Twifandom’s long reach: The downstream effects of P2P

finderskeepers

I’ve been writing notes for a post on the effects of the Twific pulling-to-publish phenomenon on other fandoms. But it keeps getting bigger and more amorphous, so I decided to break it into parts.

I’ve been struck by the extent to which theP2P, which at first seems concentrated in Twifandom, has spread to other fanfic communities whether they’ve sought to do the same thing or not. A while back I ran across an episode which I never imagined I’d encounter: the pulling and publicizing (it was not formally published but publicized and linked widely) was not done by the author, or by members of the fandom, but by readers outside the community.

Last year after The Book That Shall Not Be Named hit the bigtime, readers who enjoyed it but who had never read fanfiction started mining fandom for more books like TBTSNBN. Discussions about fanfic stories started popping up in likely places like the Amazon romance forum, but also in unlikely places like the All About Romance chat boards, where most of the regular commenters apparently had no idea what fanfiction was until they read TBTSNBN.

These readers looked for more and soon discovered many, many Twilight fanfics, as you might imagine. When they complained about only being able to read a chapter at a time on the computer, someone introduced them to fanfiction downloader, and they were off and running. They asked for specific tropes and romance settings. They emailed fanfics to each other. And so on. Perhaps the original authors knew of their interest, perhaps not. Perhaps the authors had given permission, perhaps not. They could usually find whatever story they were looking for. Even with fanfics that began behind a membership wall, or were pulled from the original site, the dogged, determined reader could usually find the originals somewhere on the internet. And they’d be free.

I watched all this go on while I was trying to educate myself about both the fan fiction community and the larger effects of the P2P juggernaut. Then, while I was still a member of Goodreads, I ran across an m/m story that I though was an original novel but that turned out to be fanfic. It was hockey Real Person Fiction (RPF) slash, starring two of the most well-known hockey players in the NHL. I’m not a fan of RPF in general, but I was especially creeped out by the premise here. First, I’m a hockey fan and think of these players as young, talented athletes, not fantasy reading material. And second, while the players are famous as hockey stars, they have not, to my knowledge, milked their personal lives for added celebrity exposure. So the story felt like a serious invasion of their privacy.

I stopped reading after the first few pages and forgot about it until a couple of months later, when I saw the story reviewed on an m/m review site as if it were a regular published book. I went to Goodreads and discovered it was on several recommended reading lists and had many effusively positive reviews. I also discovered that the fic was now available in a revised version; the author had changed the names of the main characters and removed some of the hockey in-jokes. The comment thread to one of the reviews mentioned that the author wasn’t thrilled about the publicity, which seemed to puzzle its new fans.

I went to the author’s LiveJournal, which was linked in a notice attached to the revised version’s download. The writer was a young woman who knew almost nothing about hockey but who had written a short story for a holiday fic exchange in response to a prompt for a hockey fic. She found photographs of these two players, liked the look of them, and made up her story. It was well received, she enjoyed writing it,  and she went on to write a full-length fic about the same players. It was sweet, romantic, and had nothing to do with the actual players except that the characters looked like them and had some of their characteristics. It was RPF, with all that that entails, but it was strictly for the small fandom in which she was a member. It was never supposed to go beyond that.

When it hit the big time of the m/m group at GR and various review sites, she dealt with this unexpected situation by pulling the original version and replacing it with the revision, which was no longer quite so obviously RPF. She wrote an explanation on her LJ that made it clear that wide distribution wasn’t something she wanted but realized she couldn’t control.

The non-fandom outsiders who found her story and shared it around meant well; they were laudatory of the work. But they took away something fundamental that her copyright entitled her to: the right to distribute the work, and they publicized her and her work without her consent.

Copyright includes, among other protections, the right to legitimately distribute copies of a work:

In Playboy Enterprises Inc. v. Frena,[7] the court decision has construed the unauthorized downloading of digitized photographic images (whose reproduction was unauthorized) by BBS subscribers as “implicating” the distribution right. The court’s discussion reflects the reach of the distribution right with respect to infringing copies:

Public distribution of a copyrighted work is a right reserved to the copyright owner, and usurpation of that right constitutes infringement . . . . [Playboy Enterprise's] right under 17 U.S.C. §106 to distribute copies to the public has been implicated by Defendant Frena [the BBS operator]. Section 106(3) grants the copyright owner “the exclusive right to sell, give away, rent or lend any material embodiment of his work.”

There is some dispute over whether the distribution of another’s work should be considering infringing when there are no material copies made, and some observers have argued that the right of distribution should be curtailed or done away with. But I haven’t seen an argument that the right of reproduction should be similarly challenged.

I want to reiterate that readers of fanfiction who download and distribute the stories without permission aren’t seeking to profit from this; they are sincere fans of the work who are sharing their pleasure with other readers. Unfortunately, in doing so, they’ve breached the legal rights of the authors to control the dissemination of their creative products. Many authors may be thrilled to have their work read by a wide audience, but surely it should be their deliberate decision, not that of readers who stumble upon such products in their ongoing quest for new stories? In this case, the author behaved as gracefully as she could have, but she says quite clearly that it made her uncomfortable to have her RPF being read outside the fandom.

Last month the Amazon fan fiction thread hit the maximum comment limit of 10,000. The subsequent thread is already over 1500 comments long. There will undoubtedly be a third thread later this year, unless tastes change dramatically. And if you look, there are fanfiction recommendations and links all over Goodreads, in Listopia lists, groups, and comment threads. This phenomenon does not appear going away any time soon.

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26 thoughts on “Twifandom’s long reach: The downstream effects of P2P

  1. Is this a book that was free on Goodreads last year? I downloaded it after seeing all the great reviews (it was all over my feed and on the M/M group, of which I’m no longer a member because the constant direct messages and spam were driving me crazy) and then I realized what it was and it made me a bit uncomfortable. The idea of RPF feels particularly exploitative.

    • Yep, that’s the one. I don’t understand why people review it without pointing out that it is fanfiction, but that line grows blurrier by the day (which is part of my point and my concern). I feel the same way about RPF, but I wouldn’t try to stop people from writing it and sharing it privately. It’s the public distribution that makes me uncomfortable.

  2. Well, the whole nebulous issue of copyright infringement aside for the original ripping off of Twilight to publish-for-profit fanfic with find/replace name changes, this goes to show how ill-informed the fanfic universe is about the workings of publishing and copyright.

    I should say I have nothing against the origins of fanfic. I wrote Star Trek fanfic as a teenager. But that was pre-Internet, pre-world-wide distribution and the inability to control or restrict the distribution.

    Unfortunately, It’s far too easy now for people to write “fanfic” and then turn around and profit off the work of the original author.

    To me, that’s wrong.

    If it was just for fun, for pleasure, and not for profit, whatever.

    But fanfic writers now are frequently ignorant to the fact that what they think they’re posting for a small group of people on a restricted-access website is actually now likely to live forever on the Internet. And the irony is, of course, that their work could easily be ripped off by another fanfic writer who changes names to some other set of characters.

    I’ve quit counting how many writers have kvetched to me that work they put up on Literotica and other sites is now floating all over the place and, basically, rendered unsalable when they went back later to remove it from a “free” posting so they could try to submit it to a publisher or even self-publish it for profit on Amazon, et al.

    Duh.

    Really, newbie author? You never considered the fact that stuff is so widely available out there, and how easy it is to copy/paste stuff into Word? Or to download it and re-upload it elsewhere?

    Bottom line is, in today’s world, if you the copyright holder post something for “free” you have to understand that you no longer have exclusive rights to it. Period. (I’m not talking about illegal file sharing/file pirates who illegally post e-books, music, movies, etc.) Even though, yes, by LAW you are entitled to exclusive rights, unfortunately, in practice, it’s impossible to police. People wrongfully assume they can copy and reproduce it “because it’s free on the Internet.” Look how many people redistribute illegally posted for-sale files just because they mistakenly think it’s okay.

    This all boils down to the fact that authors (of fanfic or for-pay works) REALLY need to educate themselves. If you’re cool with your work basically living forever on the Internet without any control over it whatsoever, knock yourself out. (And yes, I know there are some who are fine with that.) But if you have some sort of expectation of control on work you willfully post for free to your site or any other site, forget it. People will ignore/be ignorant of the laws regardless of how many copyright notices you post on it.

    • I’m sure you’re right in practical terms, but there are lots of things that we can’t prevent entirely that we attempt to minimize or ameliorate. I’m not speaking for the author here; I’ve never talked to her and my information is strictly from what I’ve observed and her public LJ account.

      I do think it is worth pointing out that people are trampling on an author’s rights when they circulate work without permission, whether they love it or loathe it, whether they pay for it or it is on the net for free. The other aspect that matters to me is that when material is pulled and distributed this way, it’s not just the author who is affected, but the community. At least some aspiring writers are going to be reluctant to join a group if they don’t feel secure in it, whether it’s being taken advantage of as beta readers and editors, or as authors. P2P isn’t just changing what we consider legitimate public reading material, it’s potentially changing how fanfiction communities operate.

  3. I didn’t follow hockey when I started reading hockey rpfs, so to me, it was just fiction – much of it really well done fiction, obviously written by people who were enjoying writing. I think the particular fic to which you refer was already deeply entrenched at GRs, with many, many reviews, by the time I read it – and that was the first hockey rpf I read. I wanted to read more, so I found some recommendations posts on LJ and I was off.

    Here is where I went terribly awry. I didn’t have any clue about the hockey rpf fanfic community or its acceptable behavior/norms… and I didn’t stop to educate myself. I blithely added the books I was reading to GRs, to the point of ignoring several more savvy friends who suggested that might not be a good thing to do. At that point, as one of my GRs friends noted, hockey fics “spread like kudzu” through our friends’ updates.

    After about a week of this, I was contacted via LJ by a prominent member of the community, who politely and with good humor explained the norms to me and asked if I would please conform to them. At that point, I felt very, very stupid, because I really should’ve known better and, oh, perhaps listened to my friends’ warnings. I removed the books that I could from GRs (ie, the ones for which mine was the only review) and posted a status update on GRs explaining the whole mess.

    I’ve continued to read hockey fics and have brought myself up to speed on the norms of the community. Really, I should’ve known better… my rhetoric MS thesis was on how one develops character and credibility (ethos) in an online forum. *headdesk*

      • It was at the end of September/beginning of October – long, long ago and far, far away. :)

        The norms are things like not adding hockey fics to GRs or its like, not publicizing its existence in public forums, providing kudos/positive feedback if you like something and sort of looking the other way if you don’t… So, similar to and yet very different from the norms of Fight Club. (“The first rule of Fight Club is that you tell no one about Fight Club…”)

        • LOL!
          I think I could only enjoy RPF if I didn’t know the real people involved. Otherwise it would be a bit squicky I think. I’m not big on fanfic in general though – I’d rather just read fiction fiction. :)

          • I’m still not exactly sure why this sucked me in so much, but… there it is.

            I find myself completely unsquicked, too, and also able to keep the real people separate from their fictionalized selves – maybe that’s part of the unsquickiness for me…

    • I think the fact that you didn’t follow hockey or pay attention to fanfic is the key. For you it was just another story, one that interested you and that you found on a site which is presumably about “books,” however we define them these days. And since you didn’t know who the characters were IRL, there’s no reason why you would have juxtaposed the two.

      And yeah, this fic was already being treated as a piece of fiction comparable to published work when you came across it. So you had to learn a bunch of stuff before you could locate it as something different. I went through a similar process, because I didn’t know there was such a thing as RPF hockey fic even though I had spent time thinking about fanfiction more generally (this was way after the fanfic posts at DA).

      In my line of work, one of the processes we are particularly interested in is the way in which perfectly understandable individual behavior leads to collective outcomes that are problematic. I think one of the things that really interests me about P2P is that it’s an example of this.

  4. Thanks for this. I have been vaguely aware of forum threads and Goodreads lists, but not of all these ramifications. I think this connects to some of our earlier discussions about the difference between “posting online” and “publishing” (e.g. between blogging/GR reviewing and publishing a book). I hate to ask why Goodreads “allows” something in this climate, but I do wonder why they enable the shelving and rating of works that are posted online but not exactly “published.” That line is increasingly difficult to define, of course.

    • Since GR lets the members run the show, the members who can win a debate tend to control the agenda. There have been disagreements over allowing stories that are posted online to be treated as “books.” The m/m crowd has been successful in convincing other GR librarians that as long as something is available at an ebook retailer, it qualifies as a book. If you’ve made that leap, fan fiction is just something else that is an “online publication.” In fact, that’s how this fic is described.

      I think it’s incredibly problematic, but I don’t have an answer for how to fix it.

  5. Wow. I had absolutely no idea this sort of thing was happening.

    I’ve participated in Yuletide on several occasions. It’s a really well-run, fun story exchange that takes place around the holidays. Its main criterion is that the fandom must be small. Although the exchange itself is large, the expectation is that most stories will only be of interest to a very limited audience. I’ve written Heyer fic for it and Antonia Forest fic. If you’ve never heard of Antonia Forest, that’s because this is a SMALL FANDOM of limited interest. So my sympathies are very much with the author in this situation, although I loathe and detest non-historical RPF with every fibre of my being (I’m pretty comfortable with e.g. 12th century RPF, and yes, that is a thing). I am very uncomfortable with the idea that Goodreads users are annexing fandom without being part of it. There’s so much about fandom that is community driven and controlled, and without the community it becomes a completely different phenomenon, in my opinion. I would hate to think that any of my fanfic were listed on GR and subject to ratings and reviews there, for instance. That’s not what it was written for.

    I think what’s really difficult to police is the difference between sharing a link to a story and sharing the text of the story. In the immediate moment, it doesn’t feel very different because the outcome is the same – you can read the story. But of course it creates exactly the problem you describe – if the author chooses to remove the story, the link won’t work, but reproductions of the text certainly will.

    I would like to think this phenomenon will be short-lived, but I fear not. The fanfic archives are vast and deep.

    On the other hand, there is one Harry Potter story that was pulled several years ago and I’ve never been able to track it down anywhere. If that turns up again, well, I’d pay money to read it.

    • I take your point about the difference between distributing the text and linking to the text, but I think that once you’ve put the link up on a site like GR and the story is on a bunch of Listopias, the publicity is so great that it has a similar effect. Although you’re right that if the link stops working, the reader has to go through an extra step to get the text. At GR that’s not very difficult. You can always find a group.

      The GR m/m group mixes fanfic and regular free stories in its free reads threads, which contributes to the idea that fanfiction is just another version of free stuff on the web for anyone to take.

  6. This may be off topic but I have been coming at this from an other example of fan fiction and subversion.

    I was just re-reading the last three Darkover ebooks I will ever bother with and thinking about fanfiction and Marion Zimmer Bradley and The Friends of Darkover Anthologies and the fan fiction magazine she started which lead to her experiencing some of the earliest fan fiction legal troubles because some fan “wanna-be writer” sued Marion Zimmer Bradley for supposedly ripping off a fanfiction story she had sent for an anthology when the whole dang thing was originally using MZB’s characters and using MZB’s world in the first place. It was a mess at the time and ended with MZB closing the whole thing down due to being burned.

    Anyway, lot’s of thinking about fan fiction and it’s good parts and it’s rather seedy parts too.

    What really got me was how fanfiction slowly subverted the entire Darkover series. There are something like 12 “Friends of Darkover” Anthologies total almost more books than are in the series proper and most fans keep them separate as non-canon but in the end Marion Zimmer Bradley got old and sickly and she was still wanting to write these various planned Darkover novel outlines and short stories so she had other authors come in and cut and paste some scenes she was playing with and follow a brief outline but then write the rest of the book with her name plastered on the cover.

    So here I am reading a “Darkover book” supposedly written by “Marion Zimmer Bradley” since that is her name on the cover front and center by the publisher and … after a few chapters I am figuring out this is in no way MZB’s writing, her style or tone or JUST NO! No way. I do not care how sick that lady got she would never write like this. We are talking sloppy info dumps and herky jerky pacing and just lazy writing only a beginner would do.

    Turns out from my research these last few books. Exiles’ Song, The Shadow Matrix, Traitor’s Sun, are all written by some fan/author Adrienne Martine-Barnes with from what I can tell is very limited editing or input from MZB. The same publisher has gone on to issue several more books after her death some with the other authors name present thank god but same idea.

    Thing is that I think some of these moral lines you are talking about have been getting crossed for a while now between “fan fiction” and ghost writing and what is allowed to be published and what is not even within mainstream publishing circles and we will most likely see all sorts of strange mutations going on. How far they can get away with these things seems to be the rule now.

    • I didn’t even think about how incorporation fanfiction with permission can alter the work. That’s a really good (and depressing) point. Fans and authors frequently have very different views of the work. Heck, readers complain about audiobook narrators, and that’s interpretation of the author’s words, not all new stories.

      • I keep telling people to look at Marion Zimmer Bradley because she did the whole fanfiction thing first and she took it all the way baby. She spent years editing and organizing that dang magazine and then all that time putting together all those Darkover fanfiction anthologies to the point (and this is what pisses me off) she never completed writing the actual Darkover series or taking it as far as she had planned to in her own hands.

        So what you are left with is some well archived canon novels several of which got rewrites later on to update and tie them better into the series and then these books that started showing up around the time of her death that were obviously not written by her but using ideas she may or may not have had about the direction she wanted the series to go in.

        So much of this just feels like early attempts at heartless branding and marketing double talk in order to sell content of questionable origin to whomever was left interested in the series after the party was basically over.

  7. The ultimate result of wide, unauthorized dissemination of the RPF fanfiction stories is that one the “real people” is eventually going to find out and may very well decide to sue the author of the story and perhaps might include Goodreads and Amazon (since they have the deep pockets) and may even go so far as to include anyone who has shared those stories. This is why these communities have the rules they do about dissemination of the stories.. I can particularly see this happening with RPF m/m or f/f stories when there is no indication that the real person is gay (or they haven’t come out) Homophobia is prevelant in may sports (including hockey) and in some sectors of the entertainment industry and even the “fictional” suggestion that a player/actor might be gay could be extremely damaging to his/her career and “brand”. Since professional sports contracts, endorsement contracts and “entertainment contracts” run in the millions of dollars, the potential damages awarded would be huge.

    • Great point. Branding is such a ubiquitous concept in marketing today, especially individual branding. While hockey has made some great moves to increase acceptance of diversity (like the “You Can Play” videos and campaign), I can well imagine that any given player’s marketability would be substantially affected by the idea that he was gay.

      I am surprised that GR is so laissez-faire about allowing fan fiction to be listed in Listopias and for readers to be able to link to it, but then I’m endlessly surprised by how GR operates. So far it hasn’t hurt them at all, though.

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