Who Owns Our Culture?: The Battle Over the Internet, Copyright, Media Fandom, and Everyday Uses of the Cultural Commons

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Academic Commentary
Title: Who Owns Our Culture? The Battle Over the Internet, Copyright, Media Fandom, and Everyday Uses of the Cultural Commons
Commentator: Susan Clerc
Date(s): August 2002
Medium: print
Fandom: many, but has focus on Star Wars, Star Trek, The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer
External Links:
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Who Owns Our Culture? The Battle Over the Internet, Copyright, Media Fandom, and Everyday Uses of the Cultural Commons is a 2002 academic paper by Susan Clerc. It was a Ph.D dissertation for Bowling Green State University.


Throughout human history, people have used shared cultural references to expres themselves, form group identity, and define their relationship to their world and each other. The characters and stories of a society's myths, folklore, legends, and poetic and prose epics were understood to be a common store of imagery free to all to use. Today, stories and cultural elements are disseminated by television, film, and other media and increasingly fenced oft'by strategic expansion of copyright law. At the same time thai cultural production has become the province of corporations, the Internet has provided people with a new medium for expression. Media fandom. a distinct subculture thai predates the Internet, has grown online and modes of appropriation formerly unique to the subculture have spread beyond its boundaries. By making the everyday, personal uses of culture by average people visible, the Internet has brought to a head the tension inherent between copyright law and the First Amendment. This dissertation examines the conflict in the context of a series of clashes between media companies Lucastilm. Paramount, and Fox and fans of Star Wars. Star Trek. The X Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and concludes that attempts by corporate copyright holders to stretch the law to cover personal use threatens the ability of the intended beneficiaries of the law. ihe people, to use their own culture.

The Table of Contents



  • A Long Time Ago, In A Galaxy Far. Far Away: Star Wars ( 13)
  • Resistance Is Futile: Star Trek ( 19)
  • Fight the Future: The X Files (32)
  • I Wear The Cheese. It Does Not Wear Me: Buffy The Vampire Slaver ( 40)
  • Meanwhile. Back At The Ranch: Web Hosts (47)
  • There Can Be Only One: Fans Vs. Producers (52)


  • Canon Fodder: Fans As Textual Critics (57)
  • Fandom Acts: Fans As Authors And Artists ( 64)
  • Fandom House: Fans As Community (81)
  • Fandom Menace: Fans As Partners In Production (92)
  • The Fundamental Interconnectedness Of All Things: Fandom And The
internet (105)


  • The One With The Guild Makes The Rules: History of Copyright (113)
  • Do Too Many Rights Make A Wrong: The Rights of Copyright (121)
  • Commons Sense: The Public Domain (131)
  • Everything Old Is New Again: Copyright And Digital Technology ( 146)
  • Summary Judgment (159)


  • Who's The Fairest Of Them All: Are Fan Uses Fair Uses (166)
  • Nobody Expects The Spanish Inquisition: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (176)
  • The Way Back: Prospects For The Public Domain (184)
  • Never Give Up. Never Surrender: Conclusion (193)


  • Books. Articles. And Websites (195)
  • Cases (207)
  • Laws (209)

Some Topics Discussed


Research for this dissertation informally began with my Masters thesis in 1994. While observing and participating in online fan forums and attending conventions for fun and profit. I began noticing the ways producer presence altered fan activities in real life and online. At conventions, the presence of guest actors or writers often resulted in certain fan products being sold literally under the table and on limits or bans of some kinds of fan artwork. Online, the tone of fan discussion groups was dramatically changed by the known presence of production staff-fan fiction was not allowed, discussion of homoerotic interpretations was expected to move to another venue, and any post from production staff was greeted by a tide of fawning posts when the usual lone of fan discussion is usually more critical of the text. These early forms of self-policing were subtle compared to the problems on the horizon.

Fanlore has it that Richard Carpenter, creator of Robin of Sherwood (RoS), a New Agey rereading of the folk hero band emphasizing pagan lore, requested that fans refrain from writing slash stories although all of the characters except the Saracen Nasir are folk characters. One fan mulled over the question on her web page:

I originally posed this question: why is there no ROS slash on the net. Granted, the possibilities seem to be rather limited, but when has thai ever stopped a truly dedicated slash writer before'?! I had one reply that suggests that the writer of ROS. Richard Carpenter, asked fans not to write slash about his characters. But hey. sorry and all that: I don't intend any infringement of copyright by using the characters in this way but I do reserve the right to use my own twisted imagination in any way I see lit!
So there!

Fans do not stop at simply copying the existing text. They also create music videos, usually called vids or songvids, editing scenes from the scries or film to fit a popular song. As with fan fic. vids tend lo focus on a favorite character or relationship and depict the vidder's interpretation by matching lyrics with specitlc moments of the text. Some vids, like comedy ones that play on the contrast between the lyrics and the scene or use comedic songs, are easier for those unfamiliar with a text to understand. Others rely on fans' intimate knowledge of ever.- moment shown in the vid and the understanding that each clip is a synecdoche of the larger scenes, episode, and meta-narrative from which it is drawn. While a loose consensus about aesthetics exists, there is no means of enforcing it and if a vidder chooses to inflict long, slow, sappy songs on an innocent audience, there is sadly little the audience can do since standing up and leaving a vid contest is considered rude, let alone making unappreciativc comments or noises. Vids are distributed in much the same ways as zines: through the mail and at cons where they are shown at room parties and vid contests. They are becoming increasingly available online as more fans turn to computer video editing programs and as digital file formats make it easier to upload and display the work. At least one discussion group exists online for the purpose of reviewing vids and talking about vidmaking.

In summary, before the Internet it was easier to say "this is media fandom." The community could be identitled by its practices and self-identity. There were levels of participation but in order to have access to the goods you had to be in to some degree. Only conventions were available to outsiders and those would be the more public kinds of cons, the actor cons. With the net, the practices have become more widespread. There is now media fandom and mainstream fans or fans of other things who also use the modes of appropriation that used to define media fandom. This has caused growing pains as core media fans encounter huge numbers of newcomers who might enter the community or simply use the modes. All kinds of fans coexist in fan communities and find meaningful connections in the communities they form through their participation.

Since fandom was still underground anyway at the time. Star Wars slash became truly subterranean. Lucasfilm was asserting that it had the legal right not only to the characters but to how fans interpreted the characters. No doubt there were fans who embraced the directive, but many protested the attempt to impose limits on how the characters were interpreted. Apparently as a result of the Star Wars conflict and the Sony v. Universal court case (discussed more fully below), many zines began displaying disclaimers that acknowledged corporate ownership of the copyrights and trademarks and declared that profits were not being made from the sale of the zine. Similar disclaimers are now displayed on most online fan fiction as well.

The first of the many "Estrogen Brigades." for example, were spin-offs from large mainstream fannish groups formed to let their members drool in private and build a support network that extends into nonfannish areas of life. As one woman wrote about her experience in the DDEB (David Duchovnv Estrogen Brigade), a small X Files group that spun off alt.tv.x-files and the giant X Files mailing list.

"The DDEB is my living room; the newsgroup is a public meeting hall. The DDEB is not just a drool group, not anymore anyway. We moved out of that stage about a year ago.. ..These are my dearest friends, the ones I can pour my heart out to....They are more than a support group; they are a second family."