George R. R. Martin on Copyright, Inheritance, and Creative Control

Now you can insist on control of your material. You can insist on veto power over everything; down to casting and choice of directors and script approval, you can insist on all those things. J.K. Rowling insisted on all those things. And J.K. Rowling got all those things because there were enough people interested in that. Now if you’re not J.K. Rowling, and you insist on all those things, the studios are not going to be very interested or less studios will be interested in it so you’ll get less money or none at all. Or alternatively, you can not insist on everything and you can just sell them the book and what they do with it is what they do with it and you have to live with it. You no longer have approval over anything, you no longer have…you know what I mean? And those are the two extremes. In between of course there’s a vast area of shades of gray.

— George R. R Martin

He cares much more about French dynastic history than you do.

He cares much more about French dynastic history than you do.

This is Part 3 of the interview I did with George R. R. Martin in  2007.  For background and part 1, click here.  For Part 2, click here. For the audio file, click here.

HOFFMAN: Yeah, but you just generally right. The trope something that really speaks to folks. I guess maybe that raises a question about your fans generally. You’ve obviously got a huge fan base and I’ve been reading a little bit about them. One question that comes up a bunch of different times is fan fiction and what do you think about fan fiction?

MARTIN: I’m opposed to fan fiction.


MARTIN: Well number one, its copyright infringement and it can potentially endanger my copyrights and my trademarks if I were to allow it. Also, yes maybe it’s a gesture of love that they love your characters and they love your world and all that but it’s not the kind of gesture of love that I really want. And for aspiring writers and some of these people, sure it’s a wide range of fan fiction writers, some who are terrible. Some of them are actually talented writers. I think for the talented writers it’s particularly tragic because they should be doing their own material.

MARTIN: Now, I started writing for fanzines when I was back in high school and junior high. Back in Bayonne, NJ I was a comic fan and comic fandom was just starting back then in the 60s with little amateur [inaudible] magazines that sold for a quarter. And there were a lot of articles in there about the comic books we were reading so you could do non-fiction of that type or you could draw up characters if you were a talented artist. But there was also fiction and the fiction was of two types: one was the writers who wanted to write about characters in the actual comic books – they wanted to write a Superman story or they wanted to write a Spiderman story. That didn’t get very far and the company shut them down pretty quickly because they weren’t going to let their copyrights be infringed and start publishing amateur Spiderman stories. People very quickly switched to writing about their own characters. Now, some of the characters might have certain resemblances to Superman or Spiderman but you called them by a different name, you know they’re not Peter Parker, they’re Sam Smith, or something like that, you got a different character and you develop your character and you develop your world. That’s the kind of stuff I started with. I started with a character named Manta Ray since I couldn’t write about other people’s characters  and I really wouldn’t want to anyway. I wanted to do my own characters – make a character who ws great in his own right, who could stand up equal to those – and my own world. Those are the most important parts of writing. If you’re borrowing other people’s characters and borrowing other people’s worlds, you’re never going to learn the things that you need to learn to do successful writing of your own. You got to do the whole thing, take the training wheels off.

HOFFMAN: Right. That leads a little bit to what happens to the what happens in the future question.  In music, this has been a real struggle for folks, how to control their own content, how to make sure people don’t copy it either directly in file sharing or its —

MARTIN: I don’t have any answers on this. This is a huge controversial area in SFWA right now.

HOFFMAN: SFWA is the guild, the union, of writers right?

MARTIN: Right, the Science Fiction Writers of America.

HOFFMAN: Which I saw that you were a past president of, is that right?

MARTIN: Vice President.

HOFFMAN: Right, vice president. Are we going to see you on the picket line sometime soon?

MARTIN: I was on the picket line yesterday morning.

HOFFMAN: Were you?

MARTIN: At the guild, yeah. Picketing here in Santa Fe. I don’t know how it’s all going to shake out. These are very difficult issues with the Internet and the ease of copying things, the ease of piracy, what effect is it all going to have? I don’t know.

HOFFMAN: Is that one of the reasons you put up sample chapters, to sort of whet people’s appetite and reduce the demand?

MARTIN: Sure. Some people like that, some people don’t. There are writers who will put up the entire book and they feel that increases their sales. Its counter-intuitive to me, how can you increase your sales if you’re already giving it away? People read it online and then they go out and buy it at the store. This is what I’m saying, there’s still a lot that we don’t know about whether it’ll work.

HOFFMAN: This is the Radiohead model right? Radiohead distributed its songs and you could pay whatever you want starting at zero. It’s sort of part of a grand experiment in a way. But I take it that’s not going to be your —

MARTIN: That’s not going to be my experiment. People are still trying things with this. Stephen King tried an experiment where he was writing a serial story and he said “Send me a dollar if you like this chapter,” and as long as he got a certain number of dollars, then a month later he would write a new chapter. It started off very well and he did 5 or 6 chapters but with every month the amount of dollars fell off and fell below what he said was the kick off level or the cut off level and he stopped writing.

HOFFMAN: I know that you’re also negotiating or already have negotiated with HBO to bring A Song of Ice and Fire Empire to TV, is that right? [Note: remember, this interview happened in 2007!  Before GRRM became  world-dominator.]

MARTIN: They’ve purchased an option on the material and they’re developing a script, that’s what’s happened at the moment.

HOFFMAN: There haven’t been a lot of remarkably successful adaptations of fantasy movies or fantasy books for TV and I’m thinking about maybe Ursula Le Guin’s series, and she was very angry about it if I recall —

MARTIN: She was, yes.

HOFFMAN: — losing control over the material. Is that the kind of thing that you get worried about or not?

MARTIN: Well yes of course I’m worried about it but you pay money and you take your choice here. I worked in Hollywood for ten years so I know a little bit about how it works out there.


MARTIN: Now you can insist on control of your material. You can insist on veto power over everything; down to casting and choice of directors and script approval, you can insist on all those things. J.K. Rowling insisted on all those things. And J.K. Rowling got all those things because there were enough people interested in that.  Now if you’re not J.K. Rowling, and you insist on all those things, the studios are not going to be very interested or less studios will be interested in it so you’ll get less money or none at all. Or alternatively, you can not insist on everything and you can just sell them the book and what they do with it is what they do with it and you have to live with it. You no longer have approval over anything, you no longer have…you know what I mean? And those are the two extremes. In between of course there’s a vast area of shades of gray.

HOFFMAN: You’ve written since right?

MARTIN: My solution, the best I could determine it, was in that middle section. I had ideas about how it could be done, about how it could not be done and I told my agents to try and make a deal happen that would give the best chance of a good result. I thought that it could be a movie, it could be a 2 hour movie. Especially when the fourth book hit number one on the NYT Bestseller List, I had twenty different people interested in optioning it for a feature film but I didn’t think it could be a feature film, how do you get all of this into one 2 hour movie? You can’t. You can’t get even a fraction of it. They would have eliminated…to make a coherent story out of it, you’d have to eliminate 95% of the characters.

HOFFMAN: As long as you kept the blood and sex and violence it probably would have been ok.

MARTIN: *laughing* Yeah well I don’t think so. But the blood, the sex, and the violence was the other issue. So, ok if I rule out feature films because they can’t possibly do it the next choice is television. Ok, I can do a television miniseries, 26 hours like [inaudible], or something like that. That sounds appealing but then you run into a problem with the blood, the sex, and the violence because ABC, NBC, they’re going to have problems with that. They were so upset about Janet Jackson’s nipple for Christ’s sake, so how are you going to get the content in that you want? The only answer, it seemed to me, was cable television and you know, Showtime, the SyFy channel, and in particular HBO. HBO was doing the most adult series. They did not balk at sex and violence in television shows like The Wire, Rome, Deadwood, and they were doing terrific work. The quality of their work was really high. Rome was as good a show as ever appeared on television in my opinion. That was the way I went, I said “Let’s try and make a deal with HBO and let’s try and get some really good people on it.” And we did. We got David Benioff, D.B. Weiss as writers and they’re both terrific and they love the books.

HOFFMAN: If you were going to play —

MARTIN: It gave us the best chance that if anything is made, and of course the odds are still against that, that it’ll come out pretty decently and maybe even superbly. But it’s a crapshoot.


MARTIN: Because they could fire those guys tomorrow and bring in some totally hack writer who wants to change everything. They could do anything they want. I signed the contract, I took the money, so now I can just hope for good results as Ursula did I guess and that’s what happened to Earthsea.

HOFFMAN: Right. If you were going to play any character in the book, in the HBO movie, which one would it be?

MARTIN: If I could play any character?

HOFFMAN: Yeah, of course!

MARTIN: I don’t actually fit most of the roles.

HOFFMAN: Peter Jackson got to appear in his movies as a random guy with a stick somewhere.

MARTIN: Yeah, I’ll probably appear in the movie as a random guy. I’ll work myself in one way or another.

HOFFMAN: I was thinking if you had someone in mind, I don’t know.

MARTIN: They’re Beauty and Beast in my old TV show that was on and two episodes of that —

HOFFMAN: Let’s see, I don’t think I have that many more questions. I guess, this one —

MARTIN: One we haven’t touched on by the way, which I was thinking about beforehand that we might discuss and is very important is inheritance law.

HOFFMAN: Yep, I was just about to sort of ask you about that.

MARTIN: Inheritance law is the basis of so many of the real wars. The War of the Roses basically all came down to a question of inheritance – who had the superior claim. If they had a very clear cut law on that it might have been easy but it wasn’t. One guy was a descendent of Edward III’s sons through a female line and he was also descended from the IV. The other was descended from the III so who has the superior claim?

HOFFMAN: Who keeps inheritance law?

MARTIN: Also, the Hundred Years War was a question of inheritance.

HOFFMAN: Right. Who keeps it in Westeros? Who holds that law? Because inheritance has to be, in some ways, superior or separate from the King because the King is dead.

MARTIN: It’s a question of your superior…the King will rule if a Lord dies and there’s a disputed inheritance, the system means the King would presumably rule on that. The problem within the real middle ages and within Westeros is that you don’t necessarily have to accept it. If you are a Lord and you and your brother are both saying your father’s died and you’re both saying you should be the next Lord and you’re both popular enough to be able to raise armies, then no matter what the King may decide, it’s going to come down to who wins on the battlefield. Unless of course the King has a bigger army than both of you, then you don’t rise because you’re afraid of the King and his bigger army so it all comes back to kind of the stick there.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. I think in the short story that was in the Legends collection, I think there was a short story about Dunc and Egg travelling and an inheritance issue that was resolved I guess at point and sword right?

MARTIN: The Hundred Years War was a hundred year war being fought over the solid wall of France, whether the throne of France could be passed through the female line. I don’t know if you’ve studied any of these issues or the cases that occurred in real life.

HOFFMAN: Right. I haven’t.

MARTIN: Philip IV of France had four…has three sons and a daughter, and he married his daughter to the King of England. And he had three sons, all of whom were married and all of whom had children of their own. One by one they died and it’s actually more complicated than that, it gets very complicated and very interesting. Philip IV was the King who destroyed the Templars and they cursed him as the last grandmaster of the Templars was burning, that he and his line would die out and indeed he, Philip, died within the year. And one by one his three adult sons, each of who followed him to the throne, then died. It was the second son, Philip V who had actually promulgated the Salic Law, because the first son to die had a daughter. He had no son, but he had a daughter and the second son wanted to take precedence over that daughter he had to find this obscure law that goes all the way back to the Franks and that had never actually been enforced in France before, in what was the modern time in France. Of course he only lasted 9 or 10 years. And then third son briefly reigned and died with only daughters. And then the question is, ok well three sons are dead, there’s no male heir, do we go to a cousin which was the first Philip of Valois, the first of the Valois dynasty, or do we…gee, well the daughter married the King of England and she has a son who is now King of England, Edward III, and he’s the actual grandson of the old king. He’s the only one in direct descent unless you’re talking cousins. By any law of inheritance that was in Europe at the time, he should have had the superior claim but the French didn’t want an Englishman to take over so they said “oh no, we have the Salic law, and his claims is through a woman so we can’t have that,” so they fought for a hundred years and many thousands of people died.

HOFFMAN: The thing I think is interesting about that in your books is that’s one of the only places we, I guess, really see law constraining people’s behavior, constraining the King’s behavior in that the Queen would clearly, Queen Cersei would clearly have wanted to inherit but she says because she’s a woman she can’t and either because politically that’s true or because she feels constrained by the law, it passes on to her son.


Martin: Right


Hoffman: The other thing I was going to ask was, life beyond the wall sort of seems lawless right? Is that a good description of life beyond the wall?

MARTIN: Beyond the wall?

HOFFMAN: Yeah, beyond the wall, there’s sort of a king but he doesn’t quite rule. Well now there’s no king.

MARTIN: The king beyond the wall is really a war leader almost more than anything else. There’s no inheritance there in the way we see them. First of all, there’re a number of different peoples. For the people south of the wall, they’re all wildlings but there are actually a number of different peoples there with different societies and different ways of living but it’s a tribal society. But every once in a while, a charismatic leader arises and if he can cow enough of the people he becomes King Beyond the Wall. Then he’s usually expected to try and lead an attack against the wall. He doesn’t settle on the rule, he tries to attack the wall and take it, take the south.

HOFFMAN: In a way that’s sort of just like the south right? It’s tribal in the south as well, it’s just that it’s a slightly higher level of social organization.


HOFFMAN: The whole, I guess this will maybe be the concluding question, people have remarked that the world as created is a little bit melancholy and dark. And my view is that maybe it’s melancholy and dark because violence is a solution to most problems and there’s really not much of a civilizing force of law as, and maybe you’re just going to tell me read and find out, but is there anything hopeful on the horizon for the people of Westeros in terms of making their world less dark? I know that winter is coming.

MARTIN: Well, yeah, winter is coming *laughs* so it’ll probably get darker before it gets lighter. However, my work has always had a certain amount of melancholy to it. If you go all the way back to my earliest published stories in the 70s, I think you’ll find that trend is just something about—

HOFFMAN: Well you’re a Jets fan so…

MARTIN: Well, yes that may be part of it. We have been cursed ever since Joe Namath. *laughs* Fiction is about conflict and is about dark periods. No one goes out and reads the book about the happy, peaceful family living in happy, peaceful times. What is that, are you going to write a fantasy Cheaper by the Dozen or something? The pitch is “Ooo we burned the chicken,” you know? “How do I tell father that I lamed his horse.” *laughs* I don’t know, I guess some people would be entertained by that but I think, certainly ever since Tolkien, and probably from before, there’s a dramatic intensity to fantasy that requires a certain amount of darkness.

HOFFMAN: Apocalypse is what I think of. The Apocalypse is always on the horizon.

MARTIN: Mine is darker, in some ways I think, because I have tried to make it a little more realistic. I mean people who complain that my world is too dark clearly have never read much about the real middle ages. The things that go on in Westeros are nothing compared to some of the things that went on in the real Middle Ages in terms of rape and torment and slaughter and torture. It was not a happy time, the Middle Ages. The Black Death, that was not a fun time. But I did want to do more than…I see, not so much these days actually because I think there is a realistic movement going on in fantasy, but if you go back to the 70s and the 80s, a lot of the fantasies that were being published and were popular were set in sort of a Disney middle ages or a Renfair middle ages where you had kings and you had lords that were fighting with swords and stuff but the castles were all very clean and it was Disneyland. They had all the titles but they didn’t have any of the nasty realities of the class system. You always get the scene where the spunky peasant boy tells off the princess and that doesn’t happen in real life. The spunky peasant boy who tells off the spunky princess soon loses his spunky peasant tongue and then his spunky peasant head is impaled upon a spike. That’s how the class system worked back then.

HOFFMAN: And then the princess has been violated in every which way and then she’s killed too. Does it make you…angry is probably the wrong word, but does it make you frustrated that your books are sold next to Disneyland, in the same aisle?

MARTIN: No because no matter where you are in the bookstore there’s going to be good books with you and there’s going to be bad books with you. My books are sold in the same section as Tolkien and that’s high praise indeed. He was one of the best authors of the 20th century and I’m flattered anytime I’m mentioned in the same breath with him. He was an author I read, of course, when I was young and had a huge impact on me. My work is very different from his work but I’m pleased to be in the same section as him.

HOFFMAN: Did you like the movies?

MARTIN: Yes I did.

HOFFMAN: After you watched the movie, I have a problem maybe you don’t have it, I can no longer read the books in the same way. The visual images from the movies have made it almost impossible for me to enjoy the books. I go back and I can’t have the imagination anymore, it’s gone. It’s replaced by images of Liv Tyler.

MARTIN: Isn’t that true of any movie that’s made into a book? If you go back and read Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, aren’t you going to see Humphrey Bogart?

HOFFMAN: Right. The thing that sort of seems sad about it is so much of Tolkien is your imagination.

MARTIN: Well you can still enjoy your own image of Tom Bombadil.

HOFFMAN: *laughing* That’s totally true. Well thank you very much for joining us today, I’m sure the readers are going to love it.

MARTIN: Let me know when you get this up and I will give it a plug on my website.

HOFFMAN: Thank you so much, I really appreciate you spending the time with me today.

MARTIN: Take care.

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