A Feud in Wolf-Kink Erotica Raises a Deep Legal Question

Addison Cain was residing in Kyoto, volunteering at a shrine and finding out indigenous Japanese faith. She was purported to be engaged on a scholarly guide about her analysis, however began writing intensely erotic Batman fan fiction as an alternative.

It occurred virtually accidentally. It was 2012, and Ms. Cain — who grew up in Orange County, Calif., underneath a totally different title — was three years out of faculty, alone overseas with a lot of time on her fingers. Her command of Japanese was halting, and English titles in bookstores had been wildly costly. So Ms. Cain began studying issues she may discover without spending a dime on-line, and shortly found fanfic — tales by amateurs that borrow characters and plots from established pop-cultural franchises.

Ms. Cain started devouring works set in the world of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. She determined to write down a few of her personal, that includes Batman’s nemesis Bane as a horny antihero, and posted them without spending a dime on-line. She rapidly developed a fan base, changing into one thing of a star in her sub-subgenre.

A few years later, she was residing in Arlington, Va., and dealing as a bartender when she started to surprise if she may flip her interest into a enterprise. Her husband and oldsters discouraged her from pursuing one thing so impractical. Agents had been equally dismissive, rejecting or ignoring Ms. Cain’s queries for greater than a yr. Then, a fellow author helped Ms. Cain ship a manuscript to Blushing Books, a small publishing home in Charlottesville. An editor learn it in a single day and despatched her a contract the following day.

In the spring of 2016, she printed “Born to Be Bound,” an adaptation of her fanfic. The story takes place on a future earth the place most of humanity has died from a plague and survivors reside underneath a dome, divided into a wolfpack-like hierarchy of dominant Alphas, impartial Betas and submissive Omegas. A highly effective, brutish Alpha named Shepherd takes an Omega lady named Claire captive, and so they have interaction in tough, wolfish intercourse.

Ms. Cain’s followers posted almost 100 constructive opinions on Amazon, sufficient to get her some visibility. “Unapologetically raw and deliciously filthy,” learn one glowing blurb. The debut was a hit. She rushed out a number of extra titles, and the sequence grossed some $370,000, in keeping with her writer.

For the following two years, Ms. Cain printed at breakneck velocity, producing a novel each few months by repurposing her older fan fiction, conserving her books in the algorithmic candy spot of Amazon’s new releases and turning herself into a recognizable model. “Dip your toes into the erotica pool,” she mentioned on a 2016 sci-fi and fantasy podcast. “There’s nothing to do here but make money.”

Then, in 2018, Ms. Cain heard about an up-and-coming fantasy author with the pen title Zoey Ellis, who had printed an erotic fantasy sequence with a premise that sounded awfully acquainted. It featured an Alpha and Omega couple, and plenty of lupine intercourse. The extra Ms. Cain realized about “Myth of Omega” and its first installment, “Crave to Conquer,” the extra outraged she turned. In each books, Alpha males are overpowered by the scent of Omega heroines and take them hostage. In each books, the ladies attempt to fail to suppress their pheromones and provides in to the urge to mate. In each books, the {couples} sniff, purr and growl; nest in den-like enclosures; neck-bite to depart “claim” marks; and expertise one thing known as “knotting,” involving a peculiar function of the wolf phallus.

Ms. Cain urged Blushing Books to do one thing. The writer despatched copyright violation notices to greater than half a dozen on-line retailers, alleging that Ms. Ellis’s story was “a copy” with scenes that had been “almost identical to Addison Cain’s book.” Most of the retailers, together with Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Apple and Google Play, eliminated Ms. Ellis’s work instantly. Ms. Cain’s readers flocked to her protection. “This is a rip off of Addison Cain,” one irate reader wrote on Goodreads. “So disappointed in this author and I hope Mrs. Cain seeks legal charges against you for stealing her work! Shame on you!”

It’s onerous to think about that two writers may independently create such bizarrely particular fantasy situations. As it seems, neither of them did. Both writers constructed their plots with widespread parts from a booming, fan-generated physique of literature known as the Omegaverse.

The dispute between Ms. Cain and Ms. Ellis is a kink-laden microcosm of ways at play all through the fanfic business. As the style commercializes, authors aggressively defend their livelihoods, typically utilizing a 1998 legislation, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, to get on-line retailers to take away opponents’ books. When making a declare, a creator should have a “good faith belief” that her possession of the work in query has been infringed.

But what does that imply when the final word supply materials is a crowdsourced collective? The query has members of the Omegaverse group selecting sides between Ms. Cain and Ms. Ellis — as will a federal decide in Virginia, who’s contemplating whether or not the allegations, and the implications, benefit a payout of greater than a million {dollars}.

To untangle the Omegaverse combat, it helps to grasp its origins in a parallel literary universe — the huge, unruly, numerous, exuberant and sometimes pornographic world of fan fiction.

After getting its begin a long time in the past in “Star Trek” zines, fanfic mushroomed when the web made it simple for particularly devoted shoppers of popular culture to seek out and create tales for each other. There at the moment are subgenres upon subgenres, from “slash” (the place two male characters pair up romantically, comparable to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson), to odder fare like “mundane AU” (another universe the place magical characters reside in the true world — e.g., Harry Potter goes to a common boarding faculty and has regular teen issues).

While some conventional authors have derided fan fiction writers as artistic parasites, there isn’t actually any approach to cease them. Such works are authorized so long as writers put up them without spending a dime and don’t attempt to promote tales based mostly on copyrighted materials.

But an excessive amount of cash was at stake for the style to stay newbie without end. E L James’s blockbuster sequence “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which bought more than 150 million copies, began as fanfic based mostly on Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” vampire saga. By swapping out copyrighted characters for nominally unique ones — a apply referred to as “filing off the serial numbers” — fanfic writers like Ms. James, Christina Lauren and the cheekily named Tara Sue Me have leapfrogged into for-profit publishing.

As extra fan fiction writers cross over into industrial publishing, turf wars have erupted. “Fan fiction made authors and publishers realize there was a thriving market for this stuff,” mentioned Rebecca Tushnet, a copyright professional at Harvard Law School. “There’s much more of it, so there’s more opportunity for conflict.”

The particular fanfic universe that spawned the Cain-Ellis dispute emerged about a decade in the past, when devotees of the CW drama “Supernatural” started writing tales in which its two lead actors are lovers. One can be the dominant alpha male. The different man can be a feminized omega, usually with the flexibility to turn into impregnated — a trope referred to as MPreg. Canine, after which lupine, intercourse stuff acquired combined in.

The premise was wildly common, and tropes had been quickly adopted by writers in different fandoms, together with NBC’s “Hannibal” and MTV’s “Teen Wolf.” The sprawling physique of labor that adopted got here to be referred to as the Omegaverse, with its personal guidelines, plot parts and terminology.

Some Omegaverse tales contain lycanthropes (werewolves), vampires, shape-shifters, dragons, house pirates, others function common people. But nearly all Omegaverse {couples} have interaction in wolflike conduct. Alphas “rut” and Omegas undergo warmth cycles, releasing pheromones that drive Alphas into a lusty frenzy. One explicit physiological quirk that’s ubiquitous in Omegaverse tales, known as knotting, comes from a actual function of wolves’ penises, which swell throughout intercourse, inflicting the mating pair to stay bodily sure to extend the possibility of insemination.

The urge for food for such tales is giant and rising. In the previous decade, greater than 70,000 tales set in the Omegaverse have been printed on the fan fiction website Archive of Our Own. As it turned extra common, the Omegaverse transcended particular person fandoms and have become a longtime style by itself.

Writers started publishing Omegaverse tales with unique characters and settings, and authors began to publish them for revenue. On Amazon, there are a whole bunch of novels on the market, together with titles like “Pregnant Rock Star Omega,” “Wolf Spirit: A Reverse Harem Omegaverse Romance” and “Some Bunny to Love: An M/M MPreg Shifter Romance,” an inconceivable story involving an Alpha male who can rework into a rabbit.

This was the thriving industrial backdrop to Ms. Cain’s allegation that Ms. Ellis stole her materials. Ms. Ellis thought that the declare was absurd — and was ready to say so in courtroom.

One day final spring, Ms. Ellis met me for espresso at a resort close to Paddington Station. She doesn’t seem to be somebody who writes darkish, edgy, typically violent erotica. She’s younger, cheerful, and works in training in London, which is among the causes she declines to publish underneath her actual title. Most days, she will get up at 4 in the morning to write down, then heads to the college the place she works. On her Amazon writer web page, she describes herself as a “cat mama” who loves “sexual tension that jumps off the page.”

Ms. Ellis mentioned she acquired into fan fiction in 2006. She learn tales set in the Harry Potter universe at first, then moved on to different fandoms, together with one for the BBC’s “Sherlock,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, that launched her to the Omegaverse. The style was in contrast to anything she’d encountered. She started dabbling in her personal unique writing, and in late 2017 started engaged on the “Myth of Omega” sequence.

Set in a medieval fantasy world, the primary novel, “Crave to Conquer,” options an Alpha emperor who turns into obsessive about a beguiling undercover Omega spy named Cailyn. She resists his advances, utilizing magic to masks the scent of her pheromones, till she is overcome by the organic crucial. To enchantment to different Omegaverse and darkish romance followers, Ms. Ellis constructed the narrative round customary style parts — the wolflike tics and mating, and an edgy dominant-submissive dynamic. (In fanfic terminology, a few of the sexual situations can be labeled “dub-con,” or “dubious consent.”)

“You have to make sure you use the tropes of Omegaverse in order to be recognized by fans of the genre,” Ms. Ellis mentioned. “Crave to Conquer” and its sequel, “Crave to Capture,” had been printed in early 2018 by Quill Ink Books, a London firm she based. Readers gave the sequence glowing opinions on Goodreads and Amazon, calling it “sensational new Omegaverse!” and the “best Omega yet.”

In late April 2018, Ms. Ellis acquired an e mail from a reader who had ordered one in every of her books from Barnes & Noble, then realized that it wasn’t out there anymore. She quickly found that each one of her Omegaverse books had disappeared from main shops, all due to a declare of copyright infringement from Ms. Cain and her writer. Ms. Ellis discovered it bewildering.

“I couldn’t see how a story I had written using recognized tropes from a shared universe, to tell a story that was quite different than anything else out there commercially, could be targeted in that way,” Ms. Ellis mentioned. “There are moments and scenarios that seem almost identical, but it’s a trope that can be found in hundreds of stories.”

A lawyer for Ms. Ellis and Quill filed counter-notices to web sites that had eliminated her books. Some took weeks to revive the titles; others took months. There was no approach to get better the misplaced gross sales. “As a new author, I was building momentum, and that momentum was lost,” Ms. Ellis mentioned. And she nervous that the “plagiarist” label would completely mar her popularity.

Ms. Ellis determined to sue. “Everything would have been in question, my integrity would have been questioned, my ability to write and tell stories — all of that would have been under threat if I didn’t challenge these claims,” she mentioned.

In the autumn of 2018, Quill Ink filed towards Blushing Books and Ms. Cain in federal courtroom in Oklahoma, the place Ms. Ellis’s digital distributor is predicated, searching for $1.25 million in damages for defamation, interfering with Ms. Ellis’s profession, and for submitting false copyright infringement notices. In the swimsuit, Quill’s legal professionals argued that “no one owns the ‘omegaverse’ or the various tropes that define ‘omegaverse.’”

Ms. Ellis’s legal professionals thought they’d a robust place. But they struggled to seek out a prior case that addressed whether or not fan fiction tropes may very well be protected by copyright.

“We were looking at cases to see if the courts had ever dealt with anything like this before, dealing with the emergence of this new literary genre,” mentioned Gideon Lincecum, a lawyer who represents Quill Ink and Ms. Ellis. “We found there weren’t any.”

The intense rivalry isn’t restricted to writers in the Omegaverse. As on-line publishing has gotten extra aggressive — there are thousands and thousands of e-books out there on Amazon, up from 600,000 in 2014 — some style authors have grown aggressive in their efforts to dominate their literary area of interest.

Last yr, an writer who writes in a common romance subgenre known as “Reverse Harem High School Bully Romance” — a trope in which a teenage feminine character has a number of aggressive male suitors — claimed that one other writer had copied her books, and demanded that she take away them. The accused writer briefly eliminated her work from Amazon, however restored them after consulting a lawyer.

Other authors have tried to make use of logos to go after their rivals. Writers have tried to trademark generic phrases like “dragon slayer” and even the phrase “dark.” In 2018, the self-published romance writer Faleena Hopkins triggered a scandal after she registered a trademark for the word “cocky,” and despatched infringement notices to different romance authors who used the phrase in their titles. Amazon briefly eliminated some books, together with “Her Cocky Firefighters” and “Her Cocky Doctors.” After suing a number of folks unsuccessfully, Ms. Hopkins backed down.

Like Cockygate, the Omegaverse case reveals how simply mental property legislation may be weaponized by authors searching for to take down their rivals. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, people or firms can ship takedown notices to retailers so long as they’ve a good religion perception that their work has been infringed. Retailers are protected against being named in associated litigation in the event that they take away the fabric, and lots of web sites adjust to D.M.C.A. notices with out even investigating the claims. Legal consultants say the system is definitely abused.

“We’ve seen lots of examples of people sending D.M.C.A. notices when it’s pretty obvious that they didn’t think there was copyright infringement,” mentioned Mitch Stoltz, a senior workers lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group. “There’s not much accountability.”

On May 21, the U.S. Copyright Office released a report detailing how the 22-year-old D.M.C.A. has did not maintain tempo with the anarchic digital ecosystem, as on-line platforms have been overwhelmed by a crushing quantity of takedown notices. Between 1998 and 2010, Google obtained fewer than three million such notices; in 2017, the corporate acquired greater than 880 million — a rise of greater than 29,000 p.c, in keeping with the report. Many requests are respectable, however the report notes that different motives embody “anti-competitive purposes, to harass a platform or consumer, or to try and chill speech that the rightsholder does not like.”

Amazon agrees that it’s a drawback. As the rise of self-publishing has produced a flood of digital content material, authors steadily use copyright notices to squash their competitors. During a public listening to hosted by the U.S. Copyright Office in 2016, Stephen Worth, Amazon’s affiliate normal counsel, mentioned that fraudulent copyright complaints by authors accounted for “more than half of the takedown notices” the corporate receives. “We need to fix the problem of notices that are used improperly to attack others’ works maliciously,” he mentioned.

In the Omegaverse case, Ms. Cain’s declare of copyright infringement towards Ms. Ellis has struck some as particularly tenuous. “They are not very original, either one of them,” mentioned Kristina Busse, the writer of “Framing Fan Fiction,” who has written educational essays in regards to the Omegaverse and submitted professional witness testimony for the case on Ms. Ellis’s behalf. “They both stole from fandom or existing tropes in the wild.”

Intellectual property consultants say copyright safety applies to the expression of concepts by explicit phrasing, however doesn’t cowl literary tropes and customary plot factors. The author of a crime novel, for instance, can’t copyright the notion of a physique found in the primary act and the killer getting caught in the tip.

But the Omegaverse case is probably going the primary time these authorized arguments have been invoked in a dispute over works that grew out of a corpus of fan fiction generated informally by 1000’s of writers.

“In fan fiction, the sharing of tropes and story parts and plot lines is free flowing,” mentioned Anne Jamison, a fanfic professional and affiliate professor of English on the University of Utah, who was skeptical of the notion that Omegaverse tropes may very well be copyrighted. “There’s a blurry line between what is specifically yours and what is somebody else’s.”

Ms. Ellis wasn’t the primary Omegaverse determine Ms. Cain accused of plagiarism. In March 2016, she wrote a Facebook put up charging that one other writer, who wrote underneath the title the Dragon’s Maiden, had copied not less than 15 plot factors from her novel “Born to Be Bred.” In a message to Ms. Cain, which Ms. Cain posted on Facebook, the Dragon’s Maiden denied she had stolen something, and argued that “there are some similarities, but I honestly believe that they don’t go beyond common Lycan traits or actual wolf behavior.”

But after being known as a plagiarist in on-line feedback, the Dragon’s Maiden, who lives in Wisconsin, eliminated her story from the web. “Her fans came after me, even though our stories, other than being Omegaverse, were nothing alike,” she mentioned in an interview.

Two years later, Ms. Cain and her writer filed D.M.C.A. takedown requests towards Ms. Ellis’s first two “Myth of Omega” books. Ms. Cain additionally requested her writer to file an infringement discover towards an Ellis novel that hadn’t even been launched but. “Book three needs to come down too. I don’t want her to make any more money off this series,” Ms. Cain wrote to Blushing Books in April, in keeping with a courtroom submitting.

She additionally wished to cease Ms. Ellis from publishing a new spinoff sequence of Omegaverse books, and emailed her writer, asking what they may do. Bethany Burke, the writer of Blushing Books, was skeptical: “The problem is — as you say — you do not own Omegaverse,” she wrote. “I don’t know what mechanism we can use to shut her down completely as an author, unless YOU want to try to trademark Omegaverse. (Which we might be able to get.)”

That message, produced in discovery, in all probability received’t assist Ms. Cain’s possibilities in courtroom. She has not at all times been her personal greatest advocate. In a deposition final yr, Ms. Cain mentioned that the overlap between her books and Ms. Ellis’s sequence went past the Omegaverse parts. “It has nothing to do with trope, it has nothing to do with Omegaverse, it has to do with plot similarities,” she mentioned. But when she was requested to quote particular examples, she mentioned she couldn’t recall any, including that she hadn’t achieved a shut comparability as a result of it was too upsetting. “It was hard for me to read them side by side, honestly, because I felt very violated,” she mentioned.

Still, Ms. Cain is combating the lawsuit. “The theft of my work was devastating,” she wrote in a Facebook message to her followers final spring. “Unfortunately, I am now facing retaliation for doing what I am legally allowed to do, which is to try and prevent unauthorized uses of my works.” More than 70 followers left encouraging notes, punctuated by coronary heart emojis and offended cat .gifs. “It is infuriating that she can drag you through this when she is the one who stole your work,” one wrote.

Ms. Cain, who now lives in Virginia along with her husband and 2-year-old daughter, mentioned by her lawyer over e mail that she disagrees with the claims introduced towards her, however declined to debate particular allegations, citing ongoing litigation.

The largest growth in the case to date is that Blushing Books has left Ms. Cain to contest the matter alone. Last yr, the writer conceded that no plagiarism or copyright infringement had occurred, and a judgment was entered towards the corporate, which paid undisclosed financial damages to Quill and Ms. Ellis. (Ms. Cain is now self-publishing.)

Ms. Ellis and her publishing firm filed a new civil swimsuit towards Ms. Cain in her house state of Virginia, arguing that she maliciously directed her writer to ship false copyright infringement notices to retailers. Ms. Cain’s legal professionals have denied the claims, and have lined up authors, bloggers and readers as witnesses.

If the decide, or a jury, finds Ms. Cain in the flawed, the case would ship a message to overzealous style writers that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is to not be abused. By the identical token, authors of genuinely unique tales may discover they’ve one fewer authorized lever to guard their work. And a victory by Ms. Cain may encourage a free-for-all, emboldening authors to knock again opponents and formally assert their possession of swaths of the fan fiction universe and customary tropes in style fiction.

Discovery is ongoing, and a pretrial convention earlier than a decide is scheduled for June. In the meantime, the Omegaverse continues to thrive. This yr, greater than 200 new books from the style have been printed on Amazon.

The newest batch attracts on nearly each style and trope possible: paranormal shifter romances, paranormal Mpreg romances, reverse harem romances, sci-fi alien warrior romances. There are fantastical Alpha-Omega tales that includes witches, unicorns, dragons, vampires, wolf-shifters, bear-shifters, and wolf-shifters versus bear-shifters. There are comparatively pedestrian Omegaverse romances about celeb cooks, dentists, frat boys, bakers, bodyguards and billionaires. In a teeming multiverse of tales, the tropes are nonetheless evolving, inexhaustible.

Kitty Bennett and Susan Beachy contributed analysis.

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