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.