… isn’t actually that unscrupulous people use the Internet to make a quick and easy buck on the backs of others. Duh. It’s actually been kind of cute to me when I run across the occasional rant along the lines of, “Why are they doing this? Don’t they understand that they are hurting us and should stop?!” Like, yes, they know. They know and don’t give a damn. Welcome to the Internet?
… also isn’t the amount of time I’ve put into this (and I’m supposed to be on hiatus, lolol) and that I suspect at least Rhapsody and probably many, many more people whom I don’t know have put into this. These are my friends, my own kind: writers who lack legitimacy and very often aren’t given even basic respect by the general public. Every moment spent protecting what we do have is time well-spent.
What is the saddest about this whole thing is not only how uneducated many fan fiction writers are about their rights but how vocal they are in asserting that they/we don’t have rights and therefore can’t/shouldn’t do anything.
It is Fair Use Week, so this post seems timely in that regard.
Because, yes, you do have rights, even if you are “just” a fan fiction writer. The line of thinking seems to go something like, “We are using other writers’ worlds and characters, so what we make is open to anyone to do anything with, kind of like if it was in the public domain” or “What we are doing is already illegal, so we can hardly claim to have ‘rights’ after we’ve robbed other authors of theirs.” There is so much self-denigration implied in these arguments that it makes me a little bit sick and a little bit sad.
When all this first went down and those five sites disappeared after just a few days, I remarked to Rhapsody that someone probably thought we were just a bunch of dumb fangirls and would make easy marks and how satisfying it felt to prove them wrong. But so many fanfic writers have internalized the hatred and disdain aimed at their creative work that they do become easy marks because they stop believing themselves–and their work–worth defending.
The Organization for Transformative Works’ FAQ (scroll down to Legal) provides succinct answers to a lot of the common questions about the legality of fanfic. The legal issues surrounding copyright, fair use, and therefore fanfic are ridiculously complicated. There is, for one, the fact that every country has different laws. There is disagreement on whether fan fiction is derivative or transformative and how that influences its legal status. I will refer to U.S law here because I’m located in the U.S. and most of the major archives are as well (including Fanfiction.net, the archive violated by Talkfictions). The line oft-spoken is that “fanfic occupies a legal gray area.” All that means is that the courts have not decided either way about the legal status of fanfic (or other fanworks), although they have “held that transformative uses receive special consideration in fair use analysis” (source: OTW FAQ: Legal). Since a strong case can be made for the legality of fanworks, writing off your rights because you’re “doing something illegal” is preemptive and unfounded.
The fact that, in the minds of many creators, “gray areas” gets turned into “shadows,” implying illicit, hidden activity is indicative of the self-deprecation I have encountered again and again in trying to spread the word about this incident. And, as I noted above, this is not merely an ennui toward taking action on one’s own behalf; it often takes shape as an active attempt to prevent others from taking action on their behalf. Ironically, I have seen the vast majority of this on Fanfiction.net among the very writers with the most at stake. I get the sense sometimes that some of these authors believe that we are getting our due punishment for doing what we do.
So let me spell out a few basics that I wish I could inject into all of these conversations:
- Unless you place your work in the public domain, then you hold the copyright to it. Yes, even if it is “just” fanfic.
- It is your work. It does not belong to the original creator because you used Maedhros or Poe Dameron or set it on the Enterprise or at Hogwarts. Yes, the original creator retains their own rights to their original creations, but that doesn’t nullify your rights or mean that your rights or your work are somehow subsumed into theirs.
- People do not have permission to post your work in print or online without your permission. Full stop. Fanfic, o-fic, it doesn’t matter–it really IS that simple. (Of course, getting those rights respected on the Internet–an international entity at best and a lawless one at its worst–is a much more complicated matter, but you have every right to try and don’t let anyone tell you differently.)
As someone who has come around to be proud of and celebrate my fanworks, it is hard to see other creators who seem to feel that they don’t even have the right to exist and even deserve their “just desserts” for writing fan fiction. But I can certainly understand why that is. I went through it myself.
There is, of course, the long-running tendency to demean fandom and fan fiction in particular. The mainstream media has come around a little–we get the occasional neutral or even positive article on fan fiction now–but decades of damage are hard to undue. There are also the painful words of authors whom fan writers respect–even create fanworks for their work, or want to–who surface every now and again to remind their most dedicated of fans that they are lazy cheats and usually bad writers and perverts to boot.
There is also the fact that most fanfic writers–and this is especially true on Fanfiction.net–are young. (The median age if respondents to my Tolkien fan fiction survey was 24; Centrumlumina’s AO3 survey showed a median age of 22-24. I don’t think many would doubt that Fanfiction.net users trend younger, possibly much younger.) I remember being an older teenager or young twentysomething: having arrived at the age where merely reading was not enough but where I was suddenly expected to read the right things. I remember my AP English teacher–otherwise a wonderful teacher whom I still respect and admire–declaring Stephen King, one of my favorite authors at the time, as unworthy of our attention as advanced students with maturing tastes. There was always the sense that what I loved and wanted to read and write about at that age wasn’t what I should be reading and writing about. No doubt many young authors on Fanfiction.net feel that way about their writing there.
Then there is the fact that the vast majority of fan writers are women (89% according to my Tolkien fanfic survey; 80% according to Centrumlumina’s survey; only 4% male according to both of our surveys), and women writers receive the message both overtly and subtly that their work is of less value than the writing of men. Men still dominate in mainstream journalism, publishing, and award nominations. Even when the mainstream media wants to give a positive nod to fan fiction, they nod overwhelmingly at the work of men, even though the overwhelming amount of fan fiction is written by women. Women’s writing is niche–think chicklit, think rom-coms–and is viewed as light, as frivolous, as a guilty pleasure, as trash, as something to be endured by men trying to placate (or get laid by) women. How men and relationships with (or between) men are written by women is seen as wrong, but how men write women or relationships with (or between) women goes largely unquestioned. A tender m/m slash pairing earns derision and scorn as “female wish-fulfillment” but shrill, humorless harpies as a comic device are still omnipresent in sitcoms, comedies, and even TV commercials and go unquestioned. It is no wonder that many fan fiction writers–who are including romance in their stories, eroticism, and are daring to look at the world through their female gaze–feel that their work is frivolous, stupid, and even shameful–and ultimately unworthy of being protected by the same laws and systems formed to protect the work of men.
I of course hope Talkfictions is taken down. It will be an enormous triumph for us as a fandom when it is because we will have done it by ourselves (unless the admins of Fanfiction.net decide to get off their asses and do something about it). But the saddest thing to me isn’t that there are thieves and scoundrels on the Internet but how many of their victims truly believe they deserve nothing better.
(This post on the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild LiveJournal is where much of the public discussion that uncovered Talkfictions occurred, and it is the post that I am updating first as soon as new information is discovered or new developments arise, so this is the post to refer to for the latest on what can be done about Talkfictions. We now have an email for the host, and I encourage all authors whose work was stolen by Talkfictions to file an abuse complaint with the host at email@example.com; the link at the top of this paragraph has a sample email to send. I am also trying to keep my tumblr updated with new developments as they arise.)