Sunday, July 3, 2011

The First Rule of Fanfiction Is...

It's been a while since I did a fandom post, but a collision of fandom and business occurred a few days ago that requires some comment. If you are a fan of "Lord of the Rings," you may be aware of the sizable portion of the fan community that likes to write fanfiction. One of the biggest online archives of "Lord of the Rings" fanfiction is the archive site, which has been owned and operated by a member of the "Lord of the Rings" fan community since 2004. The site's stats indicate a user base of over four thousand members and hosts at least as many stories. An announcement popped up a few days ago that the site's owner had sold, citing financial issues. The new owner is Keith Mander, former employee of Facebook, who has been buying up several similar fan-run sites, with the intent to commercialize them. To say the "Lord of the Rings" fandom has not been taking this development well is an understatement.

The first rule of fanfiction is that you do not make money off of fanfiction. Fanfiction, like remix videos, like fanart, and like so much of the other fan-generated content on the internet, falls into a gray area of copyright law. The use of elements from someone else's intellectual property may be seen as infringing, but most fan work is transformative enough that it falls under the Fair Use exception. This usually doesn't stop companies seeking to protect their intellectual property, but so long as the fan work is non-commercial, there is far less incentive to take any legal action. Therefore, it has long been the rule in every fandom that's been around the block a few times that commercializing fan works is simply not done. Those who try are mocked, or quickly directed to accounts of prior legal battles over fan-generated content that have negatively impacted fandom. The Marion Zimmer Bradley controversy, and the Harry Potter Lexicon trial are among the best known. The Lord of the Rings fandom has a history that goes back long before the Internet, and they've had their share of scuffles with the Tolkien estate already.

And then there's the little matter of the fandom culture, which works largely through a gift-based economy. If you think that copyright owners are protective of their material, they are nothing compared to the writers and artists who make up these tight-knit fan communities. Fanfiction writers are largely hobbyists, and many don't aspire to be anything else. Some may be trying to sharpen their writing skills and become published writers of original fiction, and there are a few notables using pseudonyms (shhhh!) who already are, but in the fandom sandbox the stories are written for the benefit of other fans and for the love the source material. Profit is not part of the equation. Staying under the radar and out of trouble with copyright holders is - pseudonyms are de rigeur. Fanfiction writers will use existing social networking platforms and fan-run archive sites to facilitate sharing their stories, but providing the content for a corporate venture trying to monetize the fandom is another matter entirely. Fears of exploitation and mismanagement by those who don't understand the risks and the unwritten rules of the fanfiction community are very real.

It isn't clear what changes will be made to under the new management, but it probably won't be something as simple as adding banner ads to the site. Being for profit means the site will become more visible to attract more users, and the new owners will almost certainly move to minimize potential risks. Stories with adult content will be the first to go. Any material deemed controversial or problematic may follow. Writers may have to give up the rights to the stories they post on the site, and be subject to outside censorship and editing. The additional attention brought upon the community will put fanfiction writers under increased scrutiny, but you can count on a new Terms of Service agreement putting all legal responsibility for any infringement claims upon the writers. This is what happened the last time a group of business folk got together to try and create a for-profit fanfiction website, FanLib, which lasted less than eighteen months. What are the fanfiction writers supposed to get out of monetization? Possibly more recognition and acceptance by the mainstream, which I doubt the bulk of fandom even wants. Is it any wonder that many writers are leaving before this happens, and taking their stories and readership with them?

In general, fan work and corporations do not mix well. There are too many potential landmines on the business end, related to thorny copyright legalities, privacy issues, and an extremely sensitive user base. As for the fanfiction, so much of it is about coloring outside the lines of the original source material, being critical, subversive, outrageous, and occasionally unflattering. Corporate oversight is not only unnecessary, but potentially harmful. Limitations placed on content will inevitably stifle creativity. Unfamiliarity with fandom mores may result in poor communication and mismanagement. Keith Mander may be the new owner of, but he's crazy if he thought he bought its community.

The Internet does not lack for fanfiction sites - anyone can make one these days - and fandom is nothing if not mobile.

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