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.

[META] In Search of the Hybrid Economy
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14 thoughts on “[META] In Search of the Hybrid Economy

  • 08/01/2012 at 15:46

    Very interesting post. I would argue that the hybrid economy exists already in Western fandom, it’s just that people haven’t seen fit to explicitly label it “fannish.” It boggles my mind slightly that no one notices the huge amount of RPF (both historical and contemporary) and fanfic of out-of-copyright works that is already published commercially. Aja has some examples here:

    I wonder how our conceptualization of the question of commodification can change once we consider all those works as part of the equation?

    • 10/01/2012 at 06:36

      Yeah, that’s a good question–I think part of it gets back to the tightening IP regime, in the States and globally; the idea that published works could be inspired by pre-existing works largely predates the introduction of restrictive copyright laws, as far as I know. And note how most of the pro fanfic that’s published–Ursula LeGuin’s Lavinia and countless Sherlock Holmes novels and stories spring readily to mind–are inspired by media properties that are definitively out of copyright.

  • 09/01/2012 at 10:10

    Like you and Naraht say, there’s plenty of hybrid elements to be found already in the interactions between English-language fans and companies, with fans getting involved in commercial ventures. I definitely agree that we should make more of an effort to see these trends for what they are and recognize that fandom =/= non-commercial.

    At the same time (and this is me opining rather than disagreeing with anything you wrote), I think that effort isn’t going to make many fans change their minds unless doing commercial things with fanworks becomes obviously legal. It’s hard to defend something to people if it’s illegal, no matter how beneficial that something is for both fans and companies’ bottom line.

    Somehow, I think we’ll have to figure out how to make recognizing that fandom =/= non-commercial go hand in hand with recognizing that it’s important to fight for a legal status for fanworks. Even in the (beautiful) case of dojinshi markets, the whole enterprise is still basically against the law. And that does have an effect on what people dare to do with their fanworks, even in Japan. In Europe or North America, that chilling effect is exponentially worse, and understandably so. People do have reason to be scared of large companies with many lawyers. For me, the insecure legal status of fanworks is the main thing that’s in the way of a ‘real’, viable fannish hybrid economy getting off the ground, both in people’s heads and in reality.

    • 10/01/2012 at 06:48

      *nods* I definitely think you’re right, but I also think one possible avenue to changing the laws might be more people recognizing the vast amounts of fannish/professional crossover that already exists.

      • 11/01/2012 at 01:28

        True. Changing laws requires broad support requires awareness.

  • 09/01/2012 at 15:12

    Great post — I agree with Nele Noppe that copyright law is a big reason why fan fiction has placed itself underground. I wonder about our celebration of the “gift economy” we’ve created — have we made a virtue of necessity, celebrating our amateur status because we can’t sell fan fiction of copyrighted works? I do occasionally see the amateur nature of fan fiction celebrated because it’s not capitalistic, and also because, free of the need to be marketable, we can write what we love and still have an audience.

    The owners of the Hollywood texts that attract fan fiction, however, have been the ones to squelch it. Until they change their attitude, fan works will still exist at the margins in the US, anyway. And even when Hollywood claims to want fan engagement, they often raise an eyebrow at the counterculture, feminist, or erotic manifestations of fan works.

    In my experience, fan writers have self-policed things like high-priced zines mostly because of fear of Cease and Desist letters.

    But there’s also kind of a, what, refreshing freedom from the money hierarchy? When we aren’t in it for the money, it’s different. The work feels different.

    • 09/01/2012 at 20:59

      I agree with Danas last statement. There are a lot of qualities specific to fic, that are connected to its “underground” status: Like the social and equal relationship between fic-reader and fic-writer; both fans, with same “right” to the source-consept/canon. And the freedom from pro-fic standardized formats, as well as the freedom from “good taste” that comes with anonymity. I find it hard to imagine a more mainstream, marked-oriented kind of fic without compromising some of the qualities that makes the genre what it is.

      • 20/01/2012 at 22:33

        I find it hard to imagine a more mainstream, marked-oriented kind of fic without compromising some of the qualities that makes the genre what it is.

        Mm, I think you’re right here, though I think it’s important to recognize that part of what makes fic fic is the ways that the things it does–queer relationships, kink and porn, to name just two things that are much harder to find in commercial publishing–are shaped by current market and societal paradigms. So if the mainstream changes, which I think it is, I’d expect fic to change too.

    • 10/01/2012 at 06:41

      When we aren’t in it for the money, it’s different. The work feels different.

      I agree about the refreshing freedom, and also about the roadblock of copyright law; I think part of the fannish difference, though, is that the immediacy of the fanworks marketplace–creation to publication, almost instantaneously–means that for better or for worse most fanworks cut out the publication and distribution end of the professional process, and sometimes the editing process too. I don’t know that most pro authors are actually in it for the money, either, because the money is so frequently peanuts; publishers are in it for the money, but authors and creators aren’t any less motivated by the pure joy of creation and sharing that with others than fans. So to say all of this a different way, I think focusing on the question of “money” is, in some aspects of this issue, actually misleading.

      • 10/01/2012 at 17:53

        Well, yes, you’re right — focusing on the money is misleading if what you are trying to do is point out, and rightfully so, that derivative work in and of itself has a long and brilliant history, from Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story to March, etc. etc. I love Aja’s collection for that reason alone — because many pro writers who encounter fan fic claim that it’s somehow “inferior” or “cheating.”

        But the copy right issue, in my experience, is the one thing that’s stood in the way of a wider appreciation for derivative work, and it’s all about money and the control of products and properties. It’s because of money that Hollywood casts its chilling effect on fan works. I think the more subversive or counter culture aspects of some fan works are actually secondary to this.

        And certainly — pro work is done out of love! I might have gone too far in making that distinction between pro and amateur, but mostly I was just musing about what I’ve seen discussed when fans celebrate the necessity of staying out of sight of the copyright lawyers, and are able in whatever way to turn that into a virtue.

  • 10/01/2012 at 17:55

    oops… hit reply too soon…. And I wanted to add that the example of Japan, where the commercial owners of these shows and texts and books are actively engaged with, actively encouraging and hiring, people who come up out of fan culture — so different from the US! It’s a fascinating contrast.

    • 11/01/2012 at 01:27

      It really is. And sometimes I think it’s a shame that this company tolerance towards fanworks still has to be cast as a “tolerance”, because that’s still implying that fans are doing something dodgy while companies graciously allow them to carry on. Which is not precisely how the relationship works in Japan in reality. But it’s often described in that way in scholarship and any “official” communication, and legally speaking, the situation is pretty much like that. Fans do something illegal, companies do not sue, the Japanese government toes the international party line re:copyright.

      (I would dearly love to be a fly on the wall during a conversation between representatives of the Japanese and the US content industries.)

  • 19/01/2012 at 04:33

    very interesting post! I do have to suggest that some of these problems may be limited to the textual fan works, as the visual fan creations are readily available for purchase through sites like deviantart and society6; fan-created clothing and other assorted merchandise also seems to be abundant through a range of sources, though yes, these sometimes get hit by cease-and-desists. These creators have followings similar to fic writers and there is often an overlap, but the fan economy as a whole seems more ready to accept paying for something that takes obvious artistic and technical skill, such as a digital painting, than they do for a written fan fiction. I wonder if in this instance the fannish idea of “anyone can write fic, anyone can participate if they want” is running against them, and downplaying the amount of time and skill required to write good fic – the backstage work put into writing is practically invisible to those who aren’t engaged in it themselves.

    • 20/01/2012 at 22:38

      *nods* That’s a really good question, actually! I can think of at least a few fan writers who have made the backstage work front and center, but it’s definitely the norm that it’s all kept behind the curtains, as it were.

      I saw a post on Tumblr the other day about how many fan artists drastically undercharge compared to pro rates for prints, commissions, etc, which I mention by way of wondering whether fan art is closer to a hybrid economy than anything else right now. On the other hand, I can’t think of a way that a fan artform like vids could ever be part of a hybrid economy short of a total revolution in intellectual property laws.

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