J. Michael Straczynski

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Name: J. Michael Straczynski
Also Known As: JMS, Joe, The Great Maker
Occupation: Writer, Producer
Medium: television (series and tv-movies), books, comics, cartoons, plays
Works: Babylon 5, The Real Ghostbusters, Jeremiah, Murder She Wrote
Official Website(s): Studio JMS
Fan Website(s): "JMS News". Archived from the original on 2008-05-17., Worlds of JMS archive.is
On Fanlore: Related pages

J. Michael Straczynski is a fan, a prolific writer, and a producer. He is the creator of Babylon 5. He has also worked on many other fannish shows such as The Real Ghostbusters [1], as well as writing comics, novels, and plays.

Straczynski is often referred to as JMS, and sometimes "The Great Maker" (the latter a nod to the supreme deity on Babylon 5).

He has been online since 1984[2] and is known for being extremely accessible to fans online. JMS made many posts about upcoming or ongoing projects and answered fans' questions. Fans often used the phrase ATTN: JMS in the subject lines in hopes of getting his attention.

Many fans enjoyed the close company, the ability to communicate with JMS (with the hope that their comments could sway characterization and plot in future episodes), and the feeling of being cozy with the source of their admiration.

But other fans disliked it, saying that JMS' presence hindered honest opinion, stifled their creativity and communication, and was an intrusion on their private spaces. JMS' own personality and comments created both positive and negative feelings about the man himself, and this trickled down to opinions about the show and its fandom. JMS' very frequent presence on USEnet also meant that not only were discussions of fanfic prohibited, but fans' discussion of "scenes they'd like to see on the show" was not allowed.

Comments by a fan in 1995:
I'm fairly disinterested in the auteur. I don't think they're best qualified to comprehend the breadth of their work in many ways: I prefer the perspective of the recon balloon to that of the front line. [3]
Another 1995 comment:
JMS is King. As to whether he belongs here [in rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5], everybody gets one vote, and JMS gets one more vote than the rest of us put together. Be polite to the King, even though you think he's not as honest as he says. [4]
Acafan Henry Jenkins commented in 1998:
The internet has become an important player in this relationship, generating website program guides which fill in gaps in any given viewer's knowledge, and allowing for collective, expert annotation of the episodes as they air. Media producers, such as Babylon 5's J. Michael Strazinski [sic] and X Files' Chris Carter, go on line, engage with fans about their ongoing series, and help to clarify points of confusion about program mythology. However, in doing so, their presence also serves to police what can and can not be said within the fan community, since the producers are told by their lawyers they will have to leave the lists if they receive to many fan speculations about the future directions of the series. Such speculations could be confused for script suggestions and pose subsequent issues of plagiarism. Yet such speculations form the building blocks for the fan cultural creation. "JMS" is trading access to the author in return for the right to purge their own subcultural traditions. This case suggests the degree to which intellectual property law has distorted the relationship between authors and readers. [5]

JMS: The Fan

J. Michael Straczynski planned to be at MediaWest*Con in 1992, just over a year before Babylon 5 aired as a test movie in 1993. According to the program book, Straczynski was to have been one of the five fans on two panels: "Computers: reach out and touch a fan - bulletin board systems" and the Ghostbusters panel. It is unknown if Straczynski attending this con. A fan in 1994 wrote:
Re: B5 fanfic, I've heard the production team has said they will NOT allow any zines and since JMS was supposed to be at Media in '92 (and couldn't make it at the last minute), he knows where to look if they suspect any... [6]
Regarding his place as a showrunner and fan, Straczynski wrote in 1996:
I was on CIS and GEnie long before B5 got going. I figured, why change my habits just because now I was supposedly a vip? (And I'm not always comfortable with that designation.) Beyond that, my job as a writer is to know as much as I can about my characters and universe. In answering all these questions, I learn more about those areas, which helps me. Finally, it's a matter of being accessible and *accountable* to fans, as I'd wished producers had been when I was primarily a viewer. SF fans are generally the most exploited sorts of fans...you're told to line up, watch the show, buy the merchandise, and shut up. I didn't like it then, and I don't like it any better now that I'm on the other side of the lens.[7]

"Why Am I Here?"

In June 1995, JMS explained why he was online communicating with fans. See Why are you here?.

An excerpt from this lengthy explanation, and rant:

Okay, you want it straight up? Here it is. I'm [online] for a number of reasons. 1) I like to get kind of a sense of the room; I'm not going to change anything, but writing for TV is like writing for a vacuum; you nevr [sic] get to see the reaction. This is the ONLY chance I get to get a reaction to something I've written and produced, and maybe it's ego, maybe it's just that I work very hard to make something effective, and want to see if it had the desired effect. Writers and artists and singers are like that.

2) I think that TV producers in general get a very skewed sense of who's in the audience. This exchange gives access to people across the country to someone who makes TeeVee, and lets me hear them. How often would someone in Clearwater, Oklahoma, have the chance to express an opinion to someone in LA making a TV series? Not bloody often. And that is in large measure, I think, why TV has become so insular. And so unresponsive to its audience. So I'm kind of a test-case volunteer for this, in the hopes of luring more producers onto the nets and creating a more open exchange, making producers accountable for what they make.

3) I've dedicated over 15 years of my life to trying to demystify TV production and writing. I've written columns and columns, reams of articles, a book...all trying to help people understand how this medium works, because you can't control or influence something unless you truly UNDERSTAND it...why things are done a certain way. This is part of an educational project that I've been doing for over a decade, a natural outgrowth of that process. By the time this is all done, there will be an online document of hundreds of archival pages -- maybe thousands -- covering the development, birth and ongoing creation of a TV series at a depth never before chronicled, which will be available to students and universities and ordinary folks. I think that's a valuable experiment.

Finally: 4) I'm an SF fan. I think SF fans are, overall, the most exploited bunch around. They're expected to line up, buy the toys, watch the show and shut the hell up. I think it's time some respect for that audience was shown by allowing them a voice. This is part of my sense of personal obligation to the field that spawned many wonderful years of reading. [8]

Relationship to Fanworks

JMS was well aware from the beginning that fans would be writing fanfic about B5, and only asked that they not post it (or links to it) in any of the public forums where he was known to hang out (which led to B5 having an active but almost totally underground fanfic community while the show was airing, as many fans were scrupulous about keeping fanfic out of JMS's view).

Comments by JMS

September 1993:
Please do not post story suggestions for my view here. Any time this is done jeapordizes my ability to do anything approaching that story because of the ever-present reality of plagiarism suits. What you just proposed cuts into a story that we're developing, and now we're going to have to modify that in order to avoid any problems. This kind of thing causes us great difficulty. You can reassure all you want, but that doesn't change the reality...you seem like a nice fellow, but I don't know you, don't know if you'll change your mind, don't know anything. So I've had to make a blanket policy regarding stories: you can come up with stories, or I can be present. It's one or the other. I don't mean to sound harsh, because I know your intentions are good, but if this occurs again, I'm going to have to bail out of Internet altogether. This has happened once already; three would be too much.[9]
February 1994:

Let me put this another way, to see if this may have more influence on your thoughts.

BABYLON 5 is owned by PTEN. The names, the characters, *and the situations* are all part of what is owned through copyright, trademark and other legal means. It can then choose to whom to license the right, for a fee, to produce material within that universe...novels, comics, whatever. That sub-entity then has the legal right to publish works that use the B5 universe. (And it's not just the names; if every character is the same, and the context is the same, and a work appears within that context with the names just changed, it is still copyright infringement.)

It is in the vested interests of PTEN to maintain ownership of its copyright and trademarks. Otherwise why should any publisher pay for the rights to, say, publish novels in that universe? If a work appears in the public domain, using copyrighted characters/situations, and is NOT gone after legally, then that portion of the original creation has itself slipped into public domain. PTEN is currently going after several of the companies that have provided services to B5, and then have gone around and published ads in various magazines using photos from B5 *without* the PTEN copyright notice. Those specific images run the risk now of becoming part of the public domain. This has to be stopped and will be stopped, by PTEN.

I understand the need, the utility, and the fun of fanzines. I've read many and own many. I, however, am not PTEN. I understand the desire to play with the characters, in electronic or printed form. But that has nothing to do with PTEN's desire to protect its copyright. The electronic medium -- BBSing -- has been found in several court hearings to constitute a form of publication. There are, in fact, now several electronic publishers who circulate books/stories via this medium. Any work appearing in this medium is subject to commonlaw copyright, so that the writer of that work owns it...which brings that writer into direct conflict if that work infringes upon the copyright of someone else.

If a flood of B5 stories (or camoflaged clones) began to appear on this or any other net, it would force PTEN to intervene legally with injunctions, cease-and-desist letters, and so on. My own feelings about this really don't enter into it.

It becomes a two-sided risk. On my behalf, I would simply have to withdraw rather than run the risk of being sued for something somebody might write that I might have seen. It doesn't have to be proven that I even saw it as long as I had *access* to seeing it. On the other hand, those doing so run the risk of entanglements of their own.

Is it fun? No. Not for either of us. Part of the reason I created the B5 universe was to see what other people would do with it. But this is the law. And the law doesn't have to be fair. It simply is.[10]
February 1994:

"Why can't I write a story using the characters from B5 and publish it here for all to read?"

Because it's a violation of copyright and trademark. What part of that sentence don't you understand?

If you write a story and -- using your own terms -- "publish it here" that instance of commonlaw copyright is a violation of the PTEN copyright and trademark. My own personal feelings notwithstanding, *it's the law*.

The only thing that really bothers me in this whole conversation is that I didn't want to get into a discussion of legalities, or lawyers, or copyright infringement...all I said at the beginning was that I would like to be here, to stay here, to participate in this experiment. And I asked, as a courtesy, to be kept away from any story ideas because it opens me up to legal liability. That's all. Just a courtesy, in exchange for the 3 hours a day I spend on this system, reading 500 messages a day now, to keep the lines of communication open.

Why is the request for a courtesy insufficient, and people have to go to the legal aspect? [11]
February 1994:

Obviously, I can't say anything officially here saying "Go write fanfic to your heart's content." Because PTEN would (correctly) stick my head on a pike in the middle of downtown Hollywood. However, let me be ABSOLUTELY clear in this: I have NEVER said, "Don't write it." All that I have EVER said is, "Don't put it in a place where I can see it or stumble over it."

Email is a private system; so is a closed mailing list. I'm not here to be PTEN's eyes and ears; I really don't care what happens out there in that respect. My only real concern is that whatever it is that's happening, *I don't see it.* It's better for all concerned if I don't see it, or don't have access to it.

So on a personal level, I have no real problem with what you propose. [12]
March 1994:
The conversation is most useful as a sort of "sense of the room," if the comparison is clear. I find that a lot of it reinforces what I suspected. [13]
June 1994:
I have thus far changed about 3 or 4 minor elements because someone

posted what could constitute a story idea that came uncomfortably close to what we were doing this season. Fortunately, they were small things, and didn't affect anything substantial, but it is kind of a pain in the ass.

On the *other* hand...very often there are zillions of questions here about the characters, the universe, history, all that. A writer's job in creating a universe is to try and think of every question, and answer it. But far more questions get asked here than I could ever think of. So, sometimes a question I'd never considered gets asked, I come up with an answer, and now it's part of the show. [14]
July 1994:

You must understand that I *cannot* comment on this publication one way or another. My one request has always been to keep fan fiction out of anywhere where I can easily see it or run into it, since I will never directly

seek it out. In terms of a fanzine, I cannot legally comment. [15]
December 1994:
Re: 'zines...basically, I'm dealing with it the only way I can, which is to ask if such 'zines could be confined to nonfiction stuff during the first-run of the series. Afterward, do as you wish. jms [16]
March 1995:
Yes, I have asked that any B5 related zines refrain from now from (for now) from printing story ideas, as this could cause me great trouble. jms [17]
August 1995:
To this day, I don't think anyone at WB has ever had any kind of problem with fan computer art, freely distributed, based on the show, or altering images into something new and different.[18]
March 1996:
Except I don't think it's actually a story idea, but rather qualifies as parody (of a sort). Also, I've never said I'd go after anybody who posts story ideas, because I can't do that; I can only leave any forum where they come up. I can't interfere with that. Actual *published* fiction that infringes is another matter entirely, of course.[19]
June 1996:
I think the main reason there isn't much fanfiction is that I've specifically asked for there not to be any until after we've finished our run. And as is generally true of the SF fan community, if you ask nice and respectfully, you will generally be accommodated.[20]
October 1996:

Bottom line, and real simple:

I've asked that fans *not* write any fan fiction set in the B5 universe while the show is on the air. Remember, most ST fanfic began after the show was over, to keep those characters alive. We're still around.

Fanfic is a threat to us, in that if someone writes a story, puts it in a fanzine, and something remotely similar is done in the show, that person could decide to sue. It happens; Marion Zimmer Bradley lost an entire *book* over this, when her publisher refused to put the book out because of the threat of lawsuit from a fanzine with a similar story.[21]

When someone posted a basic story idea similar to what was planned for "Passing Through Gethsemane," that script went into cold storage for over a year; only when the fan involved offered (greatly chagrined) to write and sign a legal release, and delivered it to me, could that story be put back into prep. If he had not been this kind, THAT EPISODE WOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN MADE. Roll that one around for a while.

It seems to me that if someone wants to write B5 fanfic, it's because that fan likes the show, appreciates what's done, and respects those who created it. And that selfsame fan would not want to jeapordize the continued existence of that show. And would, therefore, honor this request from those who make it for the duration of the show. jms [22]
1997:
For starters, I have problem with the auteur term.... I do consider myself the author of the B5 story, the creator of its characters and universe. Insofar as we enter of areas, my position is that of navigator... I point to the spot on the horizon and say, "That's where we're all going." [23]

Regarding an Alleged Jettisoned Script

A fan's comment in 1997:
...[reading fanfic] could cause the author to dump a story completely. It happened to J. Micheal Straczynski, who created Babylon 5. A fan posted a story idea that happened to be exactly what he was writing for an episode of the series. Joe ended up having to re-write the entire episode to avoid any possible legal problems. That's why he only hangs out on the moderated newsgroup now. Story ideas are forbidden there. [24]
A fan's comment in 2001:

A fan posted a script idea to the B5 group that JMS was participating in at the time. Said script idea was very similar to a script in pre-production at the time. Script went on the shelf for a year, until the fan figured out what was going on, and offered all rights to the idea for free. JMS stopped participating in the unmoderated group at least partly because of that, and the moderated group was created as a result because he really did want to be able to interact with fans....

...complication is the stuff that lawsuits are made of. And, regardless of how complicated it was, or how much interaction the writer has, it demonstrates quite thoroughly that fanfic is not "harmless at worst." The B5 story does even more so, because it really was a "fan idea that just happened to be posted to a spot the producer was known to read." sort of thing. Mind you, in the end, if that had gone to a lawsuit, JMS would most likely have won, but since the legal fees would have been more than the profits for the entire season, nobody would win, and the network would have canned the show.

The JMS story doesn't even involve actual fanfic. It was just a script _idea_, and nearly caused the script to never be produced. It was a minor miracle that the fan 1) figured out what was going on - apparently, JMS didn't exactly explain it, and 2) happened to make the exact and only offer that would salavge the script spontaneously - apparently, JMS didn't explain what it would take.

When there's millions of dollars at stake, *everything* matters. [25]

Other Fan Interactions and "Babylon 5"

Fan interaction with JMS helped to shape details in several episodes of the show. In the late first-season episode The Quality of Mercy, for example, there is a discussion of the rights of due process in a society where there are functional telepaths. JMS acknowledged on the newsgroup and in discussions that he fleshed out the on-screen discussion rather than glossing it over because there had been a high level of interest on the newsgroup.

Many cast members, such as Claudia Christian and Patricia Tallman, also often interact with fans online or at conventions [26] , and contribute to fan-run projects such as The Babylon Podcast.

A good example of co-operation between fans and TPTB is Babylon 5: I've Found Her, a space combat simulator which continued the legacy of the cancelled Babylon 5: Into the Fire game with the help of the developers of the commercial game (and the unofficial blessing of JMS).[27]

Online Archives

During the 1990s, The Zocalo email newsletter had a section called "JMS Speaks" which reprinted various posts JMS made to Babylon 5 newsgroups, and it is an archive of every post JMS has ever made since November 1991 (earlier posts appear to be lost) is at JMS News.

See The Worlds of JMS and another link: "Worlds of JMS". Archived from the original on 2017-04-27..

Meta/Further Reading

Resources

References

  1. ^ "I think I wrote close to 20 or so episodes for that one. I left when they decided to make Janine into a mommy-character instead of a strong character, then did a few more later when they realized they'd made a mistake and wanted her pulled back again. - jms" - JMS and "Ghostbusters" (6/22/1998)
  2. ^ "I've been online since 1984, 16 years now, logging in at 300bps on a Kaypro II." - JMS, September 25, 2000, posted to rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated. Accessed November 22, 2009.
  3. ^ William Huber, post at Aftermath: Should we all go (Attn:JMS); archive link, December 1, 1995
  4. ^ Alex Rootham: comment on the Usenet post To Theron: You Don't Understand; archive link, December 5, 1995
  5. ^ from The Poachers and the Stormtroopers: Cultural Convergence in the Digital Age
  6. ^ from Strange Bedfellows #5
  7. ^ from a CompuServ transcript
  8. ^ posted to rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated: reposted at "The Worlds of JMS". Archived from the original on 2022-06-12., June 3, 1995
  9. ^ Subject: Scene I would like to see (8 Sep 1993)
  10. ^ Re: Ban on creative works? Huh... (comment on rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated) February 13, 1994
  11. ^ Re: Ban on creative works? Huh (February 16, 1994)
  12. ^ Re: Ban on creative works? Huh (February 18, 1994)
  13. ^ JMS How have you been influenc... (March 17, 1994)
  14. ^ from JMS at Re: JMS: does this group affec..., rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated (June 8, 1994)
  15. ^ You must understand that I *cannot*... (July 12, 1994)
  16. ^ Perhaps the whole gay issue might... (comment on GEnie) December 23, 1994
  17. ^ ATTN JMS: Question regarding fanzines (comment on GEnie) March 3, 1995
  18. ^ from JMS in a CompuServ transcript, August 16, 1995
  19. ^ from a CompuServ transcript, subject line was "Subject: B5 vs. DS9 filk story?"
  20. ^ from a CompuServe transcript
  21. ^ A oft-repeated urban myth, one carelessly repeated. See Marion Zimmer Bradley Fanfiction Controversy for a much more nuanced reality.
  22. ^ comment by JMS at rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated, How does JMS feel about fan fiction?, October 7, 1996
  23. ^ from An Auteur in the Age of the Internet: JMS, Babylon 5, and the Net (1997)
  24. ^ Mercedes book - Stoned Souls...?, comment by Purrt, April 27, 2009
  25. ^ comment by Terry Austin at Copyright and Filk Songs, archive link page one, archive link page two, archive link page three, archive link page four, March 2001 discussion at rec.arts.sf.written
  26. ^ "In the summer of 1997, I attended the Chicago Comicon. One of the guests was Pat Tallman, who knew about the mailing list I ran. It was a super cool moment in my fandom history." -- comment by Laura Hale: User:Laura/Timeline
  27. ^ I've Found Her official site