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Should Fan Fiction Be Free?

From: Cinema Journal
48, Number 4, Summer 2009
pp. 118-124 | 10.1353/cj.0.0144

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It seems strange, at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, that I should feel a pressing need to reiterate Virginia Woolf 's argument from eighty years ago, that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."1 But the need has arisen because the authors of fan fiction, who are predominantly women, have never, as a group, sought payment for their labor. This situation deserves scrutiny, especially because fan fiction is becoming increasingly visible to non-initiates through major media outlets in the United States and the United Kingdom, indicating that the genre is moving away from the margins of American and British culture.2


The mainstreaming of an alternative form of cultural production is nearly always synonymous with commercialization; some enterprising force realizes an opportunity for profit in a little-known but interesting subcultural practice. In fact, an attempt at commercializing fanfic already has been made by the company called FanLib, which was largely excoriated by existing fan fiction communities because, as Henry Jenkins wrote, it "didn't emerge bottom-up from the fan culture itself. . . . It was a business, pure and simple, run by a board of directors which was entirely composed of men. This last point is especially relevant when you consider that the overwhelming percentage of people who write fan fiction are women."3

FanLib shut down in the summer of 2008, although if rumors of FanLib's purchase by Disney are true, it may reappear in some new form.4 But some recognized that FanLib will not be the last effort made to commodify fan fiction. One fan, almostnever, wrote, "I think [monetization] is coming whether we accept it or not."5 In online discussions of future commercialization that took place in the wake of FanLib's launch, there seemed to be a consensus—rare in any fan debate—among fan fiction writers and readers that parties who do not currently operate in, and therefore do not thoroughly understand, fanfic communities should not be the parties who profit. For example, almostnever argues, "I'd rather it was fan-creators getting the benefit of the $$$, not some cutthroat entrepreneur who doesn't care about our community except as a market niche,"6 and another fan, icarusancalion, stated, "While I don't mind the increasing public light being brought to bear on fanfiction, I do strongly object to people who aren't [in] fandom making money off it."7

Sugarhill Moment.

However, fanfic writers have not yet mobilized to ensure that they earn the lion's share of any revenues to be made from the popular genre of writing that they are developing. Fan fiction is nearing what I call the "Sugarhill moment": the moment when an outsider takes up a subculture's invention and commodifies it for the mainstream before insiders do. In 1979, independent record producer Sylvia Robinson heard a DJ spin two turntables and rap over the breakbeats at a Manhattan club, and she decided to form a group that could replicate and record the sonic style that, until then, had been an exclusively live mode of performance: hip-hop and rap. Robinson's group, the Sugarhill Gang, made the single "Rapper's Delight," which put hip-hop on America's cultural map, rather than any work produced by DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, or any of the other turntablists and MCs who had invented and developed the genre. Of the Sugarhill Gang's success, Steven Daly wrote, "Whenever the key players of hip-hop's 'old school' look back on the pregnant moment when the Sugar Hill label blazed a trail for rap, there remains among them the nagging sense that it all went down the wrong way."8 Fan fiction authors are in some danger now of repeating what hip-hop's earliest DJs might call their error: waiting too long to decide to profit from their innovative art form, and allowing an interloper to package the genre in its first commercially viable format.

The Sugarhill example provides a particularly useful parallel to fan fiction, in that hip-hop, like fanfic, is a genre fundamentally based on...

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