When aspiring fantasy authors are first learning the ropes of how to construct a storyline, they often play with the idea of incorporating fantasy races.
However, one potential concern that many of these fantasy writers have is whether or not there are any legal issues associated with including fantasy races in a novel.
General fantasy races are not copyrighted, as they’re not considered to be anyone’s intellectual property. The ideas of fantasy races originate from folklore and mythology that are hundreds of years old, so it’s legal to include them in fantasy narratives.
Although incorporating archetypical fantasy races is fine for the purposes of writing, there are still potential legal issues that you can run into if you’re not careful. Read further to discover what specific aspects of writing about fantasy races could cause eventual legal problems as well as tips on how to avoid these complications altogether.
Why Writing About Fantasy Races Doesn’t Impede on Any Intellectual Property
As a fantasy writer, the last thing you want to deal with is legal issues as soon as you’ve published your novel. Since fantasy species play such a crucial role in this reading genre, it’s important that writers get it right the first time to avoid unnecessary headaches in the future.
Fortunately, writing about archetypical fantasy races shouldn’t raise any red flags when it comes to legalities, as fantasy races are largely considered public domain information. The reasons for why this is are discussed further below.
Fantasy Races are Ideas in Common Use
For one, the roots of fantasy races can be traced back centuries to the origins of mythology and folklore. Many of the archetypical fantasy races that we’ve come to know and love weren’t invented during the modern era.
Take elves and fairies for instance. They’re a couple of the most popular fantasy races out there, yet few people know that these fantasy species sprouted from early Norse mythology (source).
Over time, elves and fairies became somewhat intertwined, developing a mischievous and playful image. People began to add details to old folklore stories to help accentuate these features, until the archetypical mental picture that we have of elves and fairies was born.
Since the original creators of elves and fairies are unknown and have been dead for centuries, these archetypical fantasy species are free for public use. There is no copyright associated with these fantasy races, or any other general fantasy race for that matter.
Even J.R.R. Tolkien’s dreaded “orcs” from Lord of the Rings had mythological origins. Tolkien actually drew the inspiration for the orc species from Old English. According to Britannica, the word orc was used as early as AD 800 to describe “a demon or ogre” (source).
Due to the early roots of this word, Tolkien was unable to claim his orc species as intellectual property, which is why writers can technically include orcs in their fantasy narratives.
Numerous Fantasy Authors Have Used Fantasy Races in their Works
In addition, it’s important to note that a considerable number of best selling fantasy novels have included fantasy species with no legal repercussions.
If fantasy races were copyrighted, hundreds of famous novelists would’ve already been subject to copyright infringement penalties. This is one of the main contributing factors as to why fantasy races have been solidified into the realm of fantasy. Authors don’t have to face any copyright violations because fantasy races have been incorporated into reputable fantasy novels time and time again.
This trend all began with J.R.R. Tolkien with his work in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Many ensuing authors attempted to replicate the success Tolkien received in fantasy by mimicking his use of fantasy races, like featuring elves and dwarves for example. As a result, Tolkien unintentionally set a precedent that it’s well within legal territory to use mythological fantasy races in writing.
Since then, contemporary authors—like J.K. Rowling and Rick Riordan—have proven that the archetypical, mythological fantasy races of old can still work in modern fantasy. In her work with the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling has written about dwarves, giants, and goblins and has experienced a positive reception because of it. Riordan has placed a heavy emphasis on Greek and Roman mythology by describing fantasy races such as cyclopses and minotaurs and has seen similar success.
Where You Could Run Into Legal Trouble Writing About Fantasy Races
The majority of fantasy writers won’t encounter many difficulties with copyright infringement because they will write about the general aspects of fantasy races without including anything too specific. Nonetheless, there’s still a small chance that you can violate copyright laws if you copy previously instituted ideas from other people or companies.
Applying Already Established Names to Your Fantasy Species
Arguably the most common copyright infringement involving fantasy races is copying well established fantasy race names and writing them off as your own.
You may not even do this on purpose. There’s a chance that you may unknowingly apply what you consider to be “general fantasy names” to your narrative text even though it copyrighted intellectual property.
A prime example of this can be seen with the fantasy species names of hobbit, ent, and balrog from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Middle-Earth Enterprises, formerly known as Tolkien Enterprises, laid claim to these fantasy species since they were original creations constructed by Tolkien himself (source).
A famous fantasy tabletop game, Dungeons & Dragons, included the fantasy species of hobbit, ent, and balrog in their early versions of the game. This caught the eye of Middle-Earth Enterprises, to the point where they actually took legal action against the gamemakers.
Middle-Earth Enterprises demanded that the fantasy species of “dragon, dwarf, elf, ent, goblin, hobbit, orc, and warg” be abolished from the game completely, as the company felt as though Tolkien had laid legal claim over these fantasy races (source).
The good news is that most of these fantasy races—including dragons, dwarves, elves, goblins, orcs and wargs—were ruled as public domain property. In other words, this court ruling proved that it’s perfectly fine for fantasy writers to use these ideas in their novels.
However, Dungeons and Dragons did have to modify three of their fantasy species names. Hobbit, ent, and balrog were ruled by the courts as intellectual property of Middle-Earth Enterprises since they originated from Tolkien himself, as opposed to mythology.
The moral of the story is to research any specific fantasy names that pique your interest before incorporating them into your story. If you still feel skeptical even after conducting your own thorough research, I would choose another fantasy species name altogether.
Sometimes, these established fantasy species names can still slip through your initial proofread. For this reason, it’s important to have a professional manuscript editing service take a look for you.
Scribendi is a terrific option for this, as their professional editors specialize in critiquing, proofreading, and editing book manuscripts. Not only will their editors help you avoid any potential legal trouble, they’ll greatly improve the overall quality of your story.
Copying Exact Properties & Details of Previously Made Fantasy Races
Another thing you want to avoid is reproducing several identical elements of fantasy species that have already been constructed in the past.
For example, think about the Dungeons and Dragons fantasy species and term “drow.” As a quick reference, drow are dark elves in Dungeons and Dragons that are characterized by their white hair, dark skin, and evil inclinations (source).
Even if you came up with your own original name for a “drow-like” fantasy race, it will matter little if you copy down every little individual detail of what characterizes a drow in Dungeons and Dragons. Copying particular aspects of their historical origins, magical powers, and physical appearance will almost certainly raise some eyebrows to readers that are familiar with this famous tabletop game.
They may catch on, but they may not. Ultimately, it’s best to avoid this situation altogether by injecting your own sense of originality and creativity into your chosen fantasy race. Plus, readers prefer to get in touch with fantasy elements that stray away from the norm and surprise them, rather than the same old archetypical characters.
As a side note, it’s also worth keeping in mind that copyrighted elements of fantasy races aren’t exclusively limited to text, even when it comes to fantasy novels. Say, for instance, that you placed a telltale Dungeons and Dragons image of a drow right on the front of your book cover. This is certainly grounds for copyright infringement, even if the actual copying had nothing to do with the writing composition of the novel.
How to Include Fantasy Races in Your Work without Fear of Copyright
Even though legal complications surrounding fantasy races are rare, you may still have lingering worries about including them in your novel. To help you overcome this fear, implement the following tips into your narrative composition to greatly reduce the likelihood of such issues.
Write About Fantasy Races from Old Mythology
If you do choose to include fantasy races, you should strongly consider taking them from the old stories of mythology. Since the creators of these mythological species are long dead, there’s no worry of copyright infringement.
Most of these fantasy races have been ingrained into modern culture, so the majority of readers will have a general picture in mind when you write them into the story. Take dwarves and elves for instance. It’s hard to find any fantasy book fanatic that isn’t intimately familiar with these two fantasy species.
I’ve compiled a massive resource that explains a variety of popular fantasy races in an article titled Full Rundown of the Most Exotic Fantasy Races. So if you need some additional familiarity with fantasy races before finalizing your fantasy species selections, check out that article.
Also, many famous fantasy writers have been known to draw inspiration from history, whether it be mythological narratives or real actual events. Even the great George R.R. Martin has admitted that several of the major plot twists in the acclaimed A Song of Ice & Fire series have stemmed from Scottish history (source).
So if you haven’t already, read up on history! These stories can help add flavor to your novel and offer creative inspiration for designing fantasy races down the road.
Consider Constructing Your Own Fantasy Race from Scratch
Lastly, you may want to think about building your own fantasy race on your own, without any external assistance. This is definitely the tougher of the two options, but it’s also the safer route. After all, you can’t run into copyright infringement issues if you came up with the idea yourself.
To pull this off, you will need superb creativity and descriptive writing skills. Unfortunately, the reader won’t have the benefit of ever being exposed to this fantasy race, like with the elves and the dwarves. As a result, you, as a writer, may need to take some extra time to communicate exactly what your unique fantasy race is all about.
Composing your very own fantasy race can be extremely rewarding as well. Often times, fantasy readers like to latch onto one iconic world-building element. Creating a fantasy race is about as iconic as it gets. Few other fantasy authors are willing to take on this burden, so this may be what separates your novel from the rest.
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