Spinning Yarn with Borrowed Cotton: Lessons for Fandom from Sampling
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Spinning Yarn with Borrowed Cotton:
Lessons for Fandom from Sampling

Fan work is laborious, but fans are rarely seen as laboring. Partially, fan activity is considered unproductive because it’s considered illegitimate. The value of the fan product is seen as coming from the media source, not the work of transformation. Fan production is classified as derivative, and therefore derived, lesser, taking from the source; the value is understood as in the original and borrowed by the fan. However, under the labor theory of value, producing new value (in this case new semantic value) is, by definition, labor. Transformation is work. The new product contains the accumulated labor of both the corporate maker and the fan remaker, much as the labor value in cotton becomes part of the labor value in yarn in Karl Marx’s [End Page 131] famous example.1 To think that all of the value derives from the cotton and that the yarn-making process adds nothing is another manifestation of commodity fetishism: acting as if the thing itself has value independent of the human processes that put it there. Instead, “fan creations are joint productions even if copyright law would not recognize them as jointly authored works.”2 In thinking about fan creative production, then, we need to talk about spinning yarn—an aptly gendered metaphor for deeply feminized forms of labor.

Scholarship on fan creative production has distinguished it as a tradition, a move as productive to legitimize studying fan culture in what Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington call the first wave of fan studies, or the “fandom is beautiful” phase, as it is to keep fan creativity from being lumped in with user-generated content today.3 However, juxtaposition to other modes of transformative reuse illuminates aspects of fan work that otherwise tend to be obscured. Here I use musical reuse, as in the blues or sampling, as a lens to examine fan transformative reuse, which both shows how reuse functions as intertextuality that layers meaning and illuminates how social inequalities play out with respect to labor, copyright, and authorship.

Spinning Yarn: Seeing Additive Labor

One major difficulty in conceptualizing fan creative production as labor is that contemporary US culture and copyright law do not recognize this as additive, let alone as valid or compensable. As Casey Fiesler notes, the term derivative work “applies to anything from the slightest modification to something so transformed that the original is hardly recognizable.”4 Either something is derivative or it is not. Though the four-factor test of fair use in US copyright law assesses “the amount and substantiality of the portion used,” this framing operates from a logic of subtraction.5 In contrast, asking what portion of the resulting work comprises the source text would grapple with addition. This conceptualization haunts transformation with the specter of stealing someone else’s work rather than doing one’s own.6

However, there are other extant ways of interpreting reuse. Sampling and the blues, rooted in African-origin notions of creativity and repetition with difference, do not share the notion of the individual genius creating ex nihilo—the model on which [End Page 132] US copyright law relies.7 Indigenous intellectual property has a similarly alternative set of values, tending to rest on creative works having both community authorship and ownership.8 If we take such alternative conceptualizations as valid rather than allowing them to be marginalized by the currently hegemonic Western notion of the Romantic author, reuse looks very different.

The scholarship on music identifies intertextuality in reuse. To use a musical sample, Anne Barron says, isn’t to take a “shortcut” but to reference the sample’s “cultural references and resonances, its status as a kind of aural icon that gathers together a network of associations and experiences.”9 Sampling has been understood as a way to indicate membership in a sonic community.10 More specifically, reuse can be understood as potentially invoking the Benjaminian aura of the reused text, making that text in some sense present in the new one.11 This could simply give a feeling of familiarity—the sort of shortcut industry claims it is—or add...