Do Fans Really Own Fan Fiction?

Amazon's bid to make money off of independent works based on corporately owned entertainment calls into question how independent those works really ever were.

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Who owns Superman? Who owns Star Trek? Who owns Harry Potter?

The answers appear to be simple enough; in order DC Comics (or Warner Brothers), Paramount (or CBS), and J.K. Rowling.

But ownership of art is a little trickier than just figuring out whose name is on a contract. In our economy, there's a huge incentive to pretend that ideas are property, every bit as ownable and consumable as a pair of boots. In real life, though, imaginary life isn't like that. Harry Potter isn't just in the book; he's in your head—and surely if anyone owns your head and what's in it, is you. If you're a kid and want Harry Potter to spend most of his time fighting slime monsters from the moon, or if you're an adult and want Harry Potter to have a torrid romance with Snape, who's to stop you?

This is the impetus behind, and the logic of, fan fiction. The rules of capitalism stop at the borders of your skull. You can't copyright a dream—which means that once you're told a story, the story is yours to embellish and retell as you wish. Fan fiction is not (just) an obsessive immersion in some over-hyped corporate narrative; it's also a way to assert your freedom from that corporate narrative. Fan fiction shows your thoughts are your thoughts—they're not capitalism's.

All of which explains the title of Malinda Lo's post from last week: "Amazon tries to monetize fan fiction; I freak out." Lo is reacting to a new Amazon venture, Kindle Worlds, which will allow writers to create official, licensed fan fiction to be sold as Amazon Kindle e-books. For now the licenses include Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars, and Gossip Girl, but Amazon promises more will follow.

Lo notes that Amazon retains the right to reject work that violates their guidelines, which seems to mean no sex, really absolutely no slashy sex, and no crossovers. Amazon also, as John Scalzi discusses at some length, appears to have the right to exploit the work as they wish, which means your Vampire Diaries plot point could show up in a Vampire Diaries movie at some point and you wouldn't necessarily get paid a dime for it. Lo considers these factors and then declares with some outrage, "This isn't Amazon figuring out how to make money off fan fiction; this is Amazon entering into a partnership with media properties to crowdsource officially licensed novelizations."

Lo's not exactly wrong. But she's perhaps omitting the extent to which fan fiction and licensed novelizations were never that far apart to begin with. In terms of creative process and in terms of audience, does it really matter all that much if you're writing about Kirk and Spock's new adventures for free or for profit? The corporate licensed fiction I'm most familiar with is super-hero comics, and as far as I can tell they work about the same way as fan fiction does. You've got the obsessive retailing and reimaging of the same character arcs; you've got continuity porn and retconning as joys in themselves; you've got crossovers, you've got alternate worlds, you've got the occasional piece of crack fic like what if Superman were a Squirrel (he'd be in love with Wonder Wabbit). You've even got the economics of fan fiction, where original creators don't necessarily get paid (though fan fiction is often better about giving due credit.) Admittedly there's not a whole lot of gay sex in super-hero comics... but that seems more like a genre distinction than an existential one.

Under capitalism, there's a huge impulse to commodify and sell everything—including, and perhaps especially, dreams. There's also an impulse to escape commodification, to create an authentic space and identity outside of the market. These impulses are usually seen as opposed to each other. But whether they actually are opposed isn't always so clear. Capitalism obsessively cannibalizes itself; hip dissent is simply sold back to hipsters, revolution becomes a marketing slogan, and "think different" turns out to be just another way of thinking about what to buy.

It's not really surprising, then, that fan fiction is being repossessed and reprocessed by the capitalism that spawned it. If "fan fic" was the name of a genre and a community, it can now be the name of a marketing campaign and a marketing demographic. 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. Dreams come out of the corporation and go back to the corporation, fungibly circulating. Your brain is just another medium of exchange.

This isn't a knock on Lo. Sure, suggesting that Amazon's fan fiction isn't authentic fan fiction seems a little silly, since fan fiction is a copy of an original by definition. But the truth is that capitalism makes any and every authenticity claim seem silly. If your thoughts and dreams and identity can be packaged and sold, then it's not even clear where you are, much less who owns you. At that point, maybe the best anyone can do is to get good terms for the copy you've made, or are.