Recently, on a list where I lurk, the owner made a post banning “remix” stories where an author takes an existing fanwork and rewrites it. And when I say “banning,” I don’t just mean that such stories are not allowed but anyone found writing them, even on locked groups, will be banned.
(ETA: I want to clarify that remixes without permission of the original author are what is being banned.)
Now, I want to be perfectly clear that I am not criticizing the group owner’s decision about what is and is not allowed on a particular group or archive. I remain strong in my belief that this right belongs to group owners; anyone who doesn’t like it can vote with their feet and move on to another group or archive or start their own. There are groups to which I do not belong because I have strong objections to their fundamental principles and rules. I am not objecting to this particular rule. If I was, I would simply leave the group and skip writing a post about it.
What I find curious is the outrage that people feel toward “remixed” fanworks and what this says about our ideas about the ownership of artistic works. This is not the first time that I’ve encountered this idea, although it’s the first time that I’ve seen it incorporated into a group’s rules. Not too long ago, while doing maintenance on one of the sites I manage, I found a user profile that took similar umbrage to people using her original characters without her permission. (Whether this is because someone actually had used her characters or was a preemptive warning I don’t know.) And, in discussing the legal and ethical basis of derivative and transformative works, I have seen authors make similar avowals, that though they write stories based on another author’s work, they would not want stories written based on their own work.
Of course, no one who makes these claims is disingenuous enough to avoid the question of hypocrisy. Generally, this is resolved by pointing out that 1) Tolkien indicated in his letters that he wanted his work carried on by other artists and 2) the Tolkien Estate has made no move to shut down derivative and transformative work based on his books. To the first, yes, this is true:
I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.
~Letter 131 to Milton Waldman
More on that in a moment. To the second point, I hesitate to interpret the Tolkien Estate’s relative silence on fanworks as tacit approval. Since derivative and transformative works currently occupy a vast legal gray area and since lawyerly types provide good rationale why a challenge to the legality of fanworks quite possibly would expand protections of those works, then it seems just as likely to me that rights holders that currently wield some power to control works created at the fringes of that gray area don’t want more distinct legal definitions to make legal what they’d rather repress.
Personally, I’ve always been entirely laissez-faire with respect to my Tolkien-based works and published original works. I am stricter with respect to my unpublished original works simply because allowing aspects of those works to be made public would “use up” my first rights, which would eliminate most markets–and almost all of the good markets–where that work could be published. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever written anything based on my original work. However, plenty of other Tolkien writers have used aspects of my stories–from details, like names and timelines, to wholly lifting the universe as a setting for their own stories–in creating their own work. Do I care? Nope. I’ve never discovered my work being used without my knowledge. Would I care if I did? Nope. When people email me and ask if they can use details or the whole universe, I always grant permission and tell them that they don’t need to ask me again in the future. Credit is nice because that is the expectation whenever using someone else’s creation, but I don’t expect people to ask for permission to name Maglor’s wife Vingarië or to have Caranthir skilled in osanwë-kenta. Nor do I care if they decided that I did everything all wrong and decide to provide their own take on the questions my stories address. In fact, Another Man’s Cage was borne out of a desire to show the Fëanorians’ side of the story, which at the time wasn’t being widely addressed on the sites where I read. I have always felt that this community’s ability to use art and fiction as a means of expressing opinion and engendering debate is one of its virtues. I would much rather every hateful reviewer on fanfiction.net devote her energy to crafting the stories she’d like to read, to contributing her own perspectives to the ongoing discussion of canon. In fact, I’ve suggested to more than one of them that they do just that.
Given all of that, I find the opposition to using existing fanworks to develop one’s own stories a curious but ultimately illustrative perspective about our perception of the “ownership” of creative work. I’m sure that some of the people who declare their fanworks off-limits have also criticized authors like Robin Hobb and, more recently, Diana Gabaldon who voiced very vocal objections to people writing stories using their characters and universes. Both authors have been mocked by members of fandom for having unhealthy attachments to characters and scorned for their desire to control the way readers think about their stories. How do you reconcile criticism of published authors holding those views with acceptance of fan authors who experience similar horror, disgust, and disapproval at the notion of having their stories “used” by someone else?
I think it shows how close many of us share Hobb and Gabaldon’s views, whether we like it or not. It’s easy to tell a creator to get over the use of her work in ways she doesn’t expect or approve of. It’s a bit harder when it’s your precious character or your well-reasoned perspective that is being “trashed” by someone else. I say this with full admission that my own laissez-faire attitude doesn’t come easily. I can’t say that I would be happy to discover a canatic’s version of AMC up on the web. Or my original stories reduced to porn. I would feel that my work and its purpose were being misunderstood. But, ultimately, I would accept the author’s right to “misunderstand” my work however much she wanted because I believe deeply in the importance of this right.
It is the right that underlies all derivative and transformative work. It is the acknowledgment that creative people will usually respond creatively when faced with strong emotions, be that love or loathing, and that to place some works off-limits to creative transformation is repressive of creativity. It is recognition of the fact that, as humans, our first response to art has always been to redo it or retell it, to personalize it to our own beliefs or experiences, to make it our own.
Judging by the letter above to Milton Waldman, Tolkien knew that. He knew that great myths and stories didn’t arise from a single source but became part of the cultures to which they belonged, which required giving access to those stories to all members of that culture. If we choose to believe that our stories, poems, and art based on his books are carrying on his legacy rather than robbing him of it, then I think we need to think as well about how we respond when others take the same freedom with our own work.
ETA (16 June 2010): Nora Charles has this post on Dreamwidth about remixes, including links to a remix challenge posed by the original creators that went horribly wrong when a story was posted that was unexpectedly critical of the original universe. It’s an interesting look at some of the issues that arise from writing in a shared universe, as we all more or less do.