Probably everyone knows by now that there was a recent theft of stories from FanFiction.net and FictionPress.com. The fact that I can say with confidence that those authors affected by this likely already know about it (at least on the FanFiction.net end) is largely the point of my post.
In my decade or so of involvement in fandom, I’ve seen fandom experience crises like this on several occasions. As a quick recap for my non-fanficcers out there, it came to light about a week ago that several sites had set up mirrors of FanFiction.net and FictionPress.com content. The mirrored pages were, of course, riddled with ads and malware, as tends to be the case with these kinds of scams, but more importantly, they had stolen the creative work of thousands of people and were using it without their consent to turn a dubious profit. Since most fanfic writers–even those who detest FanFiction.net (like me)–have at least some of their content on that site, the effects were far-reaching. Most crises tend to impact just a portion of the fandom (like the buying up of LotRFanFiction.com by Keith Mander) or rile up all of fandom but don’t actually impact our rights as artists (like *insert famous author here* saying something ignorant about fan fiction). This was probably the biggest crisis I’ve seen in my decade in fandom, being both fandom-wide and of tangible consequence to thousands of authors.
A few thoughts come out of this. First of all, I am impressed, even a little awed, by our effectiveness as a community in dealing with issues like this. Or the short version: Don’t fuck with fandom. As I write this, five of the six illegal sites have been taken down through our efforts, and we are working on getting the sixth removed. I became aware of the issue through a Tumblr post about it by Rhov that was picked up by the SWG’s tumblr. As of my writing this, Rhov’s post has more than 28,000 notes and 22,000 page views. On the Tolkien fandom side, Rhov’s alert began to trickle over to LJ, and it was picked up by Dreamflower of LotRGen/Many Paths to Tread, posted on Faerie by Spiced Wine, and posted on the SWG’s LJ by yours truly. In multiple of these places, information-sharing and brainstorming began, and within a couple of days, we had found ample hosting and contact information to actually have the sites shut down.
As word began to get out that the sites were going offline, I couldn’t help but imagine that the person or persons who orchestrated this was staring in dismay, jaw dropped, as their sites began to disappear. Their sites that they paid money to host and spent time to set up and that lasted, what? Less than a week? They probably imagined us as easy marks, as fluffy-headed fangirls who probably wouldn’t notice, wouldn’t be smart enough to care, and wouldn’t know what to do if we did. They were incredibly wrong on that.
Time and again, I have found fandom to be an invaluable brain trust. Someone always knows. And once that person shares information or a good idea, chances are that it will be picked up and shared. As a community, we are the quintessence of powerlessness. As far as we’ve come in recent decades, I still read far too many articles in scholarly publications or the mainstream media about fanworks that spend an undue among of time defending the legality and legitimacy of what we do. We are still often stuck defending our very right to exist. Many of us believe that we don’t have rights and that we should be grateful just to be ignored. No one cares when we speak up. No one is rushing to defend us or help us. More often than not, we’re on our own. But therein, we have numbers on our side, and many of those people are smart and savvy and aren’t content to be simply ignored. And despite our lack of power and the lack of respect for what we do, we do get things done as a result.
Once again and repeating the refrain I’ve been saying for the better part of a decade, I find myself sorely disappointed in FanFiction.net. When the news about the theft broke, I did not support flooding them with notifications and demands, as some were advocating. I’m a site admin myself, and I know how these things work behind the scenes. They are incredibly time-consuming and fielding message after message about it, no matter how well-intentioned, wasn’t going to be productive for the site admins. But I had faith that, as soon as they knew about the issue, they’d be working on it. After all, their intellectual property was also stolen, and these mirror sites had the potential to disrupt not only their sites’ profit but also reputation. They presumably had more at stake than we did The profit, if nothing else, I assumed would motivate them. I was wrong. As far as I can tell, they’ve done nothing–at least, they’ve posted nothing on their site or social media to make me think otherwise. I’ve tweeted them multiple times with no response.
The fact is that a DMCA takedown notice from two major websites to the hosts of these sites would have had much more clout than the trickle of reports of a stolen story here, a stolen profile there that we authors have been able to report. But once again, it seems that FanFiction.net has left their authors and their members to solve their big problems for them. This is beyond disappointing and reminds me why, when I get the urge every couple of years to resume using my account there, I decide against it.
And I have (and hate) to say it, but I was disappointed in the OTW too. Over the past few days, I keep finding myself asking, “What can we do to make getting this kind of information out more efficient and centralized? Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a single place that everyone in fandom knew and could check that could serve as a clearinghouse for information?” Because, despite our success so far, there were major weaknesses. Most of the activity occurred on Tumblr, which is a terrible platform for discussion and information-sharing. Within a day of word reaching an old-school Yahoo! mailing list and subsequently LiveJournal, the hosts of the sites were discovered. People could ask questions or share knowledge without wondering if that question was already asked or that knowledge already shared eighty pages of notes ago. The response was fragmented. Information made the rounds on Tumblr for days before making it to other fandom sites. And just yesterday, I found a group on FanFiction.net that was completely out of the loop, fumbling around trying to figure out what to do, and making suggestions that were dangerous (trying to log into the sham sites to modify their profiles) or just plain wrong (that the sham sites were perfectly legal and nothing could be done).
So I find myself wondering what can be done to bring us all under one umbrella, so to speak, so that when something like this happens, everyone is clear, “That is where I should go to find and share information on this.” And then I remember, “Oh yeah, wasn’t that very question after a crisis related to LiveJournal the reason the OTW was created??” Yet they were completely silent about this. Did they not know about it? How could that be? Their tumblr has been active, reblogging cute comics and fandom in-jokes, but managed to miss all of the reblogs within those 28,000+ notes about the theft of thousands of fanworks? Or didn’t think it was important enough? Either way, I’m disturbed by it. I’ve always cautiously supported the OTW, agreeing with their mission but skeptical of any large entity that seeks to represent a community as diverse as fandom (and concerned always that such a large entity will reach the point where they can’t even leave their own gravitational field), and in this case, it seems that promoting their own content and agenda trumped speaking up on an issue that was probably of greater concern to their members than interviews with fanvidders or this year’s International Fanworks Day. I keep coming back to the fact that AO3 has meant that many writers have left or can’t be bothered with smaller archives, yet in the Tolkien community, it was precisely those smaller archives who managed to find the time to care and share information about this, even though our organizations ostensibly had less reason to be involved than the OTW.
In any case, once again, someone tried to do us harm and we banded together to stop them. No big institutions came to our rescue. They didn’t even offer assistance. Through literally thousands of small actions by thousands of people, we did what we came to do. A bad actor was stopped by us and us alone. By us.