Who owns fandom?

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News Media Commentary
Title: Who owns fandom?
Commentator: Sarah Kendzior for Salon.com
Date(s): December 13, 2000
Venue: online
Fandom:
External Links: Who owns fandom? - Salon.com, Archived version (new site)
Salon.com Technology: Who owns fandom? page 1, Archived version
Salon.com Technology: Who owns fandom? page 2, Archived version
Salon.com Technology: Who owns fandom? page 3, Archived version
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Who owns fandom? is a 2000 article by Sarah Kendzior for Salon.com.

"Independent Web sites devoted to pop culture icons like "The X-Files" and "Star Trek" used to flourish on the Net. Now they're an endangered species."

Some Topics Discussed

Excerpts

For Carol Burrell, running a Web site was just another step in a long life of sci-fi, fantasy and horror devotion. Her fannish enthusiasms began in early childhood, when family dinner was scheduled around "Star Trek" reruns and horror stories were read before bedtime.

The magic of these fantasy worlds proved alluring, but even more appealing for Burrell was the communal, participatory nature of fandom itself. "I wanted to be part of that world, the world that creates that kind of entertainment," says Burrell. The Internet gave her the opportunity. By the early '90s, Burrell had already racked up a veritable checklist of geeky fandom qualifications: She chaired conventions, shot Super-8 films, edited zines and ran a dial-up BBS out of her home in Riverdale, N.Y. But the Internet, she found, proved an even more perfect outlet for her wide range of interests, as well as a natural way to unite the geographically disparate members of the fan community she so valued. In 1993, Burrell created a series of Web sites with names like "Rat Patrol Fandom," "Elfquest Fandom" and, in 1995, the ever-popular "Xena Fandom," which, she says, "started taking over all of my server space." Inspired by the success of those sites, Burrell resolved to compile her fan devotions into a more comprehensive television site exploring cult series ranging from "Columbo" to "The Twilight Zone" to "Farscape." In July 2000, she chose what seemed a logical domain name for her new project: Fandom.tv.

Three months later, on Oct. 30, Burrell received a letter from the law firm Troop, Steuber, Pasich, Reddick and Tobey demanding the "unconditional surrender and transfer of the Infringing Domain Name" Fandom.tv; accusing her of violating the Anti-Cybersquatting Act (the punishment for which are fines up to $100,000 per domain name); and threatening immediate legal action. For good measure, they threw in a monetary offer: $250 if Burrell agreed to abandon the domain name immediately. Cease-and-desist letters are not unusual in the world of fandom. Skirmishes between the holders of copyright and trademarks and overzealous fans constitute one of the longest ongoing stories in cyberspace. But the letter Burrell received offered a new twist. She had been hit, not by Fox or Universal or Disney, but by the legal representatives of Fandom.com, a Santa Monica, Calif., company whose slogan is "by the fans, for the fans."

Fandom.com serves as an umbrella site for numerous "fandomains" -- formerly independent Web sites dedicated to popular, merchandise-friendly topics such as "Star Wars," "The X-Files" and "Lord of the Rings" that now run under the Fandom.com banner. Each site contains the same structure and design, and there's a large copyright disclaimer placed at the bottom of every page. Fandom.com sites regularly use logos and photographs from various films or series and reprint copyrighted magazine articles.
The initial premise of Fandom.com was straightforward: to protect individual fan site owners from studio censorship (and sell a lot of nifty merchandise and advertising in the process). In the ecology of fandom, the idea seemed to have merit. One of the fundamental appealing aspects of the Internet for many fans lies in the fact that a community can form around even the most obscure of interests, like short-lived, long-since-canceled series such as "Space: Above and Beyond" or "American Gothic." An active community can produce Web sites, conventions, fan fiction and even fan films on its chosen topic in incredible profusion. What drives fans is passion, not solely for the product itself but for the ideas -- fantasy, utopianism, magic -- that those shows express.

But that passion often leads to confrontation between huge corporations and puny individuals. Which is why Fandom.com seemed to make sense -- by joining together the little guys, it would create an institution that could defend itself from the heavy hitters. But Fandom.com's letter to Burrell appeared to indicate something entirely different. Fandom.com was accusing Burrell of trademark violation -- a fact that was ironic on at least two levels. First: Fandom.com may not even own a trademark for the word "fandom." Second: A company whose individual sites flourished by pushing copyright laws to the legal limit was now turning around and itself playing the role of intellectual property bully.

Which leads to the question currently raging in the fan community: Who will protect the fans from Fandom?
Fandom.com is a far cry from the typical fanboy plugging away in his or her basement. Founded last year by Chip Meyers, formerly the head of Web production studio Centropolis Interactive, its CEO is Mark Young, the former vice president of sales and trading at Morgan Stanley. The Santa Monica company is backed by a large number of corporate investors and recently acquired the merchandise outlet Another Universe, adding to holdings that already include Cinescape, a small Chicago corporation that produces print film and television magazines, and Creation, a company that hosts and designs fan conventions.

But Meyers is adamant about selling Fandom.com as a down-home, low-key operation -- in contrast to the mega-businesses that control copyrights. "We are far from a big corporation," insists Meyers. "It was me sitting in my garage that arranged for all of the owners of the specific sites to join Fandom. Our first round of funding occurred in August 1999, and I was still in my garage." His inspiration for the company, he says, partly came out of his experiences with Centropolis.

[snipped]

Meyers had a revelation: He would build a company that could offer protection to the sort of independent fan sites that were being bullied by studios. These new sites would have the gloss and glamour of corporate backing, but provide the kind of individual, homegrown appeal that had drawn Godzilla.com's visitors to the independent market.

Early on, Fandom.com moved to absorb the competition, recruiting even Monster Zero's Smith, whose posts were earlier censored on the Godzilla.com site. Smith's site, Monster Zero had also been shut down by Sony before becoming a safeguarded Fandom.com acquisition.

From then on, Fandom.com made it its mission to incorporate small fan sites and unite them under the fairly homogeneous Fandom.com umbrella. The group's formidable financial prowess has paid off nicely for its webmasters; in contrast to affiliate programs such as those offered by IGN or UGO, Fandom.com employees are given steady, salaried positions, cuts of merchandise revenue and stock in the parent company.

More important, the webmasters may also get the kind of legal protection against studios that smaller, independently run fan sites can't afford. Fandom.com representatives, including Meyers, refused to comment on what they called "confidential company information," but several webmasters for the company have spoken publicly on the subject. Daniel Wood, an Australian college student, joined Fandom.com in late 1999 with his fan site, Ultimate X-Files Information Complex. He cited an increase in traffic and exposure as reasons for joining, but also "resistance from the Fox lawyers. Like someone said, join [Fandom.com] or be shut down."

According to Wood, Fandom.com doesn't just offer legal protection, it's also the fan equivalent of the big leagues. "Imagine, you're just a guy who runs a small X-Files site and suddenly this company wants you to run it for them, they're offering you a deal. Refusing it would be comparative to an aspiring actor refusing their first real break."
First Fandom's idealism may seem quaint today, but to Fandom.tv's Carol Burrell, it is the rule, and Fandom.com's commercial homogeneity is the exception. "I have all sorts of opinions about the participatory nature of television, how it can be considered the folklore of our times," she says. So-called genre fandom, therefore, promotes the view that all people have a stake in the storytelling, and corporate monoliths such as Fandom.com threaten not only individual freedom, but discourage the kind of creative discourse that has driven the fan community for decades.

"Once fandom was overwhelmingly optimistic and idealistic, perhaps too idealistic, with wild fancies about progress," wrote First Fandom member David A. Kyle in a 1986 Starlog magazine article celebrating the 50th anniversary of the group's inaugural convention. "For contemporary teenagers, there is a disturbing conflict between the visions of the naive past and cynical present." This discrepancy extends today to the Internet, where fans who find emotional resonance in genre entertainment watch their peers become increasingly co-opted by commercial organizations.

The evolution of Fandom.com may offer evidence that even its brand of midtier fandom proves that commerce and true fan sensibilities don't mix. Are Fandom.com sites really allowed to maintain their own originality and independence? That's something that Jane Carnall, a supporter of Burrell's campaign, has been wondering ever since her posts detailing the Fandom.tv trademark dispute were deleted from the Fandom.com message boards. "I registered with Fandom.com on Nov. 21, 2000," says Carnall. "I posted a quick summary of the situation as it stood then to several message boards." Carnall returned the next day to find her posts removed and her registration revoked. She was miffed, but hardly surprised. "I've been in one kind of fandom or another since 1983," she says. "It's always impressed me, given what an anarchic and opinionated lot we all are, how much solidarity fandom has. We may seem to be a wide open and gullible market, but in fact we are merely ready to be pleased by what pleases us: not to be conned, and never to be bullied. I've seen some individuals, and a couple of organizations, make that mistake; Fandom, Inc. is just another one."

"In a way, [Fandom.com] is starting to remind me of the Borg," says Tim Hansen, who runs the independent "Star Trek" Web site Section31.com. "They won't be happy until they have everything under their control."
"I hope that the Web, with its marvelous potential to give voice to individuals, won't turn into the private playground of companies," concludes Burrell, who has so far remained master of the Fandom.tv domain name despite a second legal threat (and an upped offer of $1,500). "The Internet has made people aware that they are, in fact, part of something called fandom," says Burrell. "It has given the individual the power to shout out loud." But how long anyone will be able to hear those shouts, as corporations large and small press their claims on community feeling, is a question even the most fervent fan can't answer.