One of the weirder bits of news sailing through the Internet this week is Amazon’s acquisition, from the Vonnegut Trust, of the right to publish fan-fiction based on the, uh, Kurt Vonnegut universe. (…) Setting aside the question of whether or not anyone will actually make use of these rights, though, the very fact that this kind of licensing is becoming standard practice should raise eyebrows. The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl: those are clearly commercial literary properties. They were designed for merchandising and licensing and spinoffs. Vonnegut: eh, not so much. And the thing is, literary novelists have a long tradition of being, ahem, “inspired” by each other’s work. (…) Do we want “serious writing” to be a place where people must license characters from each other? Does that do a disservice to the way in which literature is, for a lot of writers, an ongoing conversation with their predecessors? How would postmodernist novelists, for example, be curtailed by such rules, since they often incorporate commentary on the characters of others? Forcing everyone to get a license would send chills down the spine of any novelist thinking of writing, say, a feminist novel from the perspective of, say, Holden’s girlfriend Sally Hayes, not just anyone who wants to engineer a meeting between Holden Caulfield and Serena van der Woodsen. Michelle Dean, Why You Should Worry About Amazon Buying the Right to Publish Kurt Vonnegut Fan-Fiction
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Of course, fandom has never been isolated from market values, not least because it tends to respond to capitalist-produced media. But normatively, the counterpublic hailed by fan texts was a noncommercial one. This has given rise to contentions that Kindle Worlds is not really fan fiction, that E. L. James betrayed the fans of her Twilight fan fiction, and that both of these cases are not really fandom. In Karen Hellekson’s (2013) inimitable phrase, “if you define fan fiction as ‘derivative texts written for free within the context of a specific community,’ then this isn’t that. True, they are fans. And they write…fiction,” but who’s doing what alone is not enough to make it fan fiction in the absence of those norms of authorship and ownership. Indeed, “you could even say that Amazon is turning the term ‘fan fiction’ into fan fiction itself, lifting it from its original context and giving it a new purpose and a new narrative, related to the original but not beholden to it” (Berlatsky 2013). However, considering that fandom must be continually reconstituted through being addressed, and given this question of generations and fannish continuity, is there a critical mass of fan subjects who will feel hailed by industry’s invitation?
Mel Stanfill, Fandom, public, commons
So if being online is so important to fanfiction, why has Amazon not adopted this central mechanism which could have drawn millions of views to its own online site? One reason may simply be that they are relying on sites like Wattpad to generate the traffic to Kindle Worlds. The other may have to do with content control. The plural “Worlds” in Kindle Worlds marks a clear separation between the different fanbases; there will be no boundary crossing here. For fanfiction, boundary crossing of various types is the point. Trying to constrain the unconstrainable is an inherent paradox in a model based on content control. Of course, one way to attempt to control content/text is to contain it in a book rather than have it online where control is always subject to slippage. However, the existence of Fanfiction itself undermines this attempt. Amazon and the licensors have a difficult balancing act. Most licensors would want to retain control over the content that appears online and therefore restrict official content, whether it be original or fan-generated, to their own fan sites; it might indeed be very difficult to keep the licensed Worlds separate in one online environment. So one could argue that the “form” of the ebook in this case, where online would normally be the “native” medium, answers primarily the needs of the licensors rather than those of the fans and readers. This is not to say that Kindle Worlds shouldn’t have ebooks; even in the fanfiction communities, people create ebooks of fanfics for free download. It is the fact that Kindle Worlds appears to be only about ebooks that is the issue in the context of fanfiction. Anna von Veh, Kindle Worlds: Bringing Fanfiction Into Line But Not Online?
Inspired by the discussion around Amazon’s announcement of Kindle Worlds, here’s a preliminary timeline on Fanlore of notable happenings related to fandom and profit. Famous instances of commercialization of fanworks, of exchange of money in fandom, profit-related incidents between fans or between fans and professionals, and so on.
Any examples to add? Please edit the wiki page or drop the info here so I can edit it in. There’s a great deal still missing, especially about commercialization of fanworks besides fic (fan films, mods, fan translations etc), and I have vague memories of reading about many more profit-related incidents in academic works and elsewhere.
PaidContent reports that in June this year, Amazon will be launching Kindle Worlds, a legal publishing platform for fanfic. According to Amazon’s announcement, Kindle Worlds will start out by allowing fanfic based on Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and The Vampire Diaries.
It’s not necessarily bad news that companies are trying to create options for “licensed” fanfic, and I’ll leave the in-depth analysis of the legal aspects of this to professionals. Legal issues aside, though, I certainly hope that Kindle Worlds won’t become a model for other attempts to legalize fanfic. This concept seems to repeat a lot of fan-unfriendly aspects of previous forays by companies into the weird world of fic monetization. Kindle Worlds would allow fic authors to sell works “without hassle”, as PaidContent says, but apparently also without many rights, and within the boundaries of extremely strict content guidelines.
The platform refers to fandoms as “Worlds”. Copyright holders can give Amazon Publishing a license to allow fic writers to upload stories about licensed media to Amazon Publishing, which will then offer the stories for sale. Since this is not a self-publishing platform, Amazon Publishing will be setting the prices:
The fan fiction authors get a royalty of 35 percent for works of at least 10,000 words, and a royalty of 20 percent on works between 5,000 and 10,000 words.
Amazon Publishing will set the price for Kindle Worlds stories. Most will be priced from $0.99 through $3.99.
Fic authors will get a monthly payout. Amazon will be paying an undisclosed amount of royalties to the copyright holders of the media the fics are based on, and presumably also keep an undisclosed amount of money for itself. In short, while fic writers will get some money, they have zero control over how much they might want to charge or how much of a cut they deserve, and no options to negotiate. Amazon can organize its business the way it pleases, of course. But this “you will take what we offer you or nothing” approach may offer a big clue to how Amazon believes the rights of all parties should be balanced out when fic writers and copyright holders try to share income from fanworks.
An ever-returning problem with “official” fanfic contests and corporate websites is that they tend do have content guidelines that are rather more restrictive than what many fans feel is sensible, and Kindle Worlds is no exception. The copyright holders who license their properties to Amazon to allow fanfic on Kindle Worlds will be deciding which content is allowed:
World Licensors have provided Content Guidelines for each World, and your work must follow these Content Guidelines. We strongly encourage you to read the Content Guidelines before you commit the time and effort to write.
It’s not immediately clear if this means that there will be different content guidelines for every fandom on top of the content guidelines that Amazon itself sets. But Amazon’s basic content guidelines are as follows:
Pornography: We don’t accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts.
Offensive Content: We don’t accept offensive content, including but not limited to racial slurs, excessively graphic or violent material, or excessive use of foul language.
Illegal and Infringing Content: We take violations of laws and proprietary rights very seriously. It is the authors’ responsibility to ensure that their content doesn’t violate laws or copyright, trademark, privacy, publicity, or other rights.
Poor Customer Experience: We don’t accept books that provide a poor customer experience. Examples include poorly formatted books and books with misleading titles, cover art, or product descriptions. We reserve the right to determine whether content provides a poor customer experience.
Excessive Use of Brands: We don’t accept the excessive use of brand names or the inclusion of brand names for paid advertising or promotion.
Crossover: No crossovers from other Worlds are permitted, meaning your work may not include elements of any copyright-protected book, movie, or other property outside of the elements of this World.
This is rather incredibly restrictive, but I can’t say I’m surprised. In other fanfic contests and corporate fic-hosting endeavors, media companies have also set content guidelines that prohibit sexual content or other hard-to-market things. (Also check out this thesis by Suzanne Scott and this article by Roberta Pearson for more discussion on this.) Last year’s MTV-organized Teen Wolf fanfic contest caused some amazement precisely because it wasn’t explicitly hostile to slash or porn.
Needless to say, these guidelines will be excluding a massive number of authors from legally monetizing their fic – from those who write smut to those who like to write some violence, have their characters curse, or just don’t manage to provide a good “customer experience”. I’m curious what Amazon will make of non-sexually explicit slash.
Some may also consider it an issue that there will apparently be DRM on the stories to prevent them from being read on non-Kindle devices and programs:
Stories will be available in digital format exclusively on Amazon.com, Kindle devices, iOS, Android, and PC/Mac via our Kindle Free Reading apps. We hope to offer additional formats in the future.
And then we come to where the copyright on the submitted stories will go:
Amazon Publishing will acquire all rights to your new stories, including global publication rights, for the term of copyright. (…) You will own the copyright to the original, copyrightable elements (such as characters, scenes, and events) that you create and include in your work, and the World Licensor will retain the copyright to all the original elements of the World. When you submit your story in a World, you are granting Amazon Publishing an exclusive license to the story and all the original elements you include in that story. This means that your story and all the new elements must stay within the applicable World. We will allow Kindle Worlds authors to build on each other’s ideas and elements. We will also give the World Licensor a license to use your new elements and incorporate them into other works without further compensation to you.
Exactly what this implies is best explained by a legal professional, and I have no doubt that the OTW’s lawyers will have some advice ready soon, as they did with earlier corporate attempts to solicit fanworks. However, it certainly sounds like Amazon acquires all publication rights and will give the copyright owner a license to use a fan’s contributions without any compensation in any further commercial media they publish. (Whether Amazon gets any additional income from this licensing to the copyright holders isn’t mentioned either.) I’m curious about whether, for instance, this licensing agreement with Amazon would permit a fic writer to still offer her story for free on another fic archive.
Regardless – since claiming all rights to fanworks is another thing that many “official” fanwork-soliciting endeavors from Syfy with Battlestar Galactica to the fic contests planned by the infamous Fanlib have been lambasted for, I’m not sure if this will go down well anywhere.
All this doesn’t sound like the Kindle Worlds was designed to take fans’ rights and concerns into account. The list that Amazon gives of advantages that Kindle Worlds offers to fic writers is tellingly meaningless:
Writers benefit from Kindle Worlds because:
- Amazon Publishing has already secured the necessary licenses to write about any Kindle World
- They can earn royalties writing about established characters and universes
- The Kindle Worlds self-service submission platform is easy to use
The first point seems to imply that fic writers need a license to be allowed to write fic at all, which is a contested idea at the very least; many legal scholars writing about fanworks would probably argue differently. The second point, earning money with fic, may be considered a good thing by some fic authors; I’ve argued in favor of fic writers considering commodification options, as have others, so I’d personally say that this can indeed be a legitimate advantage – although as mentioned earlier, the fact that fan writers would have no control whatsoever over pricing makes this a qualified “okay then” indeed. The third point, that Kindle Worlds is easy to use, is just silly. Plenty of websites where people can publish fic are easy to use. I get the feeling that they just needed a third point in there to match the three-point list of advantages for copyright holders, and couldn’t think of anything.
Again, I’m not against the idea of “licensed” fic in and of itself, and those who want to agree to Amazon’s terms certainly have the right to do so. However, something like Kindle Worlds can be only one option among many for licensing fic, and it definitely shouldn’t be a model for other “solutions” to the legal uncertainties surrounding fanworks. The only option for publishing fic legally can’t be a platform that takes or licenses away many rights, doesn’t give fic authors the option to set prices, and excludes large numbers of fans with its content guidelines. Hopefully, alternatives that strike a better balance between the rights of fans and copyright holders will emerge soon to counter this.
Last year, Andrea Horbinski wrote a self-introduction post here that started out like this: There’s a certain propriety to the fact that I’m sitting in an apartment in Kyoto, Japan, as I write this post. Three and a half years ago, on a Fulbright Fellowship to Doshisha University in Kyoto, faced with a lot of free time and nothing in particular with which to fill it other than reading manga, biking around the city, and searching for interesting things on the internet, I fell (back) into fandom, and thence into the Organization for Transformative Works. I didn’t know it then, but that was a transformative moment for me. I suppose there’s a certain propriety to the fact that I’m sitting in a graduate student office at Doshisha University in Kyoto as I write my own self-introduction post. My road to Doshisha, and into the OTW, was completely separate from and unrelated to Andrea’s, but unfolded so similarly that I almost feel like I can point at her post and just skip my own introduction. She even likes the same titles I do. But I’ll take this opportunity to assert my individuality. I’m Nele Noppe, a Japanologist by trade, currently in the middle of a PhD fellowship at a Belgian university but spending a few years in Japan to learn about doujin culture (doujinshi and related fanworks). My research compares how English-language and Japanese-language fandoms exchange works. More precisely, I’m interested in the architectures and circumstances of those exchanges: what technology is used, what the legal limitations are, what languages are used, what the involvement of non-fans is like, and how all that influences what sort of works are made. I’m endlessly intrigued by what happens when technology, law, and large groups of very determined and enthusiastic people collide. As for the fannish side of things, I grew up on Franco-Belgian comics, but the American Elfquest was my first really active fandom. After buying a Zetsuai 1989/BRONZE mook at a con, I tumbled into yaoi and never looked back. I spent my last years of high school poring over dearly-bought Japanese-language BRONZE and Kizuna tankobon with a tattered kanji dictionary in hand, and enrolled in a Japapanese Studies program as soon as I could. More than half of my fannish life was spent memorizing everything on Aestheticism, roving around the old Anime Web Turnpike, and chatting on Yahoo! mailing lists. LiveJournal, fanfiction.net, and other big fannish hubs only came onto my radar after I wandered into Harry Potter fandom sometime around 2006. Right now, I write, read and draw mostly about Avatar: the Last Airbender, and lurk in a variety of manga fandoms. Avatar is a good fandom to be in right now, and not just because the new series The Legend of Korra rocks and I found a bunch of people who share my tiny OTP. As mentioned above, the clash of technology, fans, and law fascinates me no end, and parts of Avatar fandom have been getting into some pretty interesting clashes lately. Take the neverending string of online leaks from the new series, from clips to whole episodes. At first it seems to have been an insider who was smuggling out clips, but once they stopped, others took over and started tricking Nickelodeon’s website into giving up upcoming episodes early. Unless I’m mistaken, last week’s episode 5 was the first one that managed to air without being preceded by any leaks whatsoever. And of course everything that was leaked or uploaded to the official site was immediately re-uploaded elsewhere so fans outside the US could access it as well. Leaving aside the dubious legality of everything that’s been going on around Korra, what strikes me the most about this ongoing situation is how utterly unprepared Nickelodeon turned out to be to keep the leaks from happening, and people from sharing them around. (Viewer numbers for Korra were fantastic, leaks or no leaks.) Amazon met with a similar fate. The first part of the Avatar tie-in comic The Promise was supposed to be published only this January, but it was circulating online by November last year. Amazon made the issue available for pre-order and enabled the “look inside” feature, which shows every visitor a couple of pages from any book. A bunch of Avatar fans descended on the site, saved the handful of pages each of them could see, and started putting their puzzle pieces together. Nearly the whole comic had been reconstructed on Tumblr before Amazon realized what was going on and put some brakes on “look inside”. (Sales for The Promise were fantastic as well.) This is the sort of creative loophole-exploiting that, to me, is typical of the interesting times we live in. Individuals have technologies at their fingertips that even large companies couldn’t dream of just a few decades ago – and apparently can’t really grasp the significance of even now. The laws that govern the use of those technologies are completely out of sync with what people can actually do, or think they should be allowed to do. And there are a lot of people working together all around the world in order to communicate better and route around whatever hurdles are in their fannish paths. I expect that I’ll spend most of my Symposium posts talking about those things, and often from a transcultural perspective, given my focus on doujin. I’m thrilled to be here and get a chance to learn from you all.