiche then you're on more certain footing. Consider the comic Squadron Supreme, which was a barely-concealed pastiche of the DC superheroes, published by Marvel. Or the Avengers pastiche which showed up in the comic The Authority. A few details were changed but it was obvious to anyone reading who the characters "really" were.

Basically if you change a few names and minor details but still have the basic structure of the show - same basic characters, same setting, just some different names for the talking trains - you should be all right.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:38 AM on March 26, 2012

Study the case of the Gone with the Wind parody, The Wind Done Gone. You can succeed, but you need to understand the difference between true parody and just appropriating characters for your own use. What you are suggesting sounds like a parody of "a hardboiled noir", not a parody of Thomas the Tank Engine. Note that there have been other parodies of Thomas.

And on preview — I disagree that just changing a few names is going to save you from copyright issues. If your intent is to put Thomas in a noir, and if it looks and quacks like Thomas in a noir, it's potential theft of the Thomas character whether you call it Thomas or Tim.

Best bet: make up your own characters.
posted by beagle at 9:45 AM on March 26, 2012

So you're asking what you need to do in terms of using an established franchise for your own purposes to avoid getting pulled from Amazon or, worse yet, sued into next Tuesday?

That's legal advice. I guarantee you, every published parody or pastiche got run through some publisher's legal counsel, internal or external, before going to press.

Copyright isn't the only thing you're going to be going up against, either. You've also got to worry about trademark, specifically the concepts of dilution and tarnishment, whereby a mark is harmed by either being used in a way that either lessens its uniqueness or associates it with something unsavory. Thomas et al are going to be trademarks of their owners, and the Thomas property is owned by a subsidiary of Mattel, which has been known to go after parodies.

In short, this isn't the sort of thing you should do without thinking very, very carefully about your position.
posted by valkyryn at 10:07 AM on March 26, 2012

MAD magazine got away with this for years by changing the names, and they're still on Amazon!
posted by steinsaltz at 10:28 AM on March 26, 2012

Amazon will yank any book it gets an infringement complaint about from a major player and ask questions later.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:54 PM on March 26, 2012

Any self-published book, I mean.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:55 PM on March 26, 2012

For what it's worth, one of my personal favorite parodies, Harvard Lampoon's "Bored of the Rings" (a parody of Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings") is currently available for Kindle pre-order.
posted by easily confused at 3:04 PM on March 26, 2012

Yeah, see, the thing with MAD and Harvard Lampoon is that they're both put out by actually publishing houses. MAD is put out by DC Comics, believe it or not, a subsidiary of media giant Time Warner. The Bored of the Rings is under Simon & Schuster. Needless to say, both have the ability to 1) bring significant legal clout to bear should the need arise, and 2) be contacted and negotiated with credibly in private.

I'm having a book published later this year (Hi, jedicus!) and we're using a decent amount of others' IP in the project. But our publisher is an imprint of one of the big houses, and they handled a nastygram from one of the IP owners in stride. If we'd been self-publishing, on the other hand, there probably wouldn't even have been a nastygram. They'd just have sued.
posted by valkyryn at 5:02 PM on March 26, 2012

I think the current leading example of maybe how to approach this is the smash hit e-book Fifty Shades of Grey, which began life as Twilight erotic fanfic starring Bella and, uh, Edward? and underwent an extensive rewrite for "real" publication (versus just being on a website) before, today, being optioned for a movie.

Is it more important to you to write a noir set in a sort of toy-fantasy world? Then create your own. Or is it more important to you to parody the TTTE world? Then be very clear that you are creating a parody, but be prepared to be out-lawyered.
posted by dhartung at 6:06 PM on March 26, 2012

Is it more important to you to write a noir set in a sort of toy-fantasy world? Then create your own.

Exactly. Make it about trucks, or teddy bears, or tricycles, make them anthropomorphized with obvious personality tropes, and people will understand what you are getting at, even if it is not a strict Thomas parody. If Jay Jay the Jet Plane can get away with being "Thomas, but with planes" I don't see why your version of "Thomas, but with trucks" can't survive.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:13 AM on March 27, 2012

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