Who owns the right to write you into an explicit fanfic?

After a new film based on a fanfic about Harry Styles causes more controversy, we wonder who would own the right to your name...

What would you do if you discovered a complete stranger had written a 100-chapter story about you – or rather, a ‘bad boy’ version of you – on a fanfiction website? And if said story had sexually explicit scenes? And if there were views of and comments on it stretching well into seven figures?

You’d probably be creeped out. But if you’re Harry Styles, there’s not necessarily all that much you can do about it. Aged just 19, Styles came across a fanfic story written by Anna Todd and published on open writing platform Wattpad. The story was a hit – it garnered millions of views and comments – and was subsequently turned into a film, After, which hit Netflix last year. The sequel hit Amazon Prime at the start of this month. Not everyone was a huge fan of the Wattpad story, however. It caused uproar from a lot of One Direction fans, who felt the author had crossed a line in her depiction of Styles as the toxic bad boy and worried about the impact the association would have on the pop star’s image. 

It probably seems baffling to you that Styles has no control over the stories written about him. The law around this is pretty murky: creating fictionalised versions of people is protected by freedom of speech laws, so the author didn’t do anything illegal by starring Harry in her plotline. If After was based on an existing book or film, however, then that might have been a different story: fanfic writers can usually justify using someone else’s intellectual property under fair use laws, as long as they don’t make any profit from publishing their work. Once you start profiting from it, you could be caught out for stealing their work. So, if it had been Harry Potter rather than Harry Styles at the centre of this story, then there would be more chance of a successful lawsuit being filed – but as your real-life personality doesn’t count as intellectual property, that argument doesn’t apply here.

Harry Styles

What if it happened to me? 

Nobody is getting hurt by a fanfic where Voldemort and Dumbledore are in a secret relationship, however disturbed it might make you feel. But when the fanfiction involves real people – as much of it does – the line between right and wrong quickly becomes blurred. Even with the story technically being legal, it’s hard not to feel a little uncomfortable when you imagine yourself in Harry’s shoes, associated against his will with a fictional, eroticised version of himself.

So, what if you actually were the subject of the story? 

It’s not illegal for someone to write a story about you. If the story they wrote was unmistakably about you and they opened you up to public ridicule or defamation, then you could sue for libel. But that only applies if the author has your character do things that you’ve never done, because libel requires the statement made about you to be false. It’s also pretty hard for cases to end in your favour, as it’s all open to interpretation: what you see as direct defamation, the author could claim is just a coincidence. Changing your name or other personal details, adding a disclaimer that everything in the book is fictional or incorporating your character into a plot that is so far-fetched that it couldn’t be seen as fact are all ways that an author could avoid being sued, even if you know for sure that it’s based on you. 

After We Collided' Director on Hessa Love Triangle, Sex Scenes and  Cliffhanger Ending (Exclusive) | Entertainment Tonight
Hardin and Tessa in After We Collided

Harry Styles never gave his permission to indirectly star in the fanfic and we all know it’s based on him, so why doesn’t he sue for libel?

Well, after landing the book deal with Simon & Schulster that eventually led to the film adaptations, Todd changed the protagonist’s name to Hardin Scott and reworked some of the details of the character’s life so it didn’t match up to Harry’s. She also revealed that apparently, the casting assistant noted that none of the actors she liked for the role of Hardin looked like Harry, suggesting that the bad boy had become a character of his own rather than an adaptation of Styles. 

Despite these changes, the legacy of the original story being about him is hard to shake. They also didn’t try that hard to clearly separate the published story from the singer: ‘Hardin Scott’ noticeably has the same initials and syllables as ‘Harry Styles’, has various eerily similar tattoos and sports a very British accent despite being based in America. 

Here's every emotion I felt while reading the "After" series

Nor does Styles-reimagined come across particularly well in the stories. Despite being the love interest, he’s a bit of a d*ck. A ‘bad boy’ type, he makes a gross bet that he’ll be able to get into the pure and innocent Tessa’s knickers. He falls for her in the process – so naturally feels entitled to her forgiveness when all is revealed. Styles’s character regularly ignores Tessa’s requests to stay away and turns up at her hotel when she drunk calls him, after criticising how much she has drunk. They often erupt into fiery arguments where they scream profanities at each other, and there isn’t an ounce of trust between them. But instead of blocking him and filing a restraining order (as you would if your toxic ex refused to leave you alone) Tessa’s firm ‘no’s are often revealed to be a coy ‘yes’ in disguise, sending some very dodgy messages about how consent works. Every infringement of boundaries ends with the two sleeping together and realising just how in love they are. Given the story’s audience mostly consists of tween/teen girls, its uncritical portrayal of a toxic relationship – held up as the epitome of love – sends all the wrong signals about power dynamics. 

Fan fiction is a valid form of expression that opens up writing to people who may not think literary industries are open to them. But is that creativity justified if it comes at the price of someone’s privacy? In the case of Harry Styles, a film franchise will forever be linked to his name, whether he likes it or not. According to the law, anyone could write an explicit story starring you and get away with it, even though it’d be a clear infringement of your privacy. An entirely fictional character would have more rights in a potential court case than you would.