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.