The Fanfic Community Eats One of Its Own and Spits Out The Bones

Fascinating. A fanfic* writer decided to ask for money to write a couple of fanfic novels (or for money to take time to write novels, which would just happen to include two fanfic novels, wink, wink), and the fanfic community came down on her, hard, and with hobnailed boots. Because they know that playing other other people’s copyrighted characters is, well, illegal, but it’s largely ignored as long as everyone agrees to do it for love, not money. A fanfic writer asking for money for his or her fanfic is just the sort of thing to bring screaming hordes of lawyers down on fanfic. This is sort of the incredibly geeky version of a bunch of 1920s speakeasy owners deciding to rub out they guy who decides to advertise the address of his speaky in a full-page ad in the Chicago Tribune.

The fanfic writer has taken down the original post asking for money, but this being the Internet, people preserved the post, so you can see the original post here on Lee Goldberg’s site, along with commentary (Goldberg, who writes media tie-in novels among other things, is not particularly sympathetic to fanfic). Here’s the absolutely vitriolic comment thread it’s spawned, and here’s some additional commentary on the matter by Nick Mamatas, which if you know anything about Nick Mamatas’ online persona, is not exactly gentle toward this particular fanfic writer.

But don’t kid yourself: Goldberg and Mamatas are the sideshow to the fanfic community pile-on. Which, incidentally, worked, since the fanfic writer in question abandoned her idea to take money and also, in the wake of 500 messages, the majority of which were (heh) disapproving, decided to take a little break from the online world. But the sheer ferocity of the response is just boggling, and should answer any doubt on the part of non-fans as to whether most fanficers have a grip on reality. Clearly they do, because they understand what the penalties are for trying to cross the line, both to themselves and to their community.

Which brings up the question of why this particular fanfic writer didn’t seem to understand the penalties. Either she really was clueless about the whole copyright thing, which is possible but unlikely (to make what I am sure is going to be a not-popular comparison, people who smoke tons of weed grasp the notion that even if everyone they know tokes up, it’s still not something to flaunt in front of the cops), or she thought the community would tolerate this sort of activity. Or — and this is really the most logical explanation — she simply didn’t think about what she was doing beyond the anticipation of getting a little cash. Whatever the rationales behind asking for fanfic cash, I think it’s safe to guess she won’t be doing it again.

What this fanfic-er was planning to do was stupid and wrong, and to some extent she deserved to get stomped. As a fiction writer, I believe that a fanfic community for one’s properties is good news for the health of the property. I wish I had one myself. But make no mistake: If someone got the idea in his or her head to start making money off my characters and universe without my explicit permission, there would be trouble, possibly involving lawyers. Nasty ones, with sharp fangs and torts that leave unhealable paper cuts. But reading the comments in the thread does make me wonder if the fanfic community needed to respond to this writer’s plan with the vehemence that it did.

And you know what? I think maybe it did. I think being reasonable has its points, but in this case it wasn’t really a debate: From the fanfic point of view, this writer needed to be stopped before she wrecked the joint for everyone. Reasonable responses would have allowed the money-seeking writer a chance to rationalize her behavior and possibly decide to go ahead with it anyway (and indeed, the writer in question tried this tactic). Better in this case to be entirely unreasonable and basically shock the writer into a position of cowed submission to the group mind.

Which is of course exactly what happened: Group approbation at its finest. I feel sorry for this fanfic writer, who quite obviously didn’t expect this sort of reaction, but I also find the reaction to be a fascinating bit of groupthink theater. It also serves the secondary function of acting as a reminder to other would-be monetizers of the fanfic community that this is something one ought not do. After watching one of their own stoned and ostracized (and having the pummeling extensively linked to), it seems unlikely anyone else in the community with have this particular bright idea anytime soon.

All I can say is it makes me glad I write original fiction. It’s a hell of a lot less complicated.

* For the non-geeks, “fanfic” is amateur fiction set in an already existing world — Star Trek fans writing new stories about Captain Kirk is the canonical example. It’s illegal because most of those worlds are under copyright, but usually as long as everyone behaves and the fans don’t get uppity the copyright owners look the other way.

27 Comments on “The Fanfic Community Eats One of Its Own and Spits Out The Bones”

  1. Re: “Wicked” as derivative work… well, yes. But isn’t Baum’s work in the pubic domain due to him dying over 20 years ago, and no-one renewing it? It’s only copyright/trademark infringement if the rights have been kept up.

  2. I don’t have any problems with derivative works in the slightest; why would I? and I like the book Wicked, although I havn’t seen the musical.

  3. Why on earth do you think we spit out the bones? They’re nice and crunchy. And man, the marrow. Who wastes marrow?

    Anyway. The legal issues were a major reason to stop her, yeah. But what people are guessing is the real issue, the one that really squicked the other fans and turned this into the fandomwank darling it’s become, is the fact that fandom (at least online fandom) operates as a gift culture, and as a community. By asking to be paid, she devalued her membership in the community and the enjoyment she has derived as a member of it. She trampled merrily over the community norms there, and they — well, there’s a lot more of them, and they have bigger feet.

    (And of course that’s aside from the fact that it’s pretty OMGWTFBBQ to expect fandom to pick up the tab for a year’s writing when the advance on a novel — yup. Not so much.)

  4. “As a fiction writer, I believe that a fanfic community for one’s properties is good news for the health of the property. I wish I had one myself.”

    I wonder, if you (or some other writer) went out of your way to actively encourage fan fiction, even hosted a contest or something, would it spark a backlash from what seems to be a pretty organic community? Anybody know of authors who have tried something like this as part of a publicity plan?

  5. “She trampled merrily over the community norms there, and they — well, there’s a lot more of them, and they have bigger feet.”

    I would agree she seems to have transgressed against the community in a lot of different ways. It’s all so confusing!

  6. Er — and I just realized that my comment might be read as meaning that offline fandom, by contrast to online fandom, isn’t a gift culture or a community. Which wasn’t what I meant at all. What I meant there (and mangled) was that a) what I’m familiar with is online culture, and I can’t speak for offline culture in terms whether it works as a gift culture, but I do know quite well it’s a community; and b) offline culture, from what little I do know, is more forgiving of charging for fanfic, at least in the form of charging for printed zines (which opens a whole new kettle of spicy worms I’m not even looking at).

    Anon at 11:44

  7. I don’t know if this is the kind of thing you’re thinking of, Steve, but Marion Zimmer Bradley used to actively encourage people to write what amounts to Darkover fanfic. She had a series of novels about a world called Darkover, and she was enthusiastic about other people writing in that world (and using some of her same characters). She even edited anthologies of other people’s Darkover stories. If the introductions to those anthologies are any guide, her goal wasn’t publicity so much as it was community-building; she talked a lot about how writing in someone else’s universe could function as training wheels for a writer.

  8. From reading about this, she also lives with her parents and works part-time. That’s why the tops of people’s heads blew off when she claimed she didn’t have time to write.

  9. I agree with Susan — my first adult attempts at SF were Star Trek fanfic (posted at r.a.s-t.f, if I remember correctly — one was also reprinted in an Irish university cult tv mag). They were fun little stories, and the feedback on them taught me two things:

    1) I was a decent writer
    2) I would never make any money from fanfic

    Since I’m cheerfully capitalistic, I started writing and selling original SF (in the published small fry category, granted, but I’m working on it). I still love well-written fanfic, though, and I’d be quite chuffed if people who understood copyright law wrote fanfic based on my stories.

  10. Just to throw in a cross-pacific nickel…

    There’s a commercial market for fanfiction manga in Japan. It’s called doujinshi (and I have no idea what that translates to in a literal sense, but it means fanfic manga to me) and there’s TONS of it, and it gets sold, for money. Retailers pick buy and carry it. They have a giant market/swap-meet in Tokyo (Comics Party) a couple times a year, and it seems that the original work authors and publishers don’t mind.

    I guess part of the deal is that everybody knows that doujinshi is doujinshi, and nobody would mistake it for the legitmate work. (So, the author of Child’s-Book-Y won’t have their livelihood ruined by outraged parent’s groups when they see Pornographic-Doujinshi-based-on-Child’s-Book-Y). (FWIW, not all doujinshi is pornographic, but plenty is… rather like our own English language fanfic)

    Apparently, and this isn’t really related to the copyright issues… the doujinshi market is to the (high-output) manga industry what the minor-leagues are to MLB. Most people signed to write/draw their own books were first recognized as above-average doujinshi authors/artists.

  11. I suspect part of the reason she thought it might be accepted is because the “Ask for a bunch of money and you’ll get it” tactic has started working in other online channels. Web comic artists now do it routinely. I believe Randy Milholland was the first to get a year’s salary simply by asking. (Actually it wasn’t asking quite so much as yelling “Give me thirty thousand dollars and I’ll post daily and fix my spelling, otherwise shut up!” People gave him thirty thousand dollars. He was very surprised.) Others have done the same, and even fairly low-profile artists can still raise a thousand or two from time to time in exchange for more frequent updates. I exclude Penny Arcade from this discussion, as it stands on its own mountain far removed from other mortal webcomics.

    For that matter, it’s worked for me. My podcast pays authors for the rights to narrate their work, but it gives away the product. I balance this by asking for donations, and I’ve been getting them from a surprising percentage of my listeners. I won’t be living on it any time soon, but I’m at least starting to break even on the contracts.

    So I can see where this fanfic author might have gotten the idea. Sure, there are huge legal and moral differences here, but their hugeness isn’t always perceived equally by everyone. I suspect that, as Anonymous said above, the outrage here really came from somewhere else.

  12. “I suspect part of the reason she thought it might be accepted is because the ‘Ask for a bunch of money and you’ll get it’ tactic has started working in other online channels.”

    Heh. Speaking as someone who put his novel up as shareware so long ago that it was actually in another century when he did it, I am of course aware of this. But by and large those “contribute to support my output” cases were dealing with non-derivative works and not fanfic-esque stuff.

    The comments I read certainly showed outrage she was asking for money, but I don’t suspect it was because she was asking for cash, but that she was asking for cash for something that she didn’t own, in a community that by law and tradition remains steadfastly amateur. There was lots of subtext going on.

  13. Eric Flint, who publishes with Baen, actively encourages fanfic. He in fact published an anthology and a couple of online-only magazines that are largely fanfic, with a few “invited authors” — and a lot of those fanfic characters have gotten integrated into the mainline stories.

    The series is the 163x series, and they’re Good Clean Fun — i recommend checking them out. (And no, i’m not a shill for Baen or Flint — just an avid reader.)

  14. As I mentioned on my blog when I referenced this: “Even as somebody who’s rattled the donation cup online myself, I’ve got zero sympathy for this woman–not because, as one fan put it, she wanted ‘monetary compensation for a goddamned fucking hobby,’ but because of the difference between our “hobbies.” I mean, I’m doing whatever it is I’m doing here with the reportage and the commentary and the spotlights on other writers, and she’s basically the online equivalent of those guys you see hawking $5 bootleg DVDs on the sidewalk.”

  15. My issue was the “on spec” nature of the thing. When John did the shareware release HE ALREADY WROTE THE NOVEL. It was all there, in it’s glory. When Randy rang the bell, he’d already been providing good comic material for a while consistantly if not consistantly on time and promised (and failed, but let’s not go there) to do daily updates. So readers got what they paid for. And so on and so forth. There was none on this: Pay up front for something which may or may not materialize.

    Now, I know this fanfic author had already written a lot of fic (several novels worth, according to her) which had been received well (she says). But the author wasn’t offering up the “original” book she’d write (no, you’d still have to go buy that from the bookstore, presuming she sold the thing) but continuation of novels wherein she wasn’t the only author and therefore unlikely to be responsibile soley for the content w/o spiliting the money with the other 12-13 authors who helped write said novels. So, umm…. lemme get this straight. You want me to *give* you money when you haven’t given me a consistant solo project before now, and won’t after I give you the money, and what you are doing is borderline illegal. Yah, lemme think about that…. nope. My money. I’ll use it to launch my own book career thanks.

  16. So what about 8-Bit Theater? Anybody got an idea as to why Square hasn’t cracked down on that one? My guess is that Square likes the publicity. Final Fantasy is 15 years old, which is absolutely ancient by video-game standards. If anything, 8BT would just encourage people to buy stuff like FF Origins, and that’s well worth whatever small sum Brian Clevinger is getting by using the sprites. I could be wrong, though; maybe Square’s been too busy milking the cash cow to notice.


  17. I wish I had one myself.


    As to Anon’s point above — I doubt it would get anyone’s back up for you to actively encourage fanfic. We *like* creators who like us. Feedback loop of joy. Plus, lack of lawsuits.

    Worst case, it would be ignored. More likely it would pick up at least a few new readers among ficcers who want to give it a go for the novelty and challenge.

    From there, maybe it would peter out, or maybe it would gel into a small but active fandom — especially if enough fanficcers with good reputations from other fandoms come in and bring some of their readership along. (No reflection on your work — pretty much all book fandoms are small, compared to movies and TV. It’s not that we don’t read, it’s that we don’t read all the same books.)

    FWIW, I think it’s more likely to have legs since Old Man’s War has an upcoming sequel — IME open-ended canon with waits between installments produces more fanfic than a one shot.

    OTOH, fanfic that people know the creator is reading does tend to have a certain inhibited effect, mostly small fill-in scenes and parody, which is nice but less likely to get long term traction because it doesn’t create followers of its own. The sex and the AUs and the epics and the crossovers and the whole wonderland of weirdness does not thrive on the image of the poor author having apoplexy on the other end of the broadband line.

    From that point of view, the best way to encourage fanfic is to give it a push in the beginning and then pretend you’re not looking. :)

  18. Stakebait:

    “From that point of view, the best way to encourage fanfic is to give it a push in the beginning and then pretend you’re not looking. :)”

    Re: encouraging fanfic — I would be hesitant to actively solicit people to consider my universe for fanfic because it seems to me that sort of thing should be organic; i.e., people writing in the universe because they find it interesting, rather than because they know the creator is unlikely to sue them. Also, I don’t know, if I were a fanfic writer I’d be suspicious of the writer who was soliciting me to expand his/her universe: I’d wonder what they were getting out of it. I could be overthinking this, but I would say my general line on fanfic for the universe I build is: If it happens, swell (as long as it adheres to the usual community standard of being strictly amateur). But I’m going to neither actively encourage nor discourage it. If it happens, it happens.

    I would be very surprised to find OMW fanfic at this point, however. There’s not enough of the universe yet to give a sufficient setting to play in, I suspect, nor is the book all that well known. It’s doing pretty well, from what they tell me, but not, like, Buffy well (some several orders of magnitude below that would be more accurate).

    If I heard that there was an OMW universe fanfic out there, I would probably be unlikely to read it because of the reasons you note (i.e., having the original creator hanging about would make people uncomfortable) and because I wouldn’t want to be tempted to steal any plot ideas I found particularly tasty.

  19. That makes total sense. I just wanted to double check whether you meant it because you never know when a plotbunny might bite, and I do not write in fandoms where I know that the creators have asked us not to. (What I’d do if I got into the fanfic first and then they asked us not to I’m honestly not sure — here’s hoping it never comes up.)

    if I were a fanfic writer I’d be suspicious of the writer who was soliciting me to expand his/her universe: I’d wonder what they were getting out of it.

    Not that I think you ought do more than you’ve said you’re comfy with, but I wouldn’t worry about that. It’s near-axiomatic in fanfic fandom that fanfic is good for sales of the original canon and its official derivative works, if any.

    Not only does it generate buzz and create new readers who follow the fanfic trail, the active community aspect makes people more likely to buy the hardcover rather than wait for the paperback so we can all be reading and discussing the new stuff at once. And the need to check your canon makes people buy and keep where they might otherwise borrow.

    In other words (and dangerous as it is to presume to speak for all of any subset of fandom) it’s obvious to us what the creator’s getting out of it, so we’re not looking for the catch. We’re just pleased when they actually agree.

    You’re probably wise not to read it, lest someone predict where you were planning to go anyway and then claim you stole it from them. (Didn’t that happen to MZB?) That is just as much against fannish ethics as asking for money, but as this kerfuffle proves, there’s always one idjit who didn’t get the memo.

  20. OK, just an idea. Tell me what you think:

    Post a blog entry with the next chapter of one of your novels (probably AttS, since you’re actually writing a sequel to OMW for money & all…), and then establish a rule that each commenter has to take the story forward from where the last commenter left it. When you’re done, you’ve got fanfic written by dozens of fans. If it’s any good, you can do some judicious editing and then post it to the site as a quasi-sequel.


  21. Brian Greenberg:

    “OK, just an idea. Tell me what you think:”

    Among other things it presupposes that at the moment I have lots of time to manage such a thing, which, alas, I do not.

    I would imagine that if I were going to something like this in such a managed situation, I wouldn’t set it up in one of the universe I’ve already created. What I would do is write an an entirely new novel (with an attendant universe), create a basic “bible” for the universe, and encourage people to play in that universe while I acted as an arbiter of which stories/adventures in that universe were “canonical” (i.e., added to the universe bible), and which were not.

    Again, however, this would presuppose time I do not have at the moment. But it’s an idea for the future, perhaps.

  22. Pretty much, Bruce.

    One of the EFF people could be more authoritative on this point, but my understanding is that fanfic is in a gray area. It’s perfectly legal for you to write whatever fanfic you want for your own enjoyment. Posting it for no financial gain, less clear: are you devaluing the work? Are you making important social commentary? (At least one court has held that a derivative work from Gone with the Wind, published for money, was OK because of its redeeming value.) Selling it is pretty clearly non-OK.

    So yes, there were a lot of community transgressions, but John is also correct that peddling fanfic was a threat to the fanfic community as a whole. Thin end of the wedge and all that.

  23. (At least one court has held that a derivative work from Gone with the Wind, published for money, was OK because of its redeeming value.)

    If you’re refering to The Wind Done Gone, I believe you’re incorrect as to the basis of the ruling. As I recall, the ruling was that the book was satire/parody, and thus protected under either original law and/or considerable precedents. I strongly disagreed with this decision, since prior to going to court with this argument, nothing had ever been mentioned about the book being satire, rather that it was supposed to be a significant literary work. Seemed pretty clear to me they shifted the supposed intent of the work to what’d work under copyright law.

  24. Seemed pretty clear to me they shifted the supposed intent of the work to what’d work under copyright law.

    Yup. Though Googling it seems as though they eventually settled out of court.

  25. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s publisher canned a book when a fan fiction writer accused Bradley of plagiarizing the fan writer. That pretty much burned her and a number of professional authors on THAT concept.

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