Fandom, public, commons

Mel Stanfill

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Fans, by creating for a public, also create a public: in producing for a community, they create one. Kindle Worlds and other attempts to monetize fan labor are problematic because the producer is attempting to invent a new mode at the expense of such fannish traditions.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan community; Fan fiction; Fan vid

Stanfill, Mel. 2013. "Fandom, Public, Commons." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 14.

[1] Phenomena such as removing fan fiction from the Web and eliminating identifying markers to publish it as original fiction like E. L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) (known as pulling to publish or filing off the serial numbers) and's inauguration of Kindle Worlds as a commercial, licensed fan fiction platform have been celebrated by some in fandom and excoriated by others. One side champions the right of the individual fan author to profit from her labor; the other laments this insertion into capitalist exchange as undermining fan community and its noncommercial traditions. These arguments, in operating at different levels, are incommensurable and thus tend to come to an impasse. Adjudicating between these positions (and their variations) means working through the fact that intellectual property is two things: intellectual and property. That is, intellectual property is rooted in both a concept of authorship and one of ownership, and more particularly, as Leon Tan (2013, 67) points out, in the Western imaginary creative production is generally understood as the work of an individual and "underpinned by another concept, namely, individual property ownership." The relation of contemporary notions of creativity to property is not often recognized but is in fact vital to understand the system. Carol M. Rose (1998, 152) adds that "the author principle is easy": a demarcatable, single-person creation is much easier to legally wrangle than long-standing, incrementally produced traditions of less specifiable creators like villages. For these reasons, it is well entrenched in contemporary Western thinking that authorship is property and property is individual. However, here I use a framing that does not share these assumptions, that of indigenous intellectual property, to understand the implications of these tensions around commercialization.

[2] Despite the normative status of individualistic authorship and property, they map unevenly and uneasily onto fan production like vidding and fan fic. Some of the best previous examinations of the disjunctures of creative production from individualistic authorship and property ownership have looked at indigenous cultures. Because work on indigeneity is the location of this conversation—Rose (1998) gives the examples of the village, the folktale, and the plant cultivar, and Tan (2013) focuses on Maori tattoo—I am going to think through indigeneity to help me unpack what is happening with fandom; however, it must be acknowledged that the content of the two circumstances is ultimately not comparable: fans may be in some senses oppressed, but they've never been subjected to genocide. Thus, the idea of indigenous intellectual property is being used here structurally or metaphorically to illuminate a group with a different set of values than the dominant ones of capital and a different set of beliefs about ownership and individual creativity, which is devalued by the dominant culture both because of this difference in values (seen not as benign variation but inferiority) and because the people who have the different beliefs are not respected.

[3] To begin with the question of authorship, while there is certainly recognition of the individual creator in fan production, there is also usually an acknowledged context of collaboration through beta reading, feedback on in-progress work, fanon formation, and other practices. No act of authorship comes ex nihilo, of course, but the linkages are clearer and more directly acknowledged in fandom than in many other places where the dominant Romantic ideology of the lone author is stronger. The idea that the fan fic writer or vidder does not produce work alone but with help from the community is relatively uncontroversial.

[4] With respect to ownership, there is a similar divergence from the individualist, exclusionary model, with work shared freely among community members. Of course, there has always been a subset of fandom participants who have been out to benefit themselves, but that is not the norm in these creative communities and is sometimes even seen as antisocial rather than being valorized as rational, capitalist, Ayn Randian self-interest. Normative, within-community sharing tends to take the form of a gift economy (Hellekson 2009; Scott 2009), and the free circulation of creative work produces more communal and less individualistic formations that "do not look like property at all to us" (Rose 1998, 140), much as some indigenous forms of property have not been intelligible as ownership because they are internally understood as more like guardianship (Tan 2013).

[5] As fans create, then, they not only create for a public but also create a public; that is, in producing for such a community, they call one into existence. Publics, Michael Warner (2005) contends, come into being through being addressed by a circulated text; this is not an address to individual readers or interlocutors but to an imagined body. This is, in M. Jacqui Alexander's (1994) phrase regarding citizenship, not just any body, but one with particular characteristics. Fan creative production like fiction and vidding is produced for an imagined audience of people who know not only the source text or texts but also—more importantly—people who understand what these forms are as a genre. This can be seen from the ways in which fan creators tend not to do the work of explaining how to interpret these things. When fans create, they do so with the understanding that the people who ultimately consume their work will understand that they are reworking popular cultural texts within a set of conventions of both authorship and ownership. Through addressing an imagined public with those specifications, that text performatively produces one. Fandom is defined as the group of people who understand what is being done in the fan text; "the circularity is essential to the phenomenon" (Warner 2005, 67). The public of fandom—or, to use Warner's terminology (since fandom is a minoritized position), the counterpublic of fandom—is produced through an ongoing circulation of these texts binding people together.

[6] The idea that the consumers of a fan text are those who understand its cultural milieu is not necessarily always a true assumption, of course, but the text speaks to an audience that shares its assumptions and then actual people negotiate the extent to which this hail means them (note 1). Importantly, because fandom as a counterpublic is performatively constituted each time a text makes a claim to its existence, each iteration can potentially differ from the last, as Judith Butler (1990) argues about gender. In the case of systems whose current forms are troublesome, such as gender, this opens up potential for improvement. With fandom, there is much less consensus over what should alter or stay the same, but there has nevertheless been change with regard to the nonindividual norms of authorship and ownership traced out above as traditional. People who have been in fandom for a while, and in several fandoms over time, have been exposed to and/or acculturated into that set of practices and values, but generational turnover is happening in the population that creates fan texts, and from my own limited and anecdotal experience, younger fan bases are often not within the tradition.

[7] Changes to fan creative practice are various and telling. Posting fiction that has not been beta read and is thus riddled with errors relating to both show canon and to writing is now routine. Leora Hadas (2009, ¶5.2) has described this attitude in the context of Doctor Who fandom as the sense of a "basic right" to create and post fic, and it points to prioritizing individual desire to create over any sense of obligation to produce something others will find worth reading. Similarly, some of the old rules about acceptable content, such as the prohibition on real-person fiction described by Henry Jenkins ([2002] 2006), are no longer widely used, again gesturing toward individual creativity over concern for what the community might find objectionable (see also Hadas 2009). Moreover, the reciprocity of feedback as payment for creativity seems to be decaying, with frequent pleas or demands for feedback appended to chapters of large works, often as a condition of continuing the story, suggesting that there is no longer a norm that such response is freely given. Finally, the aesthetic conventions of vids are changing, such as incorporating show dialogue rather than simply having the music provide the soundtrack, or producing trailers for fan fiction stories; while this is not as clearly an individualistic move as the other examples, it does demonstrate a move away from previous modes of producing creative fan work. It is unclear whether these fans know that the older modes exist and have rejected them; or whether the influx of new fans was too great to teach them all how it had been done before; or whether they don't know at all because searchability provides different routes to finding out that there is such a thing as fic or vidding in the absence of knowing how it has traditionally been done. However, change is clearly in progress.

[8] Against the background of historically non-strictly-controlled forms of authorship and property, fan creative production seems open for exploitation, particularly in the context of a potential generational culture shift away from hard-line positions on these subjects—nobody owns it, but some may be starting to want to. With things like Fifty Shades of Grey or Kindle Worlds, the indigenous creativity and property parallel is particularly useful, as these projects follow the line of trying to (exploitatively) modernize alternative modes of creative production because the people doing them are imagined to not know their worth.

[9] The problem with such disarticulation from fannish community is that fans are not foolish people freely giving away things they could (and should) be selling any more than are indigenous populations. Instead, fan creative production is productively understood as what Rose (1998, 144) calls "limited common property," which is "property on the outside, commons on the inside." That is, it is not a pure commons, because not everybody is eligible to exploit it, but those who are on the inside can make use of it as completely as is allowed within the norms of the community. Tan (2013) calls for an understanding that when an indigenous group like the Maori acts to prevent others from using their cultural heritage, they are not fencing off part of a universal commons that rightly belongs to all humanity; rather, there are different commons and this is a Maori commons—free on the inside and restricted on the outside. One problem with the commons metaphor, as these examples point out, is that it invokes a binary opposition between restrictive, bad property and free-for-all commons, whereas more nuance is needed. As Eric Kansa (2007) notes, no one would seriously argue that all information should be freely available—slapping a Creative Commons Attribution license on a person's medical records does not make it okay to disseminate them. Likewise, with the indigenous knowledge Kansa is concerned with, and fan intellectual property in the cases examined here, there are things that belong to particular people and groups that can be transferred outward, but whether they should be is a sticky ethical question even when this is done with good intentions like cultural preservation or payment for labor.

[10] The model of limited common property is quite useful for fandom: everybody in the community has shared access to everybody else's stories, vids, meta, and other work, but—in part as a result of histories of stigma—there is often a protective attitude in relation to outsiders. Related to this are "questions of alienability", which Rose (1998, 140) raises but does not really delve into; limited common property is not very alienable because, unlike standard property, no one person owns it, such that nobody can really sell it off, and particularly not for individual gain. And here we see the nonindividual notion of authorship and property really running into trouble vis-à-vis things like pulling to publish and why this is often frowned upon in fan communities. Yes, a person wrote it, but that person generally did so in a community. Indefinable but vital contributions arise from interaction with those community members, such that then denying them access is denying recognition for their labor out of belief in the single creative figure of the author. In framing their licensed properties as worlds in which many people can write stories, Amazon is imitating this communal aspect, but without the corresponding shared ownership/authorship. Limited common property is useful because it explains how people can seemingly share things freely and at the same time have a right to freedom from appropriation by capital.

[11] Of course, fandom has never been isolated from market values, not least because it tends to respond to capitalist-produced media. But normatively, the counterpublic hailed by fan texts was a noncommercial one. This has given rise to contentions that Kindle Worlds is not really fan fiction, that E. L. James betrayed the fans of her Twilight fan fiction, and that both of these cases are not really fandom. In Karen Hellekson's (2013) inimitable phrase, "if you define fan fiction as 'derivative texts written for free within the context of a specific community,' then this isn't that. True, they are fans. And they write…fiction," but who's doing what alone is not enough to make it fan fiction in the absence of those norms of authorship and ownership. Indeed, "you could even say that Amazon is turning the term 'fan fiction' into fan fiction itself, lifting it from its original context and giving it a new purpose and a new narrative, related to the original but not beholden to it" (Berlatsky 2013). However, considering that fandom must be continually reconstituted through being addressed, and given this question of generations and fannish continuity, is there a critical mass of fan subjects who will feel hailed by industry's invitation?

[12] Although fandom has historically been brought into being as a counterpublic through the circulation of fannish texts, that is, if this new hail feels familiar or right—even though it is coming from a corporation instead—a new public might be produced by it. Indeed, given the invitation into normative concepts of authorship and ownership (as opposed to fannish ones) extended by Kindle Worlds, this may pose the parts of fandom that accept the invitation as what Warner (2005), writing of Field & Stream readers, calls a subpublic: those not acting as the majority public in their participation in the subgroup but who are not imagined to be distinct from or antithetical to the larger public. The creation of a new fannish subpublic isn't inherently bad, unless it crowds out the old one and becomes the only way to be a fan, or unless legal measures are deployed by rights holders to ensure they get every penny of the licensing revenue from projects like Kindle Worlds by insisting that all fan fiction be run through this normative authorship and ownership. This potential for inventing a new mode at the expense of fannish traditions is cause for concern when industry is the one doing the hailing.


1. Although Warner (2005) specifically distinguishes his view from Louis Althusser's (1971) concept of interpellation, I think they are more similar than he concedes if he is less literal about Althusser's use of the example of a police officer saying "Hey, you!"

Works cited

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Althusser, Louis. 1971. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses." In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, 127–86. New York: Monthly Review.

Berlatsky, Noah. 2013. "Do Fans Really Own Fan Fiction?" Atlantic, May 28.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

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Hellekson, Karen. 2013. "Kindle Worlds and Fan Fiction." May 23.

Jenkins, Henry. (2002) 2006. "Interactive Audiences? The 'Collective Intelligence' of Media Fans." In Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture, 134–51. New York: New York University Press.

Kansa, Eric. 2007. "Finding Common Ground in the Digital Commons." iCommons, August 14.

Rose, Carol M. 1998. "The Several Futures of Property: Of Cyberspace and Folk Tales, Emission Trades and Ecosystems." Minnesota Law Review 83:129–82.

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Tan, Leon. 2013. "Intellectual Property Law and the Globalization of Indigenous Cultural Expressions: Māori Tattoo and the Whitmill Versus Warner Bros. Case." Theory, Culture and Society 30 (3): 61–81.

Warner, Michael. 2005. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books.

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