Over the past decades of sharing their transformative works, fan fiction readers and writers have generally felt wary of commodifying a form of cultural production that is essentially derivative and perhaps subject to copyright infringement lawsuits.
Digital appropriation artists have developed a number of monetization models: royalties, distribution agreements, reasonably priced licenses that permit remix practitioners to sell their appropriations legally, and small-scale compensation intended only to reimburse remixers for their outlay. Although fan filmmakers and game modders have experimented with these models, fan fiction writers have not conducted similar experiments in marketing their works.
Fanfic authors who think that selling appropriative art is always and absolutely against the law are mistaken. No such case law exists, and many appropriating artists make money from their work today without constantly encountering legal trouble.
Why, then, do fic writers resist earning income from their output? Many scholars of fan studies claim that fan fiction is, and must remain, free—that is, “free of charge,” but also “free of the social controls that monetization would likely impose on it” —because it is inherently a gift culture, as Hellekson describes in this issue. In fact, even the fan organization, the Organization of Transformative Works, one of whose goals is to redefine fan works as transformative and therefore legal, states: “The mission of the OTW is first and foremost to protect the fan creators who work purely for love and share their works for free within the fannish gift economy.”
(…) writing fan fiction for personal gain —financial, psychological, or emotional— aligns with the fact that self-enrichment is already inherently an important motivation for women to produce and consume fanfic. For some women, belonging to an affinity group or discussing stories with fellow writers and readers is not the primary reason for engaging with this type of fiction. The rewards of participating in a commercial market for this genre might be just as attractive as the rewards of participating in a community’s gift culture; and the existence of commercial markets for goods does not typically eliminate parallel gift economies.
If fans successfully professionalize and monetize fan fiction, the amateur culture of fic writing will not disappear. Although fans have legitimate anxieties about fan fiction being corrupted or deformed by its entry into the commercial sphere, I argue that there is far greater danger of this happening if fan fiction is not commodified by its own producers, but by parties foreign to fandom who do not understand why or for whom the genre works, and who will promote it for purposes it is unsuited for, ignoring the aspects that make it attractive and dear to its readers.
Abigail De Kosnik, Should Fan Fiction Be Free?, p120-123
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Since the 1980s, it has become common for talented dōjinshi creators to be recruited by professional companies and become popular on the mass market. Many famous artists have had a past in the dōjinshi scene or are still involved. Artists—including Ozaki Minami (1989–91, Zetsuai) or CLAMP (2003–9, Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle; 1992–present, X: 1999)—became famous in the dōjinshi world before conquering the professional market, and artists such as Koge-Donbo (1999–2003, Pitaten) and Hiroe Rei (2002–present, Black Lagoon) are still very active, regularly selling dōjinshi at fairs. Dōjinshi like Masamune Shirow’s Black Magic (1983) or Minekura Kazuya’s Saiyuki (1997–2002) were directly converted into popular professional works.
Professional artists selling dōjin products on the side have been a common practice for a long time. In the summer of 2004, 5 percent of all circles participating in Comike were headed by a professional mangaka or illustrator, while another 10 percent had some professional experience. Similarly, it is common for erotic game producers to allow their underpaid artists to sell their drafts and sketches as dōjinshi, giving the artists a second wage and the company free promotion.
This also brings to light some people’s uneasiness and concern that money raised through this (Veronica Mars) Kickstarter project is not going towards an indie project, but instead towards a studio film that Warner Bros is essentially too cheap to finance. It obviously brings up question of fan labour and the monetisation of fans, which big conglomerates (such as the Disney-backed Fanlib years ago) have been trying to tap into. And it’s precisely why this post is being written.
While I think it’s a valid point to bring up the issue of fan labour (or investment in this case?), and whether the success of this funding campaign  might prompt other media conglomerates to start seeking funding for other ventures this way, we must not forget at the very core of this, is the fans. EW is currently running a poll asking fans which other TV series they would fund for a film, while X-Files fans are asking if 20th Century Fox is paying attention to this campaign, and if a similar thing can be done to get a 3rd film green-lighted. Ultimately, fans choose to fund this project, and this is the voice that’s missing in some of the concerns raised; that somehow fans need to be educated that they’re financing a studio film, so they’re not actually doing anything for the so-called greater good.
Frustratingly, fan agency always gets left out in arguments which purports concern that fans are being duped by studios and networks. Perhaps, rather than assuming that fans are being duped into donating towards a studio film, thought should be given to implications the success of this campaign might bring to Hollywood’s system; or more importantly, the power fans can wield if they decide a Veronica Mars movie is deserving to be made.
We’ve already seen a similar frustration brew in the context of “fan fiction,” particularly around the Star Wars franchise. As with the Harry Potter story, Lucasfilm learned early on that there were millions who wanted to build upon Star Wars, and few who thought themselves restricted by the rules of copyright. Like Warner, Lucasfilm recognized that these fans could provide real value to the franchise. So under the banner of encouraging this fan culture, Lucasfilm offered free Web space to anyone wanting to set up a fan home page.
But the fine print in this offer struck many as unfair. The contract read:
“The creation of derivative works based on or derived from the Star Wars Properties, including, but not limited to, products, services, fonts, icons, link buttons, wallpaper, desktop themes, online postcards and greeting cards and unlicensed merchandise (whether sold, bartered or given away) is expressly prohibited. If despite these Terms of Service you do create any derivative works based on or derived from the Star Wars Properties, such derivative works shall be deemed and shall remain the property of Lucasfilm Ltd. in perpetuity.”
Translation: “Work hard here, Star Wars fans, to make our franchise flourish, but don’t expect that anything you make is actually yours. You, Star Wars fans, are our sharecroppers.”
But though the objective of profit is not a problem, the manner in which that profit is secured can be. The respect, or lack of respect, demonstrated by the terms under which the remix gets made says something to the remixer about how his work is valued. So again, when Lucas claims all right to profit from a remix, or when he claims a perpetual right to profit from stuff mixed with a remix, he expresses a view about his creativity versus theirs: about which is more important, about which deserves respect.
(besides Type-Moon) Two other dōjin games, Higurashi no naku koro ni (2002–6, When they cry) by the circle 07th Expansion and Tōhō Project (1996–present, Orient project) by the Shanghai Alice Gengakudan circle, later became commercial hits of a similar or even surpassing scale. However, this phenomenon is not some kind of “amateur revolution.” Type-Moon’s Nasu Kinoko and Takeuchi Takashi and 07th Expansion’s Ryūkishi07 had already made steps into the professional industry before becoming famous in the dōjinshi scene. Much like Shinkai Makoto—the fan-creator of the OVA Voices of a Distant Star (2002, Hoshi no koe)—these creators already had made a career in the professional industry and were adored by fans for their passion and talents, rather than for their amateur status.
Fanworks, as creative endeavors existing outside the money economy, are fundamentally based on the inexhaustibility of the imagination. Yet the creative desires fanworks express and satisfy are not alien to other, marketized creative works. Indeed, creators’ passions are strikingly similar across the boundary between “original”/authorized and unauthorized derivative works. That similarity has lessons for copyright’s incentivizing ambitions, as well as for a broader cultural policy that strives to allow people to express themselves creatively.
Fandom is always more complicated than the stories we tell about it, and scholars need to be careful not to create an imaginary feminist idyll. Simply inverting the gaze may keep subject/object relations unquestioned—a concern that has become especially important as queer and trans studies have complicated any naive feminist binaries that may have held sway during early years of media fandom. Likewise, as (authors writing in this issue) De Kosnik and Russo illustrate, an unequivocal embrace of noncommodified fan work remains problematic within a world that requires paying the bills.
This is the first in a series of posts on fandom-related thoughts springing from three conferences I’ve attended in the past month, AdaCamp, WIkimania, and Console-ing Passions. All three consolidated into one great fandom and open source idea extravaganza for me. These after-conference posts come royally late, but I think the time elapsed has helped me clarify my thoughts a bit.
I’ll be talking mostly about AdaCamp, although I’ll reference Wikimania and Console-ing Passions a couple of times when relevant. A few quick basics. As Staci Tucker summarized at Fembot,
“AdaCamp is an Ada Initiative unconference focused on increasing women’s participation in open technology and culture. The invitation-only event gathered professionals, fans, hobbyists, academics, and activists to build community, discuss issues impacting women across open technology, and strategize ways to inspire positive change and build community resources.”
The Fembot post neatly lays out the basics of AdaCamp, who was there, what was discussed, what was eaten, and so on, so I’ll just refer to that one for all those things and dive straight into some personal reflections on fans and fanworks in open movements. (AdaCamp has a policy of not referring to conference attendees by name without permission, so there will be a lot of “someone said”.)
What I took away from all three conferences is that more and more people see strong links between fan communities and communities built around open source and other “open” things. Especially at AdaCamp and Console-ing Passions, I had the pleasure of talking about fandom and open source with many great people engaged in either or both of those communities. I agree with them that it would be very beneficial for both fandom and “open” movements to recognize that they’re both creative communities that have very similar principles, goals, and issues, and that they can help each other solve said issues instead of laboriously re-inventing the wheel. Issues include but are not limited to the lack of women in open source, and the precarious legal position of fanworks. I think it’s important that we start talking about this a bit more loudly.
First of all – what is “open” stuff, anyway? There’s plenty of nebulous definitions around, and since adding to them isn’t the purpose of this post, I’ll just mention my personal definition and leave it at that. This is a tad confusing since we talk about open “things” a lot, but “openness” is basically a characteristic of a process. It’s the way things are made or accomplished that makes them open or not. The key aspect of all open processes for me is that they empower people to do things for themselves, because the inner workings of said things are visible, and because people have the tools to change said things and share the results with others. Open processes tend to crystallize into movements of people who see a similar philosophy behind all those open processes, but most people who create things using open processes are either unaware of or uninterested in the philosophical side; they just use open processes because they work.
It’s certainly not unheard of to see people who identify as members of fandom or some “open” movement to frame fannish activities like fanwork creation as something that fits in with more famous “open stuff” like open source software. Skud does it here, and the Ada Initiative did so by explicitly inviting fans to AdaCamp. I’ve discussed the concept with many fans and academic colleagues, and it even pops up in a couple of academic works.
Still, the idea that it may be correct and useful to frame fanworks as a sort of “open source cultural good” definitely isn’t broadly accepted yet. Lists of open stuff tend to include all sorts of creative works and activities, from software to ways in which people organize themselves to do something collectively. However, most lists of open stuff that I’ve seen – like this one - don’t include any sort of “open” cultural work. The Wikipedia article that lists “open” things that function according to a philosophy similar to the one behind open source has a subsection for “arts and recreation”, but it only has a brief mention of copyright getting in the way and no examples of “open” cultural works. That’s a pretty conspicuous blank in those long lists. It suggests that most human activity has an “open” equivalent these days, except for cultural works. That’s not very desirable: if there’s one thing that’s important enough that it should have a parallel movement of people creating the open equivalent of it, it’s cultural creation.
And when you think about it, it’s also not very likely that we would somehow manage to invent an open equivalent for every possible activity except cultural creation. There’s just no way we can fail to invent an “open source” way of making cultural works. I’m firmly on board with the idea that we invented that particular process of cultural creation ages ago, and fanworks are one of its most representative results.
Before we start picking apart the relationship between fannish stuff and open source in later posts, let’s go back the beginning and consider why fanworks can be considered part of the same “open” movement that also encompasses more well-known “open stuff” like open source software, open access in academia, and large-scale peer production like on Wikipedia.
As mentioned earlier, open processes empower people to do things by exposing how those things work and giving individuals the tools to make changes and feed them back into their communities (whereas in the non-open alternative process, individuals are not allowed or able to make changes). Some examples of open processes are very clear-cut. Open source software is the most famous and uncontested example of open stuff for a reason: it’s pretty eye-catching and easy to understand. Nobody needs to be convinced that it’s empowering to be able to change the technology around you. It obviously works, and it obviously results in useful technological tools, and it’s all (mostly) nice and legal.
But I’d argue that fanwork is a great example of open stuff, too. It’s just as empowering to be able to change the culture you live with, to be aware that changing that culture is possible, and to have the tools to do it. People in fan communities know that legitimate culture-making isn’t just about making a perfectly “original” thing and laboriously building an audience for it. It’s also about building on what others have made, about analyzing what’s going on in the media everyone’s watching and making it better, and about feeding those improvements back into the community of people who are also watching that “original” product so they can build on your improvements in turn.
And just to get the porn thing out of the way at once: “making it better” includes everything from writing critical meta about social issues in a show to creating the sex and relationships-focused content that the source book or film doesn’t provide. For very many people, adding more shipping and more porn about their favorite characters is really, truly one the big thing that makes their favorite media better – more fun, more meaningful, and easier to share and enjoy with others.
In the next post, I’ll consider what fan communities might have to offer to open source communities and vice versa.
We’ve mentioned before how fanworks are often sold in large quantities in Japan and many other countries, mostly in Asia but also elsewhere. Japan’s doujinshi conventions are probably the most famous examples of “money” markets for fanworks.
How much money do doujinshi creators actually make, though? Does anyone turn a real profit from these fan activities? Let’s check out some statistics. (In other words, this is a data dump post.)
It’s hard to come by any vaguely reliable numbers about doujinshi sales, especially numbers that focus on the situation of individual creators instead of more general market size estimates. Doujinshi creators in Japan do have to pay taxes on any profits they make from doujinshi sales, because these profits count as income from “self-published works”. Otherwise, though, doujinshi exchange is pretty much a shadow economy that goes mostly unrecorded. It’s also a fairly complicated shadow economy, involving sales not just through the thousands of doujinshi conventions that take place every year, but also through mail order, online auctions, and especially doujin shops, physical stores in all major Japanese cities that sell new and second-hand doujinshi.
However, we can get at least a general idea about what a doujinshi artist may earn by checking out the statistics that Comiket has published about its participants. The twice-yearly Comiket is the largest convention for the sale of self-published works in the entire world, and it’s mostly devoted to doujinshi (details in this excellent PDF presentation). Comiket is one of the oldest and most influential of all doujinshi conventions in Japan, and a significant minority of Japanese doujinshi circles seem to sell their works exclusively at Comiket. So, while the data below are only for a single convention, they probably can give a general idea of how many fans can make what kind of money with doujinshi.
The numbers below are from a 2009 survey that was held among circles who were applying to participate in Comiket. A circle is a unit of one or more fans that publish a doujinshi. In the past, making a doujinshi was too difficult and expensive to manage by oneself, but home printing technology and specialized doujinshi printing companies now enable many fans to publish doujinshi by themselves as single-person circles; at Comiket, these single-person circles now a comfortable majority. Circles with two or three members are still fairly common, but more than that is rare (says an older 2003 survey). Keep in mind that all the losses or profits reported for the surveys described below are per circle, not per individual doujinshi-creating fan, so both losses and profits will be shared by multiple people in many cases.
The survey was held among applicants for Comiket 77 and asked them about their earnings through doujinshi sales in one year, presumably 2008 (Note: the first version of this blog incorrectly said it was for one edition of Comiket only). Roughly 33000 circles responded to this survey. The results were reported in December 2011, in the catalog for Comiket 81. Wherever it’s provided in the report, I’ll give separate data for circles with a female representative and with a male representative, a distinction that I expect will be of interest to a lot of people. The number of circles with a female representative (about 21500) was roughly double that of the number of circles with a male representative (about 11500). There is some debate about what percentage of visitors to Comiket are male or female: there’s no registration for visitors, and surveys about the topic contradict each other, with some settling on a majority of male visitors while others report a female majority. In the case of circles, who do register and where reliable data is available, there are clearly more female than male creators participating.
Circles were asked how much money they lost or earned with their sale of doujinshi during one year. Note that the dollar amounts are based on a June 2012 exchange rate, and are only there for clarification.
Lost 50000 yen or more (lost $638-more): male 14%, female 16%
Lost between 0 and 50000 yen (lost $0-$638): male 53%, female 50%
Earned between 0 and 50000 yen (earned $0-$638): male 15%, female 17%
Earned between 50000 and 200000 yen (earned $638-$2553): male 8%, female 10%
Earned more than 200000 yen (earned $2553-more): male 10%, female 6%
The circles who lose money are clearly in the majority, with 67% (male) and 66% (female) in the red. Earnings of less than 50000 yen are probably negligible in a lot of cases: this would barely cover transportation and hotel costs for a circle that has to come from outside of Tokyo. 15% of circles with a male representative and 17% of circles with a female representative reported such limited earnings.
These results emphasize how much doujin fandom is about being fannish, not about making a profit. The vast majority of creators will never get close to earning back even their printing costs, and they know it. When asked about what they liked the most about Comiket, “I can show my work to other people” was the top answer (41,5%), followed by “there’s a festival atmosphere” (21,3%) and “I can meet friends and acquaintances that I normally can’t meet” (13,1). Only 4,2% of circles chose “I can sell a lot of doujinshi there” as Comiket’s primary attraction.
However, there clearly are highly popular circles who do make a lot of money from their fannish activities. At the far end of the scale, between 50000 and 200000 yen could be anything from “covered the price of my Tokyo hotel room” to “covered the rent of my house for a few months”. Over 200000 yen is a handsome amount of money. In total, 18% of circles with a male representative and 15% of circles with a female representative made what I’d call a significant profit of more than 50000 yen. That may not sound like a large group of people, especially compared with the overwhelming percentage who make no profit at all, but a small percentage of 33000 responding circles still represents a large number of creators. Several thousand circles apparently made more than 200000 yen during a single edition of Comiket in 2009.
Evidently, the reason why so many circles end up in the red is because they don’t sell enough doujinshi to make up for the costs involved in creating them. The percentage of circles who reported selling a certain number of doujinshi during one year was as follows:
0-49 sold: 32%
50-99 sold: 20%
100-149 sold: 13%
150-299 sold: 14%
300-499 sold: 9%
500-999 sold: 7%
1000-1499 sold: 3%
1500-2999 sold: 2%
More than 3000 sold: 1%
Responses weren’t presented separately for circles with male and female representatives. However, a previous survey from 2003 indicated that there was very little difference in numbers of doujinshi sold between those two groups of circles.
A third of all circles sold less than fifty doujinshi, and half sold less than a hundred. Given that a single doujinshi tends to cost somewhere between 300 and 600 yen when bought at a convention, less than fifty sold won’t get you very far. These data are for the total number of doujinshi sold by every circle, so they don’t show exactly which individual doujinshi sold how much. However, more survey data emphasizes again exactly how influential really succesful circles are. It seems that roughly half of all doujinshi that changed hands during Comiket 76 were made by only 13% of circles, those that sold more than 500 works.
Even if most circles sell few doujinshi and earn nothing or next to nothing, it clearly wouldn’t be correct to characterize all creators in doujin fandom as just recuperating printing costs and absolutely not interested in making money. There have been some widely publicized incidents involving extremely succesful doujinshi creators, for instance one in 2007 about a Prince of Tennis doujinshi creator who neglected to report over 65 million yen in income from doujinshi sales to taxes. There are also circles who get accused by others of being in it for the money instead of out of fannish love for the source work. I’ve also heard several suggestions that these days, there are professional mangaka who prefer to participate in doujinshi conventions because they make more with doujinshi than with their commercially published work. There have always been many professional mangaka who also make doujinshi, so this is nothing new in and of itself, but people making more with doujinshi than with their professional manga sounds like a fairly recent development to me. It’s not surprising, though, given the long decline of the commercial manga market. If a mangaka sells doujinshi, at least they can keep all the profits instead of having to share with publishers, distributors, and so on.
This was a lot of data with little analysis, and again, these are only the numbers for one single convention. There are other ways in which circles sell doujinshi and potentially make money, so this picture is very incomplete. But in any case, it should be obvious that the “non-commercial” nature of the doujinshi market isn’t as clear-cut as all that. (Neither is the “non-commercial” nature of fanworks exchange in English-speaking fan communities, of course.)
Writing this, I wonder what I even mean by “non-commercial”. I think fans everywhere tend to characterize their markets as non-commercial not so much because money is absent, but because the intent to make money is absent. In and of itself, this is a meaningful and valid definition of “non-commercial”. However, it’s not a definition that everybody understands or agrees with.
 Off topic, but I’ve always found this interesting: you can also tell Comiket’s dominance from the publication dates of all doujinshi in Japan. Of a hundred Harry Potterdoujinshi I selected for a research project a few years ago, 31 were published in August or December, and virtually none in July or November. This baffled me until I realized that August and December are when Comiket is held, and July and November is when everybody’s scrambling to get their newest work finished before Comiket. Very many circles try to have their new works “premiere” at Comiket, where the pool of potentially interested fellow fans is so large.
 35000 circles participate in every edition of Comiket and around 50000 apply to for one of those 35000 slots, so 33000 respondents is probably a fairly representative number. People could skip questions on the survey, so the number of respondents varied per question. I’ll skip the precise number of respondents for each question to keep the post a bit simpler.
 There’s not necessarily any sort of hierarchy inside circles that have more than one member; it’s just that one person needs to act as representative when the circle applies for conventions and such. According to the 2003 survey, about 70% of circles with a female representative consisted of only one person, while 47% of circles with a male representative were actually just one fan. No data seem to be available about the genders of the non-representative circle members.
 But just to back that up, here are the numbers from the 2003 survey, which was published in this book.
0-49 sold: male 38,3%, female 34,2%
50-99 sold: male 21%, female 20,9%
100-149 sold: male 12%, female 12,9%
150-299 sold: male 11,2%, female 14,2%
300-499 sold: male 6,4%, female 7,6%
500-999 sold: male 5,5%, female 5,9%
1000-1499 sold: male 2,2%, female 2,1%
more than 1500 sold: male 3,6%, female 2,2%
 Prices can be cheaper when a doujinshi is sold second-hand in a doujin shop, or sometimes more expensive in the doujin shop if the work is a classic by a famous artist. They can get a lot more expensive in online auctions, especially for buyers outside of Japan.
 Circles usually bring several different titles to Comiket, a mix of old and new work. The 2003 survey showed that three to five new titles per year is a common output for a doujinshi circle, although quite a few circles publish more than that, especially circles with female representatives. Sales figures from one convention are an indicator of popularity, of course, but they don’t give a good indication of the actual number of individual fans who read a particular doujinshi. Second-hand doujinshi are often resold through doujin shops, and like any other print medium, doujinshi are shared among friends, sometimes scanned and distributed over the internet without the knowledge of the circle, and so on.
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.
Two weeks ago, in the wake of the hacker collective Anonymous shutting down U.S. government and Big Content websites in avowed revenge for the U.S. Attorney General’s taking down the upload service MegaUpload, I asked my Twitter followers (only half in jest) whether I would one day be writing an article about the Internet War of 2012. The consensus was “Quite possibly!” but even a cursory glance over the last two weeks or so of events around the Internet and the public domain reveal that the conflict between those who are advocating for more open laws and formats around content, and those who want to lock content down and throw away the key on “pirates,” is about more than one upload service, or even more than one frighteningly broad piece of “anti-online piracy” legislation (and no, that link isn’t talking about SOPA/PIPA).
Fandom intersects with all of these events in a number of large and complex ways, and as a global phenomenon, it’s no surprise that fans in different parts of the world have had different reactions to various recent developments. Just among my digital acquaintances, reactions to MegaUpload, for instance, have ranged from the general sentiment that its operators’ alleged violations were so flagrant that they deserved to be indicted, to noting the detrimental effect the demise of file-sharing sites has on emerging economies in particular, since people working in emerging economies literally cannot afford to legitimately buy the media that Big Content sells.
The rise of “intellectual property” rights over the past century or so is part and parcel of the neoliberalization first of so-called advanced industrial societies, and then the rest of the world; the shredding of social safety nets globally; the commercialization of scholarship and the reduction of the value of all knowledge to the price it is projected to fetch in the so-called “free market”; the patent-ization of scientific research part and parcel with increased corporate profiteering therefrom. IPR are used systematically to disenfranchise and disempower vulnerable groups at all levels of societies globally, and then, the disenfranchisement complete, to sell that content back to those groups at immense profit–but only at fair market price, of course.
As a historian, I’m painfully aware that today’s current, very stringent global intellectual property regime is very much a recent and contingent phenomenon, and as a classicist and a fan, I was particularly dismayed to see the U.S. Supreme Court rule in favor of copyright maximalists in Golan v. Holder, finding that works could be legally re-copyrighted and removed from the public domain. It would be foolish, as a historian, to claim that fandom predates the age of mechanical reproduction and the rise of seriality in storytelling, but one doesn’t have to be much of a literature scholar to see that creativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that creative works have always been inspired by one another. If Vergil had had to pay money to Homer’s estate to use characters from The Illiad, there probably would have been no Aeneid, and that loss wouldn’t just have diminished ancient Greek and Latin poetry.
I mentioned my work for the Organization for Transformative Works to a mutual acquaintance (the business manager of a well-known fantasy author) recently, and it was almost comical how my interlocutor’s defenses rose the instant I uttered the words “fair use.” I understand, and absolutely support, the desire and right of creators to make money from their own creative works, but one of the things that I think tends to get lost in these discussions is the fact that overall creators aren’t being very well served by Big Content. In the first place it’s a myth, as someone on my Twitter feed observed, that content is only created by “professionals”; and in the second place, Big Content is not in the business of giving creators money: as an industry, it’s in the business of making money for itself. Advocates for SOPA/PIPA and ACTA like to position themselves as defending the rights of creators, but the current intellectual property regime is set up to favor corporations. Furthermore, the global scope of that regime, and the way in which restrictive additions in one part of the world tend to be taken up by the rest of its participants (Golan v. Holder was held up as an instance of bringing U.S. law into line with global practice, and actions in the MegaUpload case were taken as far away from the States as Hong Kong and New Zealand) only increase the margin of that favorability.
Fandom, to try to knit the two halves of this post into a coherent union, is very much somewhere in the vast creative territory between outright plagiarism–which no one, I think, would support or condone–and the avowed creative debt of explicit borrowing and that position has only become more difficult to maintain in recent years. The OTW’s work to extend the Digital Millennium Copyright Act exemption for vidding that we won in 2010 is an excellent example of how difficult it is to carve out a legal space for fair use fan practices even under current law (I invite you to sign the petition to uphold the right to create remix videos before February 10, 2012, cosponsored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation). I’m proud of the OTW’s past and continuing work in this area, but the events of the past fortnight are more than sufficient proof that the battlefield is anything but stagnant, and vigilance remains the price of the very limited liberties we now possess.
In the current issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, my friend Nele Noppe has a piece on Why we should talk about commodifying fan work. In her article, Noppe reviews much current English-language scholarship that considers the possibility of some kind of legal and legitimate “hybrid” fannish economy emerging, and concludes that, while such an economy may very well emerge at some point, for a variety of reasons, it’s not here yet. In particular, Noppe notes that
A final reason why a viable hybrid economy for fan work is unlikely to emerge soon is that many of the fans who would power it may not be prepared to imagine the possibilities, advantages, and disadvantages of such a system. Up to now, fans and fan scholars have rarely even speculated about the potential inherent in linking fan work to commodity culture. … The most important question here is not whether fans will at some point be given the option to commodify and monetize their works, but how the fan community in general will deal with new modes of fannish production emerging alongside the traditional gift economy.
It strikes me, however, that the issue here may not be a question of waiting for new modes of fannish production to emerge, but of recognizing the fact that, in many cases, they already have emerged.
Noppe mentions the example of the Japanese dôjinshi market several times in her piece, quite sensibly in light of the fact that the fannish/”amateur” dôjin production sphere is perhaps the pre-eminent example of a hybrid economy. In Japan, fan-created comic books and, in recent years, animation, video games, and other forms of media have not only been wildly successful in the semi-sequestered fannish economy, but have been picked up by professional companies for further production and wider distribution, going on to launch their creators into fully professional careers and spawning mega-hit transmedia franchises that have defined whole eras in the Japanese contents industry. Moreover, despite a lack of explicitly permissive laws, the line between professional and “amateur” or fannish production in Japanese media is often quite fuzzy: professional creators routinely sell fan works of their own professional media creations, or even actual professionally produced elements of their creation such as production stills, at dôjin (“like-minded”) markets, the largest of which is Comiket in Tokyo.
Although the Japanese contents industry undoubtedly possesses the most highly developed “hybrid” economy in the Laurence Lessig-derived sense that Noppe discusses, there are ample signs that the English-language contents industry is already starting to develop in a similar direction, particularly in the world of book publishing. Multiple professional authors working today in YA and SFF avowedly came out of fandom, whether putting their fan fiction-honed writing skills to work on wholly original works or “filing off the serial numbers” and selling works that were originally fannish as entirely “original” novels and stories. Moreover, while it seems that formerly professional authors were reluctant to discuss their roots in fan fiction, more and more authors (not coincidentally, overwhelmingly female) are not only willing to own their fannish roots, but to “cross streams” and jump back into fandom for exchanges such as Yuletide, among other forms of fannish activity.
At the same time, the rise of ebooks and of high-quality self-publishing operations such as Lulu have made it easier than ever for fans to make their content, whether original or fannish or a hybrid of the two (never, as the above discussion should make clear, very clearly separated in the first place), available to others for free, at cost, or for profit with very little extra effort. These developments are transforming not only fandom, but also the contents industry, leading not only to reactionary legislative efforts such as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. Congress but also to true innovation in both the fannish and professional contents spheres, some of which Henry Jenkins has discussed in his continuing investigations of professional transmedia storytelling.
So, where is all this going? As a historian, I am professionally allergic to predicting the future, but inasmuch as these developments are happening right now, it seems clear that some kind of rapprochement is in order, not only between fannish and professional content creators, but also between fans and themselves. English-language fandom has historically been highly leery of anything that seems to violate the spirit of the “fannish gift economy,” and with good reason; the non-commercial principles by which fandom has operated are one of the things that set it apart from the mainstream of global cultural economies. But the twenty-first century, for good and for ill, is not the twentieth, and it seems clear that fandom is already in the process of evolving into a different configuration vis-a-vis professionalization and the contents industry. The sooner we recognize that it’s happening, the sooner we can begin to think about and consciously decide how we want to do fandom, and be fans, in light of that fact.
Guest Post by Nele Noppe:
‘Comiket’ has about the same connotations as ‘El Dorado’ among many fans of Japanese pop culture, both inside and outside the country. This fanworks-centric event is said to be the largest regular public event in Japan, and it’s easily the largest comic convention in the world. The edition I attended this summer, Comiket 80, welcomed about five hundred and forty-thousand visitors, thirty-five thousand fan creators come to sell their works, and a small army of three thousand volunteers there to direct the rivers of people through Tokyo’s flagship Big Sight convention center.
One’s first Comiket is a bit of a rite of passage, and I’d like to celebrate by giving a quick overview of this iconic event for those who may have heard about it as a massive fanworks market but are a little unsure of the details. The sale of paper dojinshi – zines, most often in manga format – is still very much an intrinsic part of fannish life in Japan. Dojinshi shops and dojinshi conventions have only become more popular as online fandom developed. Between forty and ninety large and small dojinshi conventions are held throughout Japan every month; Comiket, which has taken place every August and December since 1975, is only the biggest and most famous.
Socializing is a large part of the Comiket experience, but most visitors come to snap up the latest dojinshi by their favorite creators and discover new artists and fandoms. The fannish move onto the internet only seems to have made Comiket even more of an important showcase event for creators. Fifty-two thousand dojinshi creation teams, or ‘circles’, took part in the lottery that determined who could have half a table for one day at Comiket 80. Circles of two or more people are very common, but technological advances and the rise of support services like specialized dojinshi printing companies have leveled the playing field and made it easier and cheaper for single-person circles to create dojinshi as well.
The scale of circles’ activities and sales varies wildly. A majority of circles report that they sell up to a hundred dojinshi while at Comiket and generally lose money on their fannish activities, but some of the more famous and successful circles sell over a thousand dojinshi during Comiket and earn several hundred thousand yen (one thousand yen is about 1300 US dollars or 970 euros) over the course of a whole year of attending conventions. Dojinshi circles that can actually make a living with their fannish activities are highly exceptional. The general sentiment is that dojinshi should be made out of love for their source works and nothing else, so there’s little tolerance for circles who are perceived as deliberately trying to turn a profit.
Exact numbers about the size of the dojinshi market are hard to come by; it’s very much a shadow economy, untaxed and unregulated. Japanese copyright law forbids the sale of unauthorized derivative works, and most scholars and fans agree that what takes place at Comiket is probably illegal. However, rights holders turn a blind eye to the sale of dojinshi at conventions and in dedicated resale shops because they believe that a flourishing dojinshi scene nurtures up-and-coming artists and serves as free publicity for commercial offerings. There have been a few clashes involving individual dojinshi that media companies considered both too popular and too offensive, but on the whole, there’s a tacit understanding that the fans who buy and sell dojinshi are the industry’s biggest supporters and should be left alone.
At Comiket itself, nothing shows that tacit understanding better than the official presence of about a hundred and fifty companies, ranging from manga publishers to anime production houses to dojinshi resale shops and other fan-oriented companies, like Pixiv, the Japanese equivalent of deviantART. To preserve the fannish atmosphere of Comiket, the company booths are located on a separate floor entirely and have to make their own little catalog. (The official Comiket catalog, which has blurbs about all participating dojinshi circles, puts most phone books to shame.) It’s perfectly possible to attend Comiket for years and see nothing more of the company booths than the signs pointing towards the stairs, and some participants report doing just that.
Comiket’s ever-increasing popularity among both fans and companies has caused some new problems of its own. Some fans feel uncomfortable with the media attention that’s invariably drawn by half a million people converging on Tokyo Big Sight. There are security concerns about overcrowding inside the center, and Comiket is unable to control turnout simply by switching to a Comic Con-like system of advance registration. Participation in the event has always been free of charge with no registration required, and any changes that may lead to some participants being privileged over others will probably be seen as a violation of Comiket’s strong code of egalitarianism.
But Comiket’s biggest headache right now is Bill 156, a recent law that aims to prevent the distribution of explicit material to minors in Tokyo. As soon as it was first proposed, this piece of legislation was widely reviled as a possible source of censorship by manga publishers, fans, mangaka, rights activists, and academics alike. These broad protests succeeded in watering down the proposal significantly, but it still passed, and there’s real concern among fans that it could have an impact not just on commercial manga but on dojinshi culture as well. One Comiket staffer I spoke to urged me to spread the word about Bill 156 among non-Japanese fans, and remind fans around the world to remain vigilant about obvious and non-obvious threats of censorship.
A few days ago in my personal journal, I asked for thoughts about the rise of anonymous spaces in fandom (specifically, here and for the rest of this post, my corner of LiveJournal/Dreamwidth etc.-based media fandom). I received dozens of comments, both anonymous and posted under long-standing fannish pseudonyms. Persistent pseudonyms (such as my own, cryptoxin) dominate the parts of fandom that I’m involved in; posting or commenting anonymously is relatively uncommon. Anon memes — spaces where anonymous commenting is the norm — have popped up regularly for years on LiveJournal, but most were short-lived, dying out or being shut down fairly quickly. More recently, long-running permanent anon memes (many, but not all, specific to a particular fandom) have become increasingly prominent in fandom. The comments to my post provide a lot of different perspectives on their growing popularity, function, and dynamics.
What follows are the beginnings of my thoughts about the place of anon memes in fandom. I’m going to break my discussion up into multiple posts over the next couple of weeks, organized around five themes:
Burden of identity
Wrong on the internet
Below is the first installment, discussing anon memes as a distraction economy.
- Distraction economy
Many celebrate media fandom as a gift economy, where “goods” such as fan fiction and other fanworks are freely shared, exchanged and circulated. But fan communities also function as reputation economies, where the quantity and quality of friends, comments, etc. determines the distribution and circulation of social capital (popularity, influence, respect, etc.). The pseudonymous nature of fandom participation doesn’t diminish this dynamic; persistent pseudonyms accrue their own reputations over time, and fandom has a long memory.
Going anonymous in theory allows you to opt out of the reputation economy, at least temporarily. Within the meme, where everyone’s anonymous, reputation can’t stick to any participant: you’re only as wanky or stupid (or clever, or amusing) as your last anonymously-posted comment. Each new comment thread wipes the slate clean; this will not go down on your permanent reputational record.
Yet anon memes aren’t completely outside of fandom’s reputation economy — memes, and their anonymous participants, have their own reputation within fandom, and known or suspected participation on an anon meme can affect one’s reputation within pseudonymous fannish spaces. Moreover, anon memes often debate, reassess, or attack the reputational standing of pseudonymous fans — especially well-known BNFs — in negotiations that can spill over into broader fandom. So it’s perhaps more accurate to think of anon memes in a kind of underground or black market relationship to fandom’s “formal” reputation economies.
Reputation economies in fandom shape the fannish attention economy: with an abundance of posts, communities, fanworks, episode reactions, and discussions vying for attention, nobody can follow it all. So reputation becomes one filter shaping the flows of attention, influencing which stories get read, whose posts receive comments, what discussions get prioritized. To a certain degree, participation in broader fan communities requires paying attention, and distributing your attention appropriately. The culture of a fandom (fanon, in-jokes, jargon, influential fanworks, etc.) emerges from shared experiences, histories, attitudes, and frames of reference — in other words, the map and archive of fannish attention.
Anon memes have a symbiotic relationship to fandom’s “official” attention economy. Through links and discussion, they harness, amplify or redirect fannish attention — even as many in pseudonymous fandom would cast anon memes themselves as unworthy of attention and disavow allocating any of their own attention to them. Memes also provide an alternate filtering system driven less by reputation than relevance and interest: attention goes to anything capable of generating comments on the meme. But permanent anon memes that achieve heavy traffic and a constant stream of comments also present a different kind of fannish space, a culture devoted to distraction. Step inside an active anon meme, and you can easily lose hours; rather than budgeting your attention, you simply give yourself over to the anonymous flow. The distractions of being on the meme can be a vacation from fandom’s attention economy.
Up next: Anon memes as counter-public spheres