Textual Echoes: Symposium

Why we should talk about commodifying fan work

Nele Noppe

Japanese Studies Research Unit, Catholic University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

[0.1] Abstract—Fan work's potential role in the cultural economy is an issue that has received little attention from fans and fan scholars. It is time to consider how we can ensure that commodification of fan work ends up benefiting fans first.

[0.2] Keywords—Commodification; Copyright; Economy; Fan community

Noppe, Nele. 2011. "Why We Should Talk about Commodifying Fan Work." In "Textual Echoes," edited by Cyber Echoes, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 8. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2011.0369.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Up to now, attempts to support fans and their fan works have focused on trying to obtain social and especially legal recognition. I would like to think beyond that goal and imagine how legalizing fan works would influence the answer to a loaded question: should fan work be free?

[1.2] Fan work's potential role in the cultural economy—in other words, its commodification—is an issue that has received little attention from fans and fan scholars. Social, legal, and economic circumstances have kept commercial economies and sharing economies (such as the fannish gift economy) firmly apart. However, now that new technologies allow individuals to create media of a quality that makes them economically viable, one of the main reasons for any sharp separation between sharing and commercial economies is steadily losing its significance. At the same time, fan works worldwide are becoming more visible to copyright holders, policy makers, and the general public (De Kosnik 2009, 119). There are already companies whose income partly relies on fan work, such as online community sites like deviantART (http://www.deviantart.com/).

[1.3] For quite a few years now, scholars have been debating how derivative work such as fan work could and should be integrated into the commercial cultural economy (Fisher [2004] 2007; Hughes et al. 2007; Lang, Di Shang, and Zicklin 2007; Lessig 2008, De Kosnik 2009; Arai and Kinukawa 2010; Pearson 2010). Once fan work achieves some form of legal recognition, this will no longer be just an academic exercise. Any degree of legalization, even a fairly limited one that doesn't technically allow for commodification, will set people thinking. How long will it be before enterprising fans or companies ask themselves why creators of this massively popular and newly legalized cultural product should not be allowed to play in the same commercial sandbox as those companies?

[1.4] Is it realistic to ask for legal recognition while trying to keeping commodification at bay? Is it realistic (or fair) to expect that all fans will stick to exchanging works in a gift economy when they also have the option to cross back and forth between that gift economy and other economies, even money-based ones? I believe the answer to both of these questions is no, and that it is time to consider how we can ensure that commodification of fan work ends up benefiting fans first.

2. A "hybrid economy" for fan work?

[2.1] There is nothing new to the idea that it might be better for fans to preemptively push for a commodification of fan works on their own terms before outsiders who are unconcerned with the particular needs and desires of fans do it for them. This idea will only become more relevant as fandom and commodity culture continue to encounter each other in new ways, particularly in the common space of the Internet. Abigail De Kosnik argues that female fans should not leave the economic playing field entirely to male creators; rather, she insists that typically female derivative works such as fan fic are equally worthy of compensation (2009, 124). Suzanne Scott warns that "fandom (and those who study it) continue to construct gift and commercial economic models as discrete economic spheres," but that this strategy may be causing fans and fan scholars to stick their heads in the sand while "commodity culture begins selectively appropriating the gift economy's ethos for its own economic gain" (2009). Others evaluate signs of rapprochement between fans and companies with less concern. Roberta Pearson suggests that the new digital economy has empowered fans to such a degree that "fan practices may provide the model for the reconfigured industry-consumer relationship of the digital era as a negotiated sharing of productive power" (2010, 91).

[2.2] Pearson's description interests me because it is reminiscent of how some law and economics researchers not involved with fan studies have imagined the increased interweaving of sharing economies of all kinds with the commercial cultural economy. Lawrence Lessig, for instance, explains this interweaving as follows:

[2.3] Commercial economies build value with money at their core. Sharing economies build value, ignoring money…[And] between these two economies, there is an increasingly important third economy: one that builds upon both the sharing and commercial economies, one that adds value to each. This third type—the hybrid—will dominate the architecture for commerce on the Web. It will also radically change the way sharing economies function. The hybrid is either a commercial entity that aims to leverage value from a sharing economy, or it is a sharing economy that builds a commercial entity to better support its sharing aims. (2008, loc. 2680–86)

[2.4] I single out Lessig's idea for a number of reasons. The conditions for the hybrid economy he describes fit contemporary media fandom exceptionally well. The hybrid economy is also a realistic option that comes with a number of tried real-world examples, including fannish ones. The best known of these is probably the system in which Japanese and other Asian fan communities exchange dōjinshi, or fan-made manga (Lam 2010). A hybrid economy also leaves the core functioning of commercial and sharing economies intact, which is relevant to fannish interests: although some fans may like getting more options to exchange their fan work, nobody would want the gift economy to go away. Several other ways of commodifying derivative works have been suggested, some more feasible than others (Fisher [2004] 2007; Hughes et al. 2007).

[2.5] The question of how to give derivative works a proper place in cultural production seems to be a common thread in discussions about how copyright legislation should be adapted to fit contemporary industry-consumer relations. Clearly, the way in which derivative works will end up being commodified will greatly influence other areas in which industry and consumer relations need to find a new balance. If we can imagine commodifying fan work within a system like the hybrid economy, and I believe we can, Pearson's suggestion about the model function of fan practices may turn out to be prescient (note 1).

[2.6] The idea of a hybrid economy for fan work is, for now, little more than a suggestion. It skips over many practical issues that come with reorganizing economic and legal systems so that creators of derivative works can receive compensation for their work if they wish it. Numerous researchers, companies, and creators are still grappling with these issues. However, we can definitely say that the moment that the creation and dissemination of fan works becomes legal (within whatever limits), the realm of possibility for fan works will have broadened to include forms of creativity and distribution that were previously closed to fan creators. It will also have broadened to include forms of commodification that we probably can't even imagine right now. Commodification will suddenly seem a lot less unimaginable once fan works get legal recognition, and enterprising fans and businesses will start exploring their options.

3. If it's inevitable, why isn't it here yet?

[3.1] Regardless of whether or not some kind of hybrid economy for fan work is desirable, it isn't very likely to come about soon. A variety of unfavorable legal, economic, and social circumstances are in the way. What conditions would need to change to bring a hybrid economy for fan work within the realm of possibility?

[3.2] Legal restrictions come to mind first, restrictions that are well known and don't need to be described here. However, we should probably remind ourselves that legal restrictions also have a powerful chilling effect on the mind-set of those who would need to cooperate to make a hybrid economy a reality. Fears of offending powerful, litigation-happy corporations keep fans from experimenting with certain forms of media creation and distribution. They also keep companies from experimenting with business models that involve fan work in radically innovative ways. No hybrid economy will come about if everyone involved is afraid to make the first move or is so impressed with the current copyright system that other options are barely even conceivable. Some form of legal recognition is probably the most essential condition for a hybrid economy for fan work to be viable.

[3.3] Another serious hurdle is formed by the current economic practices of the cultural industry, practices that—among other problematic things—favor large company actors over individual creators. However, commodity culture can and must adapt to the changed realities of cultural production in an economy where technological change has drastically and permanently expanded consumers' options. This kind of change may not be as unlikely as it sounds. Commodity culture has some significant incentives to let a hybrid economy for fan work emerge. Although much research into a possible hybrid for cultural goods is still theoretical, it suggests that the industries in question would reap considerable economic benefit from some form of a hybrid economy as well (Lang, Di Shang, and Zicklin 2007, 291; Arai and Kinukawa 2010, 17). And existing hybrid economies for fan work can show companies how allowing fan work to be sold can make consumers open their wallets. The value of the Japanese dōjinshi market was estimated at somewhere between US$320 to 593 million for the year 2007 (Noppe 2010, 126). The possibility of capturing even part of this kind of cash flow might well make companies think hard about the benefits of letting fans monetize derivative works based on the companies' intellectual property.

[3.4] A final reason why a viable hybrid economy for fan work is unlikely to emerge soon is that many of the fans who would power it may not be prepared to imagine the possibilities, advantages, and disadvantages of such a system. Up to now, fans and fan scholars have rarely even speculated about the potential inherent in linking fan work to commodity culture. Several concerns lie at the basis of this reluctance to consider any form of commodification. One concern is that commodification will open the doors to more meddling in fannish business by the media industry—an industry that is intent only on profit and has frequently shown itself hostile to female creators and the content they favor. A second reason why fans tend to resist the idea of commodifying fan works is that fan works continue to exist in a legal gray zone, one that causes the chilling effect I alluded to earlier. A third reason is that commodification is perceived by many to be fundamentally unsuited to gift economy–based fannish interactions. According to this idea, involving money in fandom could ruin or corrupt the social interactions between fans that are key to that gift economy.

[3.5] The first two concerns are entirely valid, and, of course, are far more complex than I can describe here. However, they are solvable, especially because a hybrid economy gains its strength precisely from empowering individual creators. The third concern, that commodification may be simply antithetical to (female) fan communities, is not convincing to me. I will return to this point in a moment. Suffice it to say that fannish practices and mind-sets are just as susceptible to change as those of companies, so the fact that certain concerns have been dominant among fans up to now doesn't mean that they will always remain so.

4. Could commodification harm fandom as a community?

[4.1] Fans work within a gift economy not just because the commercial economy has been inaccessible to them up to now, but also because they simply prefer the gift economy and dislike various aspects of the commercial system of cultural production. The frequently used definition of creative fandom as a predominantly female space that makes use of a gift economy is a powerful framework: it carries great real-world significance as well as great personal meaning for many fans, myself included. However, it isn't the only realistic framing of fandom. There are many fans who don't find this definition extremely meaningful or relevant to their interests. Plenty of fans don't have many problems with closer industry involvement in fandom (Scott 2009; Pearson 2010). The example of the Japanese system of dōjinshi production also shows that the gift economy model is not necessarily the norm for fannish production systems everywhere. Most likely, it would be impossible to describe fandom in such a way that the definition accommodates every fannish experience and is also open-ended enough to accommodate future kinds of fannish experience that have yet to develop. However, we can ensure that our framing of fandom doesn't exclude practices (such as commodification) that are merely untried and unfamiliar, not necessarily harmful or antithetical to fandom.

[4.2] The potential value of involving money in fandom may be unclear now, but we have no way of knowing what opportunities will arise if legal, economic, and social conditions change to allow for more commodification of fan work. There would be mishaps and attempts to exploit fannish labor, and any sort of commodification of fan works would cause schisms and strife within the fan community. However, these risks should not be overdramatized. Fan works have always been created and exchanged, regardless of which options were available to fans for doing so and regardless of the legality of any of those options. Fandom is also a hotbed of strife and profound disagreements, often over topics related to legal issues or commodification; "Lexicongate" would be a prime example (Fanlore 2011). If fandom can flourish under such conditions, surely it can withstand being confronted with a tricky new way for fans to exchange their work.

[4.3] It will probably help that there is no need for any kind of trade-off between fannish and commercial activities. A hybrid economy straddles the commercial and sharing sphere without harming or erasing either. The Japanese dōjinshi system shows that this is not mere theory. Different economic systems that prioritize different values can coexist and reinforce each other, and any individual's participation in one system doesn't disqualify that person from participating in another. A hybrid economy creates more options without taking away any that are available now.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] I question whether it makes sense for fans and fan scholars to focus debates about commodification on whether commodifying fan work is in any way desirable. It will most likely happen, in some form, at some point in the future. The most important question here is not whether fans will at some point be given the option to commodify and monetize their works, but how the fan community in general will deal with new modes of fannish production emerging alongside the traditional gift economy. Will fans benefit from this commodification, or will companies seize the initiative toward commodification at the expense of fans and end up writing their own rules for a hybrid economy for fan work? Will female fans in particular manage to benefit from this commodification? Or will a hybrid economy for fan work privilege "fanboy specific" (Scott 2009) production and once more relegate female fans' efforts to another kind of periphery, this time the periphery of the category of "derivative works"? Perhaps it is time for fans and fan scholars to start considering what a hybrid economy for derivative works should, and could, be like.

6. Acknowledgment

Many thanks to Claudia Weise for helping me make this article readable.

7. Notes

1. The best-known and most developed hybrid economy currently in existence is that of open source software. In fact, one way to make the commodification of fan works easier to envision for all parties involved is to imagine fan work as a sort of "open source cultural good" (Hughes et al. 2007) that could be exchanged in a hybrid economy comparable to the hybrid economy surrounding open source software. Fannish production practices share many key characteristics with open source software production. For instance, the fan community has a history of sharing and collaboration, with common values about the aims and workings of that collaboration (Hellekson 2009, 115), which are qualities that make a community exceptionally suited for open source production of goods. In more practical terms, open source and fannish production practices are similar enough that the vocabulary, problems, and solutions from one can help us articulate similar problems and find possible solutions in the area of the other. The complicated matter of copyright regulations is one obvious example in which insights from and developments in open source production can support the growth of a hybrid economy for fan work. On the economic side of things, business models crafted for open source software production can provide inspiration for the concrete ways in which fan works could be commodified so that fans receive sufficient benefits and control over their creations. Last but not least, given the exemplary function of the well-known and successful hybrid economy of open source software (Benkler 2007, loc. 883), casting fan work as an open source cultural good and drawing comparisons with open source may go a long way toward explaining to nonfans how and why an integration of fan work into the broader cultural economy could be both socially and economically desirable. I explore these possibilities in more depth in an essay written for the Asian Workshop on Cultural Economics (forthcoming).

8. Works cited

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Fanlore. 2011. "Harry Potter Lexicon Trial." Fanlore. http://fanlore.org/wiki/Harry_Potter_Lexicon_Trial.

Fisher, William. (2004) 2007. Promises to Keep: Technology, Law, and the Future of Entertainment. Stanford, CA: Stanford Law and Politics. Kindle edition.

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Hughes, Jerald, Karl Lang, Eric K. Clemons, and Robert J. Kauffman. 2007. "A Unified Interdisciplinary Theory of Open Source Culture and Entertainment." http://ssrn.com/abstract=1077909.

Lam, Fan-Yi. 2010. "Comic Market: How the World's Biggest Amateur Comic Fair Shaped Japanese Dōjinshi Culture." Mechademia 5: 232–48.

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Lessig, Lawrence. 2008. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. New York: Penguin Press.

Noppe, Nele. 2010. "Dōjinshi Research as a Site of Opportunity for Manga Studies." Comics Worlds and the World of Comics: Towards Scholarship on a Global Scale, edited by Jaqueline Berndt, 123–42. Kyoto: International Manga Research Center, Kyoto Seika University, 2010. http://imrc.jp/images/upload/lecture/data/20101118Comics%20Worlds%20and%20the%20World%20of%20Comics.pdf.

Pearson, Roberta. 2010. "Fandom in the Digital Era." Popular Communication: The International Journal of Media and Culture 8 (1): 84. doi:10.1080/15405700903502346.

Scott, Suzanne. 2009. "Repackaging Fan Culture: The Regifting Economy of Ancillary Content Models." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3. doi:10.3983/twc.2009.0150.