Fanfiction: as a Community and a Commodity

Introduction

Fanfiction is not a new phenomenon, although it is one which is rapidly growing in popularity as shown by the fact that “Google has over 1.2 million results for a search of the phrase ‘fanfiction’.” However, the fanfiction community long predates the internet, with records of Star Trek fanfiction going back to the 1960s. Pre-internet fanfiction took the form of “self-published and distributed fanzines”. This method, however, was slow and expensive for the fanfiction authors as the zines would be distributed free of charge. Fanfiction did not become easily accessible until the 1990s, when it began it’s to move to the internet. This initially took the form of mail lists and forums, until the 15 October 1998 when fanfiction.net was launched.

Legalities and Copyright

“It upsets me terribly to even think about fanfiction with my character”

Despite its growing popularity, however, the legalities of fanfiction have always been rather ambiguous. Some works are considered ‘safe’ as the original content is old enough to no longer fall under copyright – for example, Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a retelling of Austen’s classic, published in 2009. The majority of fanfiction though, focuses on recent works and therefore runs the risk of being found in breach of copyright.

The decision on whether or not fanfiction is tolerated tends to be at the discretion of the author. Anne Rice, in particular, has gained a reputation for being firmly opposed to fanfiction, and willing to incite legal action in cases where she feels her copyright has been infringed. She stated on her website: “I do not allow fanfiction. The characters are
copyrighted. It upsets me terribly to even think about fanfiction with my character.” In accordance with her wishes, it is now a stipulation on the fanfiction.net guidelines that they will not host works by Anne Rice or other authors who have released similar statements.

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Even J. K. Rowling who is known to be rather tolerant of fanfiction has sued certain sites, for example Shadow-Wrapped.net or The Harry Potter Lexicon, to “protect the integrity of the Harry Potter properties”. This specifically focuses on sexually explicit works of fanfiction, which Rowling objects to, as the original book series was aimed at children.

The cases determining whether or not a fanfiction breaches copyright are not always so clear cut. “Courts have been more willing to protect “transformative” unauthorised uses against copyright owners’ allegations of infringement”.

An example of this would be Alice Randall’s book The Wind Done Gone, fanfiction of Margaret Mitchell’s, Gone With The Wind. The courts decided that Randall’s adaptation was acceptable because it retold the story from the perspective of a new character and criticised the racism of the original work.

Despite these particularly antagonistic cases, most works of fanfiction do not gain that notoriety and many authors even endorse it. Orson Scott Card, for example, said; “every piece of fanfiction is an ad for my book. What kind of an idiot would I be to want that to disappear?” In general therefore the attitude towards fanfiction was one of ambivalence, “the unspoken rule when it came to fan art, fanfiction and other creations was that, if you weren’t making money from it, rights holders would typically tolerate it.”

The commodification of fanfiction

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While this may have been the case of unofficial, none-profit fanfiction the concept of fanfiction as a commodity is swiftly growing. This is largely due to E. L. James’ published fanfiction, Fifty Shades of Grey, which originated on fanfiction.net as Master of the Universe, under the penname Snowqueen’s icedragon  . James was not the first author, whose successful writing career originated in fanfiction, but she was the first to gain such popularity, selling “125 million copies of her books worldwide” and making £75 million. In 2007, Cassandra Clare published the first of her Mortal Instruments series which was heavily based on her Harry Potter fanfiction first commercial publishing platform that will enable any writer to create fanfiction based on a range of original stories and characters and earn royalties for doing so.”and has since been adapted into a movie and a Netflix Original Series.  Another notable author who began her career as a fanfiction writer is Teen author Meg Cabot who originally wrote official Star Trek fanfiction.

With such blatant evidence that fanfiction is a profitable venture, it is little wonder that Amazon has decided to get involved and announced the launch of Kindle Worlds – “a publishing platform that lets anyone publish content set in licenced worlds.”  The platform works on the basis that Amazon has bought the rights to several books and T.V shows. While the extent of the properties that Amazon owns has not been announced they have mentioned Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars in relation to the Kindle. Kindle Worlds is therefore the “first commercial publishing platform that will enable any writer to create fanfiction based on a range of original stories and characters and earn royalties for doing so.” The platform is run with the permission of the copyright holders, removing the legal issues of fanfiction.net or fanfiction authors attempting to publish their work without the original authors’ permission. Unlike fanfiction.net, the works must fit certain requirements before they can be sold on the platform thus alleviating the issue of unedited and poor quality fanfiction.

“the first commercial publishing platform that will enable any writer to create fanfiction based on a range of original stories and characters and earn royalties for doing so.”

In addition to this, Amazon will also be launching a different programme specifically for the shorter fanfiction. The works published on this programme will be between 5,000 and 10,000 words as opposed to Kindle World which will only accept publications of over 10,000 words.
This does however bring up some of the issues that Kindle World poses for fanfiction authors. Firstly: “the story you write must be over 10,000 words to be considered for compensation.” Meaning that, much like on fanfiction.net you will be publishing your story for free. The only difference will be that, unlike on fanfiction.net, Amazon will still be making money off your publication.

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The more pressing concern though, is the fact that once published on Kindle World, Amazon will gain a significant amount of control over the work. The author will gain 35% of their stories net revenue, however, they will not be allowed to promote themselves as being a writer for Kindle World and they will be unable to share more than 20% of the story online.  As well as this, Amazon will be able to “promote it and use it in any way it likes, including any original characters or places you have created within their story.” So, while the idea of Amazon’s Kindle World may appeal to some fanfiction authors, especially as it is a way of getting compensation for their fanfiction without the copyright risks of publishing it as an independent novel, it does mean that the author will lose a lot of control over their work.

The Future of Fanfiction

So what are these changes doing to the Fanfiction Community? Well for one thing, to quote Henry Jenkins: fanfiction has never been “commercial commodities sold to customers; they are artifacts shared with friends and potential friends”. This commercialisation of fanfiction may be perceived as good for the individual but damaging for the fanfiction community. Authors are more likely to take umbrage to fanfiction if there is a higher likelihood of it being published or commercialised as is can be seen as “creating a form of competition or trading on the original’s reputation, thus adversely affecting the original”.

“authors such as James and Clare can be considered to be taking advantage of the community”

In addition to this, authors such as James and Clare can be considered to be taking advantage of the community, using it to launch their career and then refusing to acknowledge the fan-base that helped them get there. Part of the controversy surrounding James novel included the fact that her “commercial success was perceived to come on the backs of those fans who may have contributed for reasons other than financial”. Many felt betrayed by her move to mainstream media and in particular the way that she is now targeting works which she considers derivative of Fifty Shades of Grey. Clare faced similar criticism, particularly for the fact that her work had actually been removed from fanfiction.net for violating the terms of service, and her account was under investigation after claims that her story plagiarised other fanfiction and published works.

In conclusion, though fanfiction moving into the mainstream and becoming more commercialised may be a good thing for the individual writing the fanfiction, we should “avoid celebrating a process that commodifies fan cultural production and sells it back to us with a considerable mark-up”, particularly one which can be seen as damaging towards the community that these fan productions came from.

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