[iDC] Fan labor

Abigail De Kosnik adekosnik at berkeley.edu
Thu Jun 25 17:41:34 UTC 2009

Fan labor could be defined in many ways.  In a sense, anyone who  
contributes anything to a fan website, which could be anything from an  
individual's LiveJournal blog to Television without Pity to gossip  
aggregator Gawker, is producing fan labor.  The comments and replies  
that we post in discussion threads, for example, are a form of  
entertainment for thousands of readers - it is the collection of those  
posts that keep a fan site interesting for and attractive to other  
fans (Andrejevic has written about the "snarking" on TwoP as a form of  
labor and entertainment).

I am more interested in a secondary level of fan production, what I  
would call the "rich" fan text (I use that term a bit ironically, of  
course, since most fans cannot make money from their work).  The rich  
fan text is a fan production that expands the narrative or ludic  
universe of the source material: fan art, fan vids, fan mash-up  
trailers, fan fiction, fan films, and certainly some fan criticism are  
rich fan texts.  They add value to the source text by adding alternate  
universes, filling in missing scenes, inviting the audiences of the  
source texts to regard the original in new ways.  Inviting those  
audiences to become more involved, more interested in the source text.

Rich fan texts add value to source texts and therefore contribute to  
the revenue streams of the copyright holders of the source material.   
(Notice I am not using the term "original text" or "original material"  
here, as fan appropriations are original productions, as well - they  
just happen to "remix" or revise or rework or expand upon already- 
existing material, so just as Warhol and Rauschenberg and Tarantino  
and other postmodern artists who copy extensively are also original,  
fan authors/artists are original.)

Rich fan texts shore up audience interest in source texts and in some  
cases keep audience investment alive for years.  Without rich fan  
media, the Star Trek franchise would have been dead soon after the  
initial TV series' cancellation in the late 1960s; but fan conventions  
and all the activities therein made it clear to Paramount that they  
had a potentially revivable franchise on their hands after Fox  
released Star Wars and made space opera the new summer blockbuster -  
Star Trek fans kept the franchise healthy for all the intervening  
years between the end of the TV show and the beginning of the film  
series.  Rich fan texts keep Harry Potter alive in audiences' hearts  
and minds in the years when that franchise is latent - in between film  
releases, in between book releases.  As long as HP fans can read  
plenty of stories, watch videos, read manga (actually, doujinshi)  
about their beloved characters, it doesn't matter that Warner Brothers  
hasn't yet released the latest movie installment - their interest is  
kept healthy and alive and well, in fact their appetite is whetted, by  
their consumption of other fans' products.

You can see movie studios, record labels, and TV networks are doing  
their best to invite fan participation all the time now, not just to  
keep the fan producers happy and involved, but because the fan  
productions drive more ears and eyes to their work and heighten viewer  
involvement, commitment, interest.  Sue Regonini is currently writing  
a dissertation that is in part based on her experiences helping to run  
a fan marketing campaign for Joss Whedon's film Serenity - her point  
is that fans basically created and organized a good chunk of the  
marketing activity for that movie, and they did it for free, at Fox's  
behest.  For no pay.

So my contention is that fans should be compensated for the work that  
they do to enhance the value, to drive the revenue, of copyrighted  
source material.  Many fans balk at this.  They say that money  
corrupts everything, and if they were paid for writing stories about  
the sexual activities of their favorite copyrighted characters, not  
only would they be sued by the copyright holders but it would ruin  
their experience of gifting these fun stories to one another in online  

I say, we pay for romance novels, we pay for pornography, we pay for t- 
shirts that are related to our favorite movies, we pay for action  
figures, we pay for lots of things that are by-products, side  
products, ancillary products, to the source material that we love.   
There happens to be a lot of great ancillary material coming from  
amateur authors and artists.  Why not pay them?  Why not let them  
charge what the market can bear?  Of course this will not wipe out the  
free fan production economy, the gift economy.  Just because some  
painters today get paid doesn't mean all painters get paid for their  
work, most don't.  Most fan labor will always go unpaid.  But what if  
someone writes a couple of stories that are honestly the greatest  
addition (or contradiction!) to the Harry Potter universe you've ever  
read?  What if someone manages to make a much better Star Wars than  
George Lucas could?  There should be a way that those fans' work could  
conceivably be financed and compensated, with of course a cut going to  
the copyright holders.  I am for a rule for fan appropriations that is  
similar to the rule for covering music.  When you record a cover  
version of the song, you don't have to ask the permission of the  
song's copyright holders (publishing or recording rights), but you do  
owe a percentage of the money you make to the publishing rights holders.

See my forthcoming article in Cinema Journal, "Should Fan Fiction Be  
Free?" for more on this.  I've also written a piece on this for Henry  
Jenkins' new book, but that may be a while in coming out in print due  
to Henry's big move taking place this summer/fall.  And I am only one  
of many voices on this issue - as everyone can imagine, fans debate  
this in great length on metafandom and other sites.


On Jun 23, 2009, at 3:49 AM, trebor at thing.net wrote:

> Dear Abigail,
> Thanks so much for your introduction and welcome to the list.
> Henry Jenkins has commented on the challenges to fan labor by saying  
> that
> “Room for participation and improvisation are being built into new  
> media
> franchises [….] 
Cult works were once discovered; now they are  
> being
> consciously produced, designed to 
provoke fan interactions.”
> Nancy Baym has explored the complexities of exploitation and  
> empowerment
> in her paper
> "Amateur experts: International fan labor in Swedish independent  
> music"
> (Download PDF) http://is.gd/1a5dN
> Could you clarify the term fan labor by linking an example of fan  
> labor
> from your work to the discussion of exploitation on this list?
> Trebor
> A few possible entry points:
> As long as such corporate platforms exist and people use them, there  
> will
> be problems with corporate surveillance, privacy, etc. http://is.gd/13pKB
> There is an intrinsic capitalistic motivation of Internet  
> corporations to
> commodify users and user data in order to accumulate capital.
> http://is.gd/13pKB
> We need to question how network processes normalize monocultures.
> http://is.gd/12ukg
> Martin Robert's introduction
> https://lists.thing.net/pipermail/idc/2009-June/003494.html

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