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, 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.