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The origins of '50 Shades of Grey' go missing

May 30, 2012 |  3:12 pm

"Fifty Shades of Grey"People who know about "50 Shades of Grey" have probably heard that author E.L. James began the story as post-"Twilight" fan fiction. But now the Internet evidence of its start has been deleted, so its origins have been erased.

That's what the website Galleycat discovered when it went to the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. The Wayback Machine allows anyone to look at websites as they appeared on days past, when the Internet Archive's computer systems took a snapshot of the site.

Galleycat had previously visited the site to look at the history of James' website 50Shades.com, where she began posting writing in earnest after a beginning on Fanfiction.net. It found lots there to demonstrate that James' early writings were meant to be a continuation, or detour, of the characters in Twilight, including images of actors Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. That was in James' online serial "Masters of the Universe," which begat "50 Shades of Grey." Now only Galleycat's screenshots of the site remain online -- the Internet Archive no longer has them.

“The Internet Archive honors requests from domain and site owners to exclude pages from the Wayback Machine at their request,” the site told Galleycat.

Why take down those pages? Could it be that fan fiction is in the crosshairs?

So far, fan fiction -- in which devoted readers revivify characters from their favorite works in their own writing -- has been left largely to flourish unimpeded. Vibrant online communities have sprung up around some books -- think the "Harry Potter" series -- in which people write and share their own versions of the characters in different places, time periods, and relationships. Sometimes, as in the case of "50 Shades of Grey," those relationships get sexual. But the sex isn't the problem -- it's the copyright.

"Copyright issues are at the core of fan fiction because using the characters and fictional worlds of commercial authors to create fan works is arguably a violation of the law from the outset," explains Steven Hechter in the British magazine Times Higher Education.

James' agent told Deadline, "This did start as 'Twilight' fan fiction, inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s wonderful series of books. Originally it was written as fan fiction, then Erika [E.L. James] decided to take it down after there were some comments about the racy nature of the material. She took it down and thought, I’d always wanted to write. I’ve got a couple unpublished novels here. I will rewrite this thing, and create these iconic characters, Christian and Anna. If you read the books, they are nothing like 'Twilight' now." Her American publisher told the Associated Press that James' "Masters of the Universe" (which was fan fiction) and "50 Shades of Grey" are "two distinctly separate pieces of work."

That point was countered by romance-focused site Dear Author, which compared the two works side by side. In one test, using the plagiarism-checker TurnItIn, the texts had 89% similarity.

I'm not a lawyer, so I certainly can't sort any of that out. It is interesting that the early version has now disappeared.

Or maybe the disappearance has nothing to do with the old connection between "50 Shades of Grey" and "Twilight" -- maybe the reason someone requested those pages be taken down is simply so "50 Shades of Grey" can stand -- firmly on the top of bestseller lists -- on its own.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

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