Fandom under Fire: Thoughts on the Fanfiction.net Theft

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.

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11 Responses to “Fandom under Fire: Thoughts on the Fanfiction.net Theft”

  1. Independence1776 says:

    I am becoming more and more convinced that the giant archives simply do not care.

    Ff.net I gave up on years back, but AO3? This past year has rather driven home the point that it’s not as well-run as they appear. I know AO3 is volunteer-run, but it would not have been hard to reblog one of the numerous posts going around Tumblr. I can only assume the person or people running the blog thought that everyone had already seen it so there was no point in reblogging. (And on an unrelated note, we’re still waiting two months later for the promised post to explain the changes in the Silm name tags from Sindarin-name-only to Sindarin name | Quenya name.)

    I wish there was a fandom clearing house for news information, too. Not fests and exchanges like fandom_calender on Dreamwidth or the meta round-up comm also on that site– but actual news like this. And even if it did exist, it’s practically guaranteed through the sheer *size* of fandom that there will be large chunks of people who didn’t know about it. But that’s not a reason to not have it.

    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.

    But this? I’m damn proud of us. We have teeth and hopefully one day people will learn that.

    • Dawn says:

      I really thought Fanfiction.net would be motivated by profit if nothing else, as cynical as that sounds to say. But the fact of the matter is that they are a for-profit site, and if their potential visitors are being redirected elsewhere, then that is fewer eyeballs-turned-clicks for their obnoxious ads and less income for them. I long ago gave up that they cared about their users, which is why I stopped posting there years ago.

      When I contacted AO3 during the SWG plagiarism incident–since it seemed that the plagiarist was pulling content from AO3, then I thought they should know–then they exceeded my expectations. I thought I’d get a form letter or a really late reply, but I heard back within a day from Astrid, who was very forthright in sharing information they had amassed on the person. (And I in turn shared what we had and even gave them an admin login so that they could see what had been posted to our archive and was admin-only.) I was very impressed and hoped it meant my misgivings were wrong.

      I am less optimistic now. It seems a terrible oversight not to have reblogged the post about the theft. And it makes a difference for a site with authority to reblog something. Given the number of people affected, I would have thought it would have warranted a mention off Tumblr as well, but given the ease of reblogging, since at least that wasn’t done … well, color me disappointed.

      I supported OTW/AO3 and continue to do so. I think their hearts are in the right place, to use the cliche. Unfortunately, what worried me at the outset seems to be coming to pass: an organization that is crushing itself with its own weight (because we both know how hard it is to find volunteers, especially who can commit long-term, and they have a lot of projects), is giving priority to its organizational concerns (versus the concerns of its members), and has managed to create the illusion that, now that we have the OTW and AO3, then we don’t really need those other fandom sites. (I come back constantly to that person on Tumblr that, upon hearing about HASA closing, remarked something like, “This is the problem with small archives.” Yeah okay. Show me one potential problem with small archives–and I admit they do exist–and I will show you ten with large fandomwide institutions. This is one.)

      It has, if anything, strengthened my resolve to keep our small archives in Tolkien fandom running. (As though there was any doubt of that! :) )

      • Independence1776 says:

        I think ff.net is so big that it didn’t care– either that or they cared but let fandom take care of the problem rather than move their asses to do anything.

        I am less optimistic now. It seems a terrible oversight not to have reblogged the post about the theft. And it makes a difference for a site with authority to reblog something.

        Exactly. I can understand from a prodecural POV that they couldn’t make an official post about it on AO3 itself because it seems everything has to be translated first (though I don’t know if it’s an official by-law or not), and that ignoring the speed of how quickly things happened, but reblogging? That’s seconds of work and quite possibly reaches more people.

        And yet I look at what happened for the fic theft/ebook piracy website thing that happened last year where AO3 was directly involved as the victim site: there were blog posts, reblogs, and the whole nine yards. But when another major fic archive is harmed? Nada. (There is a very cynical part of me wondering if it’s because of bias against ff.net that they did nothing. But that’s almost too cynical even for me.)

        I have far less confidence in the OTW than you, partly because they’re so giant but largely because last year brought a lot of orgizational mismanagement to light. The OTW board currently has only two just-elected members because the rest of the board resigned en masse after it was discovered they’d rigged the board election to keep a friend in power and thus keep their majority vote. They were also operating without a budget and significant sums of money were kept in PayPal accounts, among other things.

        (As an aside, I’m still firmly in the fanfics-are-derivative-not-transformative camp so there is a bit of a values mismatch for me, though I do appreciate all the work they do for copyright and fandom history. I am honestly surprised and pleased that they’ve managed to keep that many projects going without suffering running out of volunteers.)

        has managed to create the illusion that, now that we have the OTW and AO3, then we don’t really need those other fandom sites.

        And, minus all the significant stuff, this is what irks me the most about AO3: they have indeed fostered that illusion. But I’d rather have smaller archives where I can email the mods and receive responses that seem to care about me as an individual user even if my requests can’t be accomodated– and where I feel like I’m part of the community rather than just one of a crowd.

        • Dawn says:

          But when another major fic archive is harmed?

          I think that is the unfortunate trend in fandom, in my experience. It’s something I think we do really well in Tolkien fandom, actually: Our sites/archives/institutions are really good about sharing information and helping each other out. It certainly wasn’t always that way, but I fail to see how that insular mindset is anything but harmful. I figure we’re all in this together. We share interests more often than not.

          after it was discovered they’d rigged the board election to keep a friend in power and thus keep their majority vote.

          WOW. I missed that. (Not surprisingly since I’ve been out of the loop for quite some time now.) Politics corrupt even in fandom, it seems. I shouldn’t be surprised.

          But I’d rather have smaller archives where I can email the mods and receive responses that seem to care about me as an individual user even if my requests can’t be accomodated– and where I feel like I’m part of the community rather than just one of a crowd.

          Me too. But I’m skeptical generally of large institutions. I have never found they serve me well, in a large part because I tend to end up in the margins. This is the case in RL and fandom too. It’s totally in-character that I should be monofandom for a tiny fandom for a book most people have never heard of. 😉

          I personally see a place for both small fandom-specific archives and large panfandom archives. I truly believe we need both. But I do become resentful when I see people talk about Tolkien fandom like it is confined to AO3 or Tumblr, failing to recognize the rather unique aspect of Tolkien fandom: that we have many, many sites and events that we have created over the years independently of OTW/AO3 and Tumblr (in many cases, of any preexisting sites at all). The only other fandom I’ve found with close to the number of independent archives as we have is Harry Potter.

          It rather reminds me of when Walmart and Target and places like that rose in popularity. The idea of getting everything in one place seemed novel, not to mention convenient. I remember when Target came to our area and it was even fun to shop there! Many years later, we’ve realized the grave error in letting so many locally owned and independent places die out. Suddenly, relying almost solely on those large institutions didn’t seem in our best interest …

          That’s not to say that there’s no place for Walmart and Target, or AO3 and FF.net. But I also think there’s a risk in not supporting the kinds of places where you can speak to someone from within your own community, who shares your fan culture and concerns.

          • Independence1776 says:

            It certainly wasn’t always that way, but I fail to see how that insular mindset is anything but harmful. I figure we’re all in this together. We share interests more often than not.

            Yup. Which is why I’m horrified AO3 didn’t do more. For all its vaunted talk about fandom, it suddenly seems that it doesn’t matter if you’re not the right kind of fan or an archive people love to hate.

            WOW. I missed that. (Not surprisingly since I’ve been out of the loop for quite some time now.) Politics corrupt even in fandom, it seems. I shouldn’t be surprised.

            The in-culture there has apparently been terrible for some time (which I don’t have all the details on, just heard people talking here and there during the fallout from the election scandal). I was wrong about a detail, though: the board has more than two members now; they brought in everyone who ran for a spot.

            If you want to read more about the scandal: here , here, and here. And here’s observer’s post that does a great recap.

            personally see a place for both small fandom-specific archives and large panfandom archives. I truly believe we need both.

            I do, too. Multi-fandom archives are great for finding and posting fic if you’re multifandom or whatnot. But they’re hard to find communities in (which is probably why ff.net has forums; it’s a draw for the site rather than a negative: all-inclusive fanfic site!).

            But I do become resentful when I see people talk about Tolkien fandom like it is confined to AO3 or Tumblr, failing to recognize the rather unique aspect of Tolkien fandom:

            I am resentful. Resentful enough that I don’t use AO3 for Silm fandom (it’s my only place for my other fandoms) near as often as I should because I’m the fandom dinosaur in the corner grumbling about people ignoring fandom history and pretending that AO3 and Tumblr are the be-all and end-all. And then to slowly learn that they’re reading on SWG but not doing anything else there…

            But I also think there’s a risk in not supporting the kinds of places where you can speak to someone from within your own community, who shares your fan culture and concerns.

            Exactly.

          • Dawn says:

            I just read the links and … wow again. What a mess. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next year. I’ll definitely be trying to keep up with that once the t-word is done.

            It’s definitely a reminder that nothing’s for certain in fandom. The criticism–and a valid one–against small archives is always that a single owner could make the unilateral decision to shut down a site or even become incapacitated or die, or just close up shop overnight. But I think this definitely shows that even large archives aren’t unassailable. There is a comment on one of the posts above where a user asks a disturbing question: If all the Board has resigned and yet still has access to the finances (which have not been properly documented), then what’s to stop them from giving themselves a parting gift? The incoming Board members could only reply that they didn’t have access until 1 December and offer the rather tepid “We’ve been given no indication that funds are in danger.” Well no shit. Someone planning to steal from a nonprofit isn’t going to announce it, and with the lack of budgets, it might happen and no one would know. It might have been happening with no one knowing. A small site could weather, say, the owner deciding she doesn’t want to pay for hosting anymore. A dozen SWG members could donate 10 bucks each and just about keep us afloat for a year. Large archives are expensive and complicated, the online equivalent of bailing out the Titanic versus rescuing a small craft in peril. It’s not a simple matter of someone stepping in. (With the added complication that the OTW bylaws themselves seem to have opened the potential for abuse. No one wants to think that your entire Board could go rotten, but it’s surprising that in the drafting of those bylaws, emergency measure to give power to a newly elected or appointed Board member wasn’t written in for contingencies such as these. Organizations experience conflict all the time; you’re not going to convince me that no one imagined something like this was possible.)

            I am just very leery of leaning too hard on one site or archive, and I would caution the same of someone storing all their work with the SWG or MPTT, and I own and work on those sites, respectively! In the former case, I know that I’ve gone so far as to speak to my husband about what to do if I become incapacitated and can’t run the SWG. I know that I have contingency plans in place, and I know that I would never betray the site’s members, no matter how my own views on fandom might change. But I wouldn’t expect anyone but me to trust me that fully. And I see a lot of people leaning entirely on AO3 under the impression that it’s huge, unassailable, fan-run, and legit. They’re just more trusting than me.

          • Independence1776 says:

            Definitely a mess, but I’m not paying overly much attention now. I have enough on my plate.

            That money question… When I read it on the blog, it sent chills down my spine. Because no one could say! Reassurances it hasn’t/wouldn’t happen don’t mean much when there’s visible, blatant corruption. (And the by-laws: I’m sure someone thought of it and it was dismissed as “we’ll never need it.”)

            I don’t like leaning on one site, either. HASA drove that home and was the main reason I crossposted most of my Silmfic to AO3. (There’s still three or four that aren’t, but two are ficlet collections, one’s not a good fit for AO3’s audience, and the last is personal enough I don’t feel comfortable putting it on AO3 for a wider audience.) And yet… my non-Tolkien fic has nowhere else to go because I haven’t used ff.net for years and don’t want to start again. I’ve crossposted all of them to Dreamwidth, but it still doesn’t feel like enough.

            And I see a lot of people leaning entirely on AO3 under the impression that it’s huge, unassailable, fan-run, and legit. They’re just more trusting than me.

            Me, too. Giant archives have problems and AO3 suffers from them. I’m also fairly sure that the majority of AO3 users never knew about the election problems because I think they’d be a bit less trusting of the “AO3/OTW knows best” attitude. Just because it’s fan-run doesn’t mean it’s perfect.

            (They just posted the “this is why the tags changed” post… and it’s clearly a matter of prioritizing their guidelines over users’ complaints.)

  2. Oshun says:

    I wonder if AO3 is non-responsive at time for reasons of too cumbersome bureaucracy and its systems. Everyone who doesn’t like the new Silmarillion character tags is going mad at getting the same form letters in response to their inquiries, at times not even relevant! Who knows. There is no doubt it’s huge and cumbersome. It would easy to nickle and dime it to death, which I would hate to see happen. I just wish it were not too big for flexibility and quick reactions.

    • Dawn says:

      I’m sure it is. If running a fandom site has taught me anything, it is that everything takes longer than you’d think it should, and it’s nearly impossible to find dependable volunteers. Some people will sign up for a one-time thing, like making banners, but to find someone willing to do the day-to-day drudgery for years on end? And I can’t say I blame them; I’ve sacrificed a lot of writing time to my admin duties over the years! I know YOU know of what I speak! 😉

      I’m sure OTW/AO3 faces the same problems.

      I just commented to Indy that for every one potential problem on a small archive, I see ten on a large one. (I am admittedly biased!) But making decisions that impact users in a specific fandom without taking their opinions into account is one of them. It’s easy to forget how these seemingly small issues actually have a lot of impact (and politics!) within the fandom they affect.

      When we make those decisions on the SWG, they are discussed (often argued!) ad nauseum by our mods, and if it is something that we think our members would have strong views on, then we open it to member comment before making those changes. But we can do that when we’re talking about maybe a few dozen people active on the site at any moment in time.

      I honestly wouldn’t have expected to see the Fanfiction.net theft on their websites; it happened so fast, and we didn’t get it on the SWG site either. But it takes all of ten seconds to reblog something, and the day that I managed to find a few hours to pull together all that we knew about the incident to post to the LJs of SWG and MPTT, the OTW blog reblogged about a half-dozen cute fandom posts. They could have spared another ten seconds for this one!

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