And speaking of my dissertation defense, here’s the Prezi for that for those who were unable to attend, since I wasn’t able to have it streamed or live-tweeted.
Category Archives: fandom
It took a while, since I had this little thing called a dissertation defense last week, but here at last is my presentation from the Association of Internet Researchers annual meeting October 23-26 in Denver, CO.
Last week, I talked about the various economic and legal issues involved in Kindle Worlds, like unpaid labor, extraction of value, fair use, and ownership of one’s own creative products. (And that’s what you missed on Glee!)
And now, for the exciting (and quite long) conclusion, a discussion of the cultural issues at stake.
One recurring comment about Kindle Worlds is that it is set up in a way that suggests a lack of understanding of fandom, as in this comment from Aja Romano (via @bertha_c):
Or this exchange between Melanie Kohnen and me:
The question “Is it really fanfic?” has repeatedly been raised, with Karen Hellekson noting that “if you define fan fiction as ‘derivative texts written for free within the context of a specific community,’ then this isn’t that. True, they are fans. And they write… fiction. But what Amazon Worlds is doing is extending the opportunity to writers to work for hire by writing, on spec, derivative tie-ins in a shared universe, under terms that professional writers would be inclined to reject.”
Noah Berlatsky of The Atlantic playfully noted that “you could even say that Amazon is turning the term ‘fan fiction’ into fan fiction itself, lifting it from its original context and giving it a new purpose and a new narrative, related to the original but not beholden to it.” John Scalzi also questioned whether it’d qualify as “fan fiction,” deciding that it is and it isn’t.
However, some fannish commentators have been in favor of Kindle Worlds, untroubled by these factors, such that they might also, paradoxically, be open to the charge of not understanding fandom. Rebecca Pahle, writing for The Mary Sue, noted that some may be upset that “giant corporations (the publisher of Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and Vampire Diaries is owned by Warner Bros.) will be making money off of the labor of their fans. That’s not a viewpoint I share, though, because that’s what happens anyway: Fans put thousands of hours of effort into creating fic, graphics, crafts, etc., expecting nothing in return other than the object of their fandom being good,” adding that “I for one want to see more authors earn money off of it.”
At OTW Fannews, Curtis Jefferson noted that while some are “concerned about what this development will mean for fanfiction communities, though the less they know about them, the more likely they think of Kindle Worlds as a great development.”
As suggested by Jefferson, acceptance or rejection of Kindle Worlds seems to be related to whether people are embedded in the community. Now, there isn’t really just one community, but people who have been in fandom for a while, and in several fandoms over time, have been exposed to and/or acculturated into a set of practices and values that has had some continuity.
In that very limited sense, as an amorphous and internally heterogeneous thing, “the community” singular isn’t totally unreasonable. It’s an imagined community rather than an actual set of interconnections among the people. In fact, assume scare-quotes on it going forward.
One main part of this norm is that fandom in general and fan fiction in particular should be noncommercial. This is an ideal rather than a fact; as Kristina Busse noted in an email exchange in which I participated, “I think the longer I’m in fandom, the more I see that the economies always have overlapped,” and Pahle’s point above gestures toward this, too. Fandom isn’t isolated from market values, not least because it tends to respond to capitalist-produced media.
But normatively those things have traditionally been kept apart, as shown by the extensive work on gift economies in fandom (some of my favorites: Hellekson’s A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture and Suzanne Scott’s Repackaging Fan Culture: The Regifting Economy of Ancillary Content Models).
Part of this is that fans understand themselves as getting other, nonmonetary benefits. As Livia Penn put it, “I keep seeing people saying ‘you’ll get 20% to 35% of the profit. And that’s better than nothing!’ (Well, sidebar: I don’t get ‘nothing’ from writing fanfic. If you’re not a fanfic writer who shares their fic with a community of readers, it would take me another two thousand words to explain what you *do* get, but trust me. It isn’t nothing.)”
Scalzi likewise notes that “there’s a difference between writing fan fiction because you love the world and the characters on a personal level, and Amazon and Alloy actively exploiting that love for their corporate gain and throwing you a few coins for your trouble.”
So there has to this point been a fan community with some (rather) loose norms about how fiction works, among which are a non-monetary system of reward and exchange and a relationship to industry somewhere between wary and hostile. This is what fan scholarship has long described, due substantially to the fact that two generations of scholars (maybe two and a half or three) have been to varying degrees embedded in this community. This comes out of the founding of fan studies as a project of fan-scholars wanting to speak for themselves and their own community.
But I am beginning to wonder if the community, already minoritized in the world at large and within fandom, might also become minoritized in fan fiction itself. That is, while Kindle Worlds is not fan fiction as it has been, it might be fanfic as it will be.
Generational turnover in the population has happened, and from my own limited and anecdotal experience, younger fanbases are often not within the tradition. I don’t know if they know it exists and have rejected it; or the influx of fans was too great to teach them all how it had been done before; or they don’t know at all because searchability provides different routes to finding out that there is such a thing as fic in the absence of knowing how it has traditionally been done. (Actually, can someone do the research and find out why, plzthx?)
So, this generation shift is one route by which we may see the end of fan fiction as we know it. It seems to me that the proportion of writers that aren’t within the tradition is steadily rising: lots of fic I am seeing doesn’t use beta readers, the reciprocity of feedback as payment for creativity is decaying, some of the old rules about acceptable content have vanished, etc.
I take no position on whether this is shift in the normative way of writing fic is good or bad. I like the tradition, and I think it is valuable, but I’m not one for prescribing how people go about doing things that give them pleasure. However, I do think it’s important to consider carefully whether this is a large-scale change and think about its implications.
I also have to wonder if the fact that most of the scholarship has been done by people embedded in the tradition might be why we haven’t seen this coming. This isn’t to critique those people or their work per se (and indeed there is some recognition that there are other ways, as with Busse’s comment that “maybe there is a market–it just won’t be ours, I think”) but rather to point to the tradeoff that every angle of vision makes some things more visible than others.
Related to this question of generations and fannish continuity, the comparisons of Kindle Worlds to the 2007 for-profit fan fiction archive FanLib were not long in coming. Scott asked whether fandom would “respond as quickly/vehemently this time around,” and I think that the (potential) ongoing generation shift has to be taken into account in answering any such question. Has fandom hit a tipping point (which it hadn’t at the time of FanLib) over into a critical mass of people who will see this as legitimate? That will, I think, be the deciding factor.
That point of contact, between fan norms and industry action, is the other place to think about the end of fan fiction as we know it. The practices and populations seem to be changing, or at least new ones are being added, and only some versions are being built into industry logics.
Kindle Worlds, like many other projects at this historical moment, is about–as Jenkins, Ford, and Green parse the distinction in Spreadable Media–“’fans,’ understood as individuals who have a passionate relationship to a particular media franchise,” not “‘fandoms,’ whose members consciously identify as part of a larger community to which they feel some degree of commitment and loyalty” (p. 166).
What I want to suggest is that Kindle Worlds is part of a broader shift to incite fans-the-individuals to ever-greater investment and involvement but manage them though disarticulating them from the troublesome resistive capacity of fandom-the-community.
On one hand, this is part of the monetization of everything. As Busse commented, “I think the thing that unsettles me is when copyright holders ask us to create material to sell it back to us,” which she noted is something that “many of the recent fan studies works have all but explicitly encouraged them to do.” Or, more snarkily, “Don’t you know that things don’t exist until some dude somewhere makes money off it?”
But there is also a sense in which industry is defining this (and maybe only this) as fan fiction, despite the fact that it’s not the only way and traditionally hasn’t been the primary way. As Hellekson notes, “‘work for hire, on spec, for certain tie-ins’ doesn’t really have the ring of ‘fan fiction,’ does it? By using the term fan fiction, they are shorthanding their future writers as well as their perceived audience.” That “shorthanding” stakes a claim on those writers and readers.
And that claim has weight as a definitional move, as is clear from Sean P. Aune’s wondering at TechnoBuffalo (via OTW Fannews) “if the studios that license the properties will continue to allow fans to publish their works for free around the Web. In theory not much should change, but there is now a financial stake in this sub-section of fandom where companies can earn money from the work of others, so there might be an incentive to drive people towards the pay version of fan fiction.”
Or Betsy Rosenblatt, chair of the legal committee of the Organization for Transformative Works, who noted to Wired that the narrow range of acceptable content in Kindle Worlds “underline[s] the importance of unrestricted fan platforms, like OTW’s Archive of Our Own, which ‘allow fans to express the full range of their creativity and appreciate the creativity of other fans through fair use.’”
Scalzi puts it in broader context: “I suspect this is yet another attempt in a series of long-term attempts to fundamentally change the landscape for purchasing and controlling the work of writers in such a manner that ultimately limits how writers are compensated for their work, which ultimately is not to the benefit of the writer. This will have far-reaching consequences that none of us really understand yet.”
I am not familiar enough with the landscape of professional writing to assess Scalzi’s point in that context, but there does seem to be a creative consolidation going on (alongside a small-scale proliferation enabled by technology), wherein ever more aspects of creative production are coming under the umbrella of corporate ownership and authorship rather than an individual creative person and a corporate production and distribution apparatus. And that bears thought, for fandom and beyond.
On May 22, Amazon announced “Kindle Worlds,” a New Publishing Model for Authors Inspired to Write Fan Fiction, and my corner of the fan-studies internet exploded. Reading (and having) those conversations and looking at the big picture, I come to two conclusions: economically, it’s a bad deal; culturally, it’s incompatible with my generation’s understanding of what fandom is and how fan fiction works. Since I got to a full-length blog on just point one, that’s what I’ll tackle this week.
But first, an acknowledgement that, as Francesca Coppa noted in an email exchange in which I participated, “sadly, it’s the best offer yet,” since some in the industry “want to monetize vidding and other fanwork on YouTube and take the all of the profits entirely.” By comparison to this, then, Kindle Worlds looks pretty good, an example to say “look, you really have to cut in the fans if you’ve going to do something like this” (Coppa). I think it’s important to both recognize that this is an improvement and articulate what we like about it (which many are doing) and also articulate what about it is still troublesome (which I’m doing) in order to not let that turn into taking whatever we can get.
Coppa’s point above, that some in the industry feel entitled to the entirety of the income from remix uses of its intellectual property, shows why the analytic lens of labor is so vital. On one hand, that is, it shows why we still need the labor theory of value, because the frequent assumption on the part of industry is that all the value comes from the “raw” material of the media that’s used in remix, rather than something being added by the labor the fan puts into it.
The labor theory of value lets us see the work of value extraction in Amazon’s initiative; they see a thing that could have its value extracted but isn’t being
(Embrace is always enclosure! The industry’s arms are made of fences!)
We also need a labor framework because what Amazon is offering is, the consensus contends, work for hire (as argued by Livia Penn, Karen Hellekson, and John Scalzi). And it’s work for hire on pretty bad terms.
In the Kindle Worlds framework, writers have no control and have to take what they can get. As Nele Noppe pointed out at the Fanhackers Tumblr,
while fic writers will get some money, they have zero control over how much they might want to charge or how much of a cut they deserve, and no options to negotiate. Amazon can organize its business the way it pleases, of course. But this “you will take what we offer you or nothing” approach may offer a big clue to how Amazon believes the rights of all parties should be balanced out when fic writers and copyright holders try to share income from fanworks.
Penn further points out that, by paying based on net rather than gross profit, fan writers are left open to being billed into oblivion: of a thousand-dollar gross, “a hundred dollars to pay their slush pile department, another a hundred dollars goes to their copyediting department, two hundred dollars to their market research department, another two hundred to their advertising department, and three hundred ninety to the legal department.”
It might seem ridiculous or paranoid to suggest this, but this is well documented in the music industry (Techdirt, Courtney Love at Salon), and Penn gives the example that “the actor who played Darth Vader has NEVER been paid residuals for ‘Return of the Jedi,’ because those come out of… you guessed it, the net profits, and the *fifteenth highest grossing film ever* has NOT made a net profit yet.”
The Amazon Worlds contract, at least as described in the press release, is set up in a way that exploits fan writers’ relative weakness compared to massive companies and the likelihood of their ignorance of these kinds of business practices.
Moreover, Amazon’s offer is a bad deal because publishing this way removes the writer’s control over further use. They (either Amazon or the licensor, it’s unclear) can republish the story itself in anthologies or translations (Noppe, Scalzi, Penn).
The release of all copyright in the contract also seems to suggest that They (whoever They are) can take the ideas in it for other uses; in Penn’s sharp summation, “they are *not* going to pay you more if they take one of your original characters and make them the star of a spin-off web series that then earns them a million billion dollars” (see also Noppe, Scalzi).
(However, this may not be the case; established author Barbra Annino, tapped to write one of the pilot novels, stated that under her contract “if I should create a character within this world, I am free to use that character elsewhere in my own work” and that she understood this to be how the other contracts would work as well.)
The arrangement also quite likely constrains further creativity from its writers, either though prohibiting offering the story for free elsewhere (Noppe) or opening up authors to being sued for copying themselves through writing something too similar later on (Penn).
These are, as both Hellekson and Scalzi (themselves professionals) and legal scholar Rebecca Tushnet point out, worse terms than writers usually get—indeed, as Hellekson puts it, they’re “terms that professional writers would be inclined to reject.”
This is particularly interesting given that (as Coppa reminded me) other literary second-comers didn’t have to give up this much control OR money: Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone didn’t need to license Gone With The Wind; Lo’s Diary reworked Lolita with a 50-50 royalty split with Nabokov’s estate. The difference between “real” writer and fan writer is nontrivial, then, and related again to both not seeing fan work as work that adds value and exploiting (presumed) fan weakness/ignorance.
Both Hellekson and Scalzi gesture toward the benefits of unionization to protect from just such abuses, Hellekson pointing to the Freelancers’ Union and Scalzi to the Writer’s Guild of America as the union for “official media tie-in writers and script writers.”
And then there are a set of non-labor legal issues. One thing that several fan scholars found quite objectionable was the seeming implication that fan fiction required licensing rather than being fair use (Suzanne Scott, Kohnen, Noppe; this is a trouble with licensing generally, see the Brennan Center for Justice’s Will Fair Use Survive?: Free Expression in the Age of Copyright Control [pdf]).
For writing fan fiction, licenses are almost certainly not required, but for selling it they may be, since one of the four factors in Fair Use includes whether the use is commercial. However, commercial uses have sometimes been judged fair (Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone prevailed over Margaret Mitchell’s estate, 2LiveCrew was able to sample Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman) and noncommercial ones sometimes unfair.
The real issue is that precedent is unclear because cases like fan fiction, where the relationship to the remixed text is not antagonistic, haven’t really been argued before courts. Fans tend not to have the financial wherewithal for such fights; as Henry Jenkins put it in Convergence Culture, “someone who stands to lose their home or their kid’s college fund by going head-to-head with studio attorneys is apt to fold” (p. 131). There’s also the factor of having to fight with the owners of something they love, an affectively and ethically gray area for many fans.
This uncertainty both in the law itself and on the part of fans in knowing the lay of the land (weakness and ignorance again!) works in industry’s favor. They, as Coppa pointed out, know the law quite well and know when things are likely fair use, but they also know they’re likely to get away with insisting on their ownership of fan products.
These questions of labor and compensation and ownership fairness, then, mean that deciding whether publishing with Kindle Worlds is worth doing is complicated and requires having a lot of information and background knowledge that many people don’t. As Scalzi put it, “the thing that can be said for it is that it’s a better deal than you would otherwise get for writing fan fiction, i.e., no deal at all and possibly having to deal with a cranky rightsholder angry that you kids are playing in their yard. Is that enough for you?”
work for hire is bullshit– well, *unless* you don’t actually deeply care about the stories or characters or other creative work, and just want a paycheck because you have kids to feed. If it’s just a job, then not owning your creative work is fine. (But if that’s the case, you want to make sure you are being compensated fairly, and as I said in point one, “you get nothing but a percentage of the *potential* net from the ebook sales and NOTHING ELSE” is NOT a case of you being compensated fairly.)
Certainly, I think we should take seriously the fact that part of the ease of exploiting this creative labor is that fandom and certain fan practices are still stigmatized. VentureBeat, in its news coverage of the announcement, couldn’t resist referring to fanfiction as “a passionate hobby that earns you ridicule from friends and co-workers.” Fast Company calls fanfic a “parallel universe.” (Obligatory shameless self-promo for my article on fandom and stigma.)
In the end, as I suggested in my SCMS presentation earlier this year, fans’ capacity to consent to such arrangements is uncertain because of vastly unequal power, limited choice, and lack of knowledge. Meaningful consent isn’t impossible, but it does require treading very carefully, and I worry that excitement and the seductions of marketing-speak may render such care difficult to come by.
Stay tuned for Part 2 next week, “The End of Fandom as we know it?”
Because the tech-support people I need to talk to in order to straighten out a data analysis snafu are in Germany, creating temporal challenges, I’ve been catching up on reading. As a result, I had just read Carol Rose’s 1998 piece The Several Futures of Property: Of Cyberspace and Folk Tales, Emission Trades and Ecosystems when an email came in from SumofUs.org with a petition against Nestlé’s attempt to patent the medicinal use of the fennel flower.
A few days before that, the monthly UC Berkeley newsletter had a story about scientists who were launching a drug company based on producing an antimalarial chemical synthetically in yeast instead of in its plants of origin. I was already familiar with the malaria example because my friend Josh Kellogg, who’s an ethnopharmacologist, was working on malaria treatments from natural sources as his PhD project until the money dried up in favor of synthetics—which, he pointed out to me, ultimately derive from knowledge of plant sources anyway (as in the Berkeley research case).
Perfect storm weeks like this get me thinking and make me want to work through connections, so that’s what I want to do here. I’ve written before about privatizing fandom and enclosing the commons, but Rose’s piece gave me a new angle on the commons that I think is useful for the work I’m doing on fandom in my dissertation—that of capitalist disrespect and appropriation of indigenous intellectual property.
Now, this is mine-filled territory, because it risks evoking the logic of pure, uncorrupted-by-civilization (and thus implicitly uncivilized) indigeneity I critiqued in The Trouble with Tribals. So, to be clear, the idea of indigenous intellectual property is being used here to think with, to structurally or metaphorically denote a group with a different set of values than the dominant ones of capital and a different set of beliefs about ownership and individual creativity, which are devalued by the dominant both because of these different values and for other reasons (racism in the literal-indigeneity case and sexism/devaluation of emotion in the fan case).
The connection of intellectual property concerns to indigenous people is not novel—Rose herself notes that in the forms of property she discusses “both factors—unconventional communal claims and unrecognized social status—overlap and conspire against property recognition. Historically, this was perhaps most noticeable in European encounters with Native Americans” (p. 141). What I want to do here is work through what this looks like for fandom alongside this Nestlé case to see what this renders visible.
First, what we see in the Nestlé patent of longstanding knowledge and industry efforts to monetize fandom is that things known or produced by certain groups don’t count as owned by them.
On one hand, this is because the claims to property often don’t take recognizable shapes in these cases—as Rose puts it, they “do not look like property at all to us” (p. 140). Rose’s piece traces out a theory of a property format called “limited common property,” which is “property on the outside, commons on the inside” (p. 144). That is, it’s not a pure commons, because not everybody is eligible to exploit it, but those who are on the inside can make use of it as completely as is allowed within the norms of the community.
This, to me, looks a lot like fandom: everybody in the community has shared access to everybody else’s stories, vids, meta, etc., but—in part due to stigma—there’s a protective attitude in relation to outsiders. It’s also like the fennel flower case: “everybody knows” the value of the plant, but that doesn’t make it a free-for-all for capital.
Related to this, which Rose raises but doesn’t really delve into, is “questions of alienability” (p. 140); limited common property isn’t very alienable because, unlike standard property, no one person owns it, such that nobody can really sell it off, and particularly not for individual gain.
This, I think, is part of why “pulling to publish”—the practice of converting fan fiction into novels like 50 Shades of Gray by renaming the characters (and then deleting the original)—is often frowned upon in fan communities. Yes, a person wrote it, but they generally did so in a community. And indefinable but vital contributions arise from interaction with those community members, such that then denying them access is denying recognition for their labor in favor of the single creative figure of the author.
This isn’t necessarily nefarious (although it can be). Mostly I’d attribute it to the fact that “the author principle is easy”: “it is easier to identify a single author (or definite set of authors) than an amorphous group, like a ‘village’; it is easier to identify a sharply unusual intellectual product than one that builds incrementally on the ideas of others, like a folktale; it is easier to mark out a product of sudden innovation than a gradual modification of nature, like a village’s long-cultivated plant product” (Rose p. 152).
This is also what makes Nestlé’s grab make sense (from an intellectual property standpoint, though clearly not a moral one). The SumofUs email noted that “in a paper published last year, Nestlé scientists claimed to ‘discover’ what much of the world has known for millennia: that nigella sativa extract could be used for ‘nutritional interventions in humans with food allergy’.”
This claim to discovery works because the knowledge is common across “much of the world” and no one really owns it, so Nestlé sees an opening to claim ownership. The problem with this is alienability. “Nestlé is attempting to create a nigella sativa monopoly and gain the ability to sue anyone using it without Nestlé’s permission” (SumofUs); nobody owns it, but it’s because everybody owns it.
As Rose notes, “the extension of the author or inventor principle privileges the contributions of the industrialized West over those of non-Western cultures, among other matters by rejecting intellectual property status of folklore or for carefully cultivated plant products from third-world agrarian groups” (p. 151).
In this case, it’s even more absurd than usual, since Nestlé wasn’t even the first to translate this communal knowledge into the language of science—“researchers in developing nations such as Egypt and Pakistan had already published studies on the same curative powers Nestlé is claiming as its own” (SumofUs). But then, it may well be that those scientists don’t “count” in the same way as a multinational corporation.
This idea of limited common property is useful because it explains how people can seemingly share things freely and at the same time have a right not to have that appropriated by capital. But because these are nonstandard kinds of claims about property, based in nonstandard, more communal and less individualistic value systems, made by less-valued people, running over that right to not be appropriated is startlingly easy.