Who's fic is it anyway?

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Title: Who's fic is it anyway?
Creator: profshallowness
Date(s): February 8, 2005
Medium: LiveJournal post
Fandom:
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External Links: Who's fic is it anyway?; archive link
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Who's fic is it anyway? is a 2005 essay by profshallowness.

The first sentence: "Ownership and the (im) permanence of a fic after it's been posted."

The post has 18 comments.

Some Topics Discussed

Excerpts from the Essay

I do privilege an author's interpretation (which what she/he says was their intent was after the event has to be) but other readings, preferably rooted in canon, are just as valid and can be more useful in illuminating canon for me. It makes sense that someone who was intimately involved with the creation of canon will do that, when they talk about intent and backstory, I'll be judging it through canon thought. Readings that aren't text-driven but bias-driven can be entertaining/deeply weird/ insightful, particularly when the biases have been formalised into a theory, but I don't privilege them as highly as more text-related interpretations. Sometimes those involved in the production of a text fall into the latter category as much as anyone when pushing an agenda. So I don't want to the author dead, but they're only creating canon when they're creating canon, not when they're discussing it under other circumstances.

It always tickles me, though it is completely understandable, that we, as writers of fanfiction, get so insistent on the Author's rights* when we're talking about us. And I did capitalise that 'A' intentionally. Here we are, appropriating or adding layers to another writer's work, or a set of writers (which somehow makes it easier for me, personally.) In a few cases there is tacit permission of sorts for fans to do this, in others there definitely isn't. Mainly the original writers are either ostrich-like or quite possibly ignorant that fanfic is being written based on their work.

We prefer to discuss what we're doing in terms of the oral storytelling tradition, when there was no definitive version of the story, when additions or new emphases were expected as a tribe's story was retold to a different audience (although probably to a less marked degree than happens in a lot of fic, because there were no other copies of the stories than those told, so there was less leeway to alter the story.) I think this is a useful comparison most of the time, it explains a lot about the 'folk' nature of fanfiction - the role of audience participation, and, indeed, ownership. But fanfiction** is a written story based on other stories already told usually in defined form - a novel or a film or a tv series. Granted, some of them are ongoing, and even closed canons have revised editions, extended cuts. The authorship of those versions can be complicated - for instance a show who's initial creator is no longer involved in producing, the abridged kid-friendly versions of classic novels, or the studio-sanctioned versus the director-sanctioned cut of a film. Having admitted those grey areas, in the main, fanfic is always in relation to a known form of canon. And as it isn't a story said out loud, but written/typed, fanfiction takes on a certain form too, that of a web-published piece of fiction usually, mainly prose, and that is further universalised by archives and wide-spread conventions such as header information. So why do we not think of fan-writers (theoretically) as we do professional writers?

But where is this discussion of ownership when it comes to the fan-writer? And - this struck me forcibly when I first began reading fanfic, does capitalising the A shut down discussion or criticism of fic? Oh, we meta about trends and that's valuable, and often a more tactful and useful approach for dealing with uncanonical characterisations, for instance. But there ought to be text-specific discussions that aren't always feedback. Particularly for fics that are of huge importance to a fandom - the 'definitive' story for relationship X, or the classic so and so becomes a cat story that kicked off a sub-genre, or, on an aesthetic level, the really inventive ones that have interesting things to say and do wonderous things with language.

Yet, when it comes to fanfic, we tend to privilege the writer's intention a lot. More than we do with canon. Perhaps it's because so much fanfic is about making subtext text. For instance if the fan-writer labelled her fic as darkfic and a reader who was shocked at all the darkness in the fic says so publicly, the fannish sympathy is with the fan-writer. (If the label is incomplete we side with the reader. Where does that fit in?) I actually think that - speaking generally - the loss of the unsaid for the explicit is a shame (it depends on how you say it, I suppose.)

By publishing on the web, we get editorial control. This is a good thing (if you're a completist) if someone canon-picks, maybe. But so you change it on your website, but nt on the archive version. Of course that's a small example, different to the author who posts a draft on her lj, then posts a polished version a few months later and puts that version up elsewhere. Different to to the issue of a story exising in an NC-17 version and an R-version (seen it in some ff.net writers' work) or even an NC-17 and a PG-13 version existing side by side. And what about the WIPs that are regularly updated on one website and not on the other? Various versions of one story exist, if we're getting nitpicky, with the difference between formatting from site to site. The fluidity of web-publishing makes this a relevant issue.

Once a work is posted, it is (allowing for passworded areas and filtered areas) in the public domain and up for discussion and critique. Some of it will be adressed to the writer, some of it will not be and that may well take place equally publicly. But to what degree has that fic conceptually become the readers'? The fic is 'out there' for a reader to take to their hearts, lavish feedback on and pimp the link, or keep the link for future reading after skimming over it and seeing they're using paragraph breaks correctly, pick up a quote as a sig., or talk about in a fic-bashing community, or totally ignore.

Unless if the writer decides to remove it. Or the story is lost for technical reasons or is removed from a site - because the archive deems it unacceptable or well, any reason, which can be within or without the control of the Author. (She is not always so powerful.)

And then the reader clicks on her bookmarked link and finds out that the story wasn't hers.

But what if a writer decides to take all her work offline? Perhaps because she thinks it's rubbish, perhaps because she's moved on from writing fanfiction and harbours negative feelings towards it, perhaps because she's fallen out of love with a fandom. Or changed her mind for any other reason. Whatever. Even if she stated when it was on-line that she'd rather it wasn't distributed (and what percentage of writers does this anyway? I think if people do ask for things not to be archived without their consent it's out of a sense of knowing that it's in the right place, not usually from a wish to exclude.) Even if she left a last fannish will and testament saying that she has, for valid (usually personal) reasons, decided to pull her stories what should the fan who saved it on their hard drive do? Delete it? Keep it for themselves? The Author has after all put her work on-line, in the public space (and again, it depends where, filtered or passworded is semi-public space.) Or more exactly in a a fannish space, then. Having put the fic there is it the Author's, the Reader's or the Fandom's?

There's a problem with the label fannish space, however, because this is the Web - and public, so there are readers who don't interact with the author, but just with the story. Technology can make it easy to pass on info and dehumanise the person in a way. We use pen-names, some of us lurk and often we're thoughtless. As a reader, I want to read every (good) thing written in whatever is taking my fancy at a particular time. And if I find good stuff, I want other people to know about it. But if that desire infringes on the Author's rights - what then? It is a question that affects the older fandoms more than the latest ones, perhaps, because writers move on from fandoms and archives go kerflooey. Yet, the entire removal of the Author from the process of distribution without Her explicit consent, has left me uneasy on occasion. For I do understand why She might want to remove a fic, but neither am I sure if she has the right to, in the abstract. And I'm pretty sure that often, she can't practically.

Some Comments to the Essay

celandineb (responding to a deleted comment): Re: your point 2, on printing out and saving stories, you say, "its sort of weird to think that someone who's never commented to me or "spoken" to me in any way might have printed copies of my stories that she's reading and rereading." That's true in a sense - it's like knowing that the kids I teach just might be harboring fantasies about me, however unlikely that is - but OTOH that is what happens for any professionally published fic. The author will have no clue about the thousands or millions of people who read it. And if a fic has ever been available online, there's a chance that someone, somewhere, has saved it and/or printed it. (Me, I'd be thrilled to know someone liked one of my fics enough to do that!)
profshallowness (responding to a deleted comment): On 2. the fanfic printouts. Well, I've done it and will do it, possibly in future for selfish and pragmatic reasons (I have off-line periods.) Now, it would always be stuff I'd sent feedback on, though I wouldn't probably say "and this fic is so great that I will be printing it out and rereading it!" because it feels a bit over enthusiastic. And does 'do not archive' apply if the story is being transferred in it's original form to another version - printout or hard-drive?

[snipped]

As a writer, I'm perfectly ok with someone approaching what I've written in that way; as a reccer, I'm uncomfortable breaking the communities norms that stories are reced but not really *reviewed*, if that makes any sense. . . Yes, the last point makes sense, because so much of this is about being part of the community, and the fact that we're in other relationships to writers, so we do have to consider them, (and their fangirling minions) although what could be the problem with paying such attention to their work. Of course there is possibly more of an issue of the discussion getting bogged down in intentionality - "I didn't mean that, why are you bringing Freud into it?" :) because the two parties are so close, and it'll probably be more intense than a series of letters to an editor. Still, as a reader I do sometimes get frustrated by the whole just writing about trends approach, I want specificity. And I enjoy reading public fb that gives me other insights into a fic, which in-depth critical discussion would only offer more of. And as a writer I'd be thrilled that people put that much thought into my work.

profshallowness: And if a fic has ever been available online, there's a chance that someone, somewhere, has saved it and/or printed it. Yes! But I as a fan writer going through the process of publishing online, I don't necessarily think of that. You forget that you read plenty of stuff and don't comment (not fanfic necessarily but some people apply the same rules to fanfic as any other web published writing) and your awareness of your readership is dependent on feedback and maybe stats if you've got them. So knowing that in the abstract is different to believing it when you're going through the experience. Maybe there should be a day of amnesty for fic-printers-out to drop a note to authors to let them know 'hey, I loved your stuff enough to print it out.' ;)
rez lo:

Wonderful post. The whole question of ownership is fascinating, not least because it's based on concepts that are as much economic as ethical in nature. The reason (at least in the US, and I know that this varies internationally) that copyright laws exist is to allow creators to profit from their creations for a certain period of time, thus setting up an incentive for further creation by those creators, after which the creations are available for use by others wanting to produce innovative variations or new versions, without penalty ("in the public domain"). The whole structure is meant to stimulate both economic and cultural activity and seems to include no presumption that the author has a natural right to ownership of her work. But we all talk about authorial ownership as though we assume that she does.

(I don't know whether you've seen anything about the Creative Commons movement, but it's a US-based effort to create a more flexible licensing system that bypasses the profit-bound cultural industries (television networks, film studios, publishers) and lets the author/creator choose from a selection of copyright terms that explicitly allow or disallow things like sampling and derivative works. It's related to the Open Source movement and is gaining popularity.)

Because how can something be subversive if we don't know what it is subverting?

I'm sort of wary about thinking of fanfiction as subversive of anything but the notion that particular versions of stories are these inert "owned" things that are closed and complete once they're released into the wild. But it is subversive of that, it seems to me. The audience is a productive animal by its nature, IMO, and writing stories or making vids or running a discussion board or whatever is merely a technologically enabled version of the proof of that, not the sum total of it. Authorial attempts to control an audience are kind of strange, when you really think about it.

Do I have some natural right to control whether or not a reader who likes one of my stories can translate it into her native language? I can decline to give permission when she asks, but if she goes ahead anyway, "her" version, still, is to "my" story as my story is to the canon text. If I do give permission, the relation between her derivative work and my source text changes, but I can't see that one is more privileged than the other from the point of view of its audience.

I'm not even sure whether this is on topic, sorry. The whole big question is endlessly interesting.
st crispins: Here from metafandom.

I really liked this post and agree with all of it, particularly what you say about canon vs. author intent. To me, it's always been like Talmudic study. There's the scripture, and then there's the scribbling in the margins.

I belong to an old fandom, Man from U.N.C.L.E. --we even predate Trek. And we've moved from ditto masters to LJ in 40 years.

Some of the stories were lost for whatever reason and folks are always scrambling around, tracking down stories in out-of-print zines. So, print stories could disappear too --- zine runs were limited.

But yes, there was more of a gate-keeping function pre-internet. That wasn't always a good thing, mind you. It meant you had to find an editor who liked your work and wouldn't re-edit it in a way that displeased you, or you would just have to find a way to publish it yourself (which could be time consuming and expensive).

So, there are pros and cons on the print vs. online debate. Personally, I like having both.
profshallowness: it's always been like Talmudic study. There's the scripture, and then there's the scribbling in the margins. Yes, that's an useful comparison. Marginalia is interesting, often adds to the understanding of a text, and leads to theorising about itself, but it's marginalia.

Cool to have the insight of someone with an experience of an older fandom. Ignoramus's question though: what precisely are 'ditto masters'?

As you say, a story's availability was problematic in 'zine days, but at least there were physical copies, whereas theoretically if a writer's just posted her story to one archive (and NOT EVEN KEPT A BACK UP COPY FOR HERSELF, ahem) a story could be completely lost.

Were restrictions on distribution applied at all by either author or 'sine editor?

It meant you had to find an editor who liked your work and wouldn't re-edit it in a way that displeased you, or you would just have to find a way to publish it yourself (which could be time consuming and expensive). Yes, i suppose that would definitely be an issue given the size of a fandom and the clash of personalities/tastes. Very different from the free-for-all of internet fandom!

I'd love to have 'zines in my fandom, just for the sheer physical pleasure of holding and reading from paper instead of off a screen (which is why I rather like printing beloved stories off and rereading them.)
profshallowness:

what precisely are 'ditto masters'?

Ditto was a prehistoric, pre-xerox method of printing. You made typed out a carbon paper like master then attached it to a steel drum that was cranked. It used this purple ink that was very sweet smelling. When I was in elementary school, all our tests were run off ditto master, and we always inhaled our test papers before we took the tests. :)

It's one of those smells like Play-doh and plastic Barbie Doll cases that have stayed with me.

Anyway, some of the first newsletters were ditto printed.

NOT EVEN KEPT A BACK UP COPY FOR HERSELF

Sad to say, what it indicates how much the writer valued her own work.

Were restrictions on distribution applied at all by either author or 'sine editor

How do you mean? A story belonged to the writer and was sort of 'leased' for publication. But the rights remained with the writer and after a zine went out of print, reverted back to the writer. My fandom still has zines and its courtesy not to post a story online until at least a year after the zine is published.
sallymn: Were restrictions on distribution applied at all by either author or 'sine editor? Still are, as far as I know, which makes 'sharing' stories from zines that have been out-of-print for 10-15 years an interesting exercise. The biggest online Blakes 7 archive has managed to collect permission from some authors who've left the fandom to repost their stories (which of course someone involves scanning or even retyping the things!)

But what about the story in an old zine where neither the author nor the editor can be traced any more? Can I (who bought a rare 2nd-hand copy) photocopy it for a friend and send it to them? Do I feel uncomfortable doing it? Would it be wrong for someone to offer to make multiple copies (not for profit) and distribute them?

Then there's the person who desperately wants to read one odd story from a maybe-still-in-print zine but can't afford to buy it (most of 'em aren't cheap). Do I feel uncomfortable if I don't like to offer it?

And if sharing zine stories is sorta-semi-okay just between friends, of course why not with web-published pieces (yes, I've saved quite a lot. Yes, I print some just for myself. They're actually a lot safer and more private in my plastic inbox than my virtual one, after all...)

Is it a different can o' worms, or the same one with a different label?
profshallowness:

Because in the transfer of 'zine to on-line archive, the economic question goes out of the window.

The question of distribution to friends, rather than retyping it wholesale onto another archive without permission and without acknowledging that you were unable to have that permission, really is the one where these issues are most likely to arise. Because it's easy to do, you're doing it out of good intentions - it's the same motivation as reccing a story. But of course how do you define friends and passing it on?

I've saved quite a lot. Yes, I print some just for myself. They're actually a lot safer and more private in my plastic inbox than my virtual one, after all...) Yes! My main reason for print-outs was knowing that I wouldn't have internet access and wanting to be able to reread some stories.

Is it a different can o' worms, or the same one with a different label?

Both, I think, because there's an economic argument for protecting the integrity of the 'zine as the archive for a story, I suppose, which doesn't exist on line (unless if you take the feedback=currency argument to it's extreme and in the redistribution, the access to send fb to the writer is lost.) But ethically it's still a conundrum on line and in 'zines. Thanks for your perspective.
stakebait: To me taking a story down is like a pro author who gets their rights back when something goes out of print refusing to sell them again to put it back in print. You're not obligated to destroy the copy you bought for personal use while it was in print, but neither are you supposed to come out with a pirated edition (repost without permission).

(I suspect she does have a right, legally, to take her stories down, though it would depend on the wording she agreed to when granting permission to archive. Agreements to give your authorial rights to others are usually limited term and revert to the author or revokable, though.)

That said, personally I'm not nearly so protective of my stories. Once they're out there, they're out there. I say yes to virtually all archive requests, and then don't keep track of them, so if, god forbid, I ever got a cease and desist letter I wouldn't begin to know where to start. And absent the C&D letter or some other legal reason I can't imagine why I'd want to pull them. Even if someday I hate them all, I'm not going to want to undo my past just because I've moved on from it.

I really wish we did have more text based discussion of fanfic itself other than feedback, but I see why people are reluctant to open that can of worms and risk offending each other.

As far as remixes go, and needing permission, I think there's two sets of rules that are very different in theory but overlap in practice -- the rules for a robust public discourse, and the rules for politeness in a small community of friends.

By the first, I don't think one needs permission to fic another fic any more than to fic a canonical work. By the second -- if I were going to write fanfic for the work of any of the published authors I know personally, I'd ask their permission first too. Because we're friends, or at least friendly personal acquaintances, and the rules for protecting friends' feelings are considerably more stringent than the rules for talking in society. There are issues whenever these overlap or conflict -- such as reviewing a friend's book, for example. My usual way is to ask whether they mind if I do it at all, but then if they say yes, to do it the way I'd do anyone else's.

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