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Abolish Canon: Centering Collective Fan Production

Mona Wang

Before copyright, adaptation was the norm. Most famously, half of Shakespeare’s plays were adaptations of existing stories, and Dante’s Inferno, infamously Bible fanfiction, is at this point canon. It is in our nature to engage with cultural artifacts by creating, and that’s why fandom is so prolific despite its ambiguous legal standing in our profit-driven, IP-centered world. Fandom blurs the artificial lines we’ve created between producers and consumers and is a return to our undying instinct to create collectively and without restriction.

Despite its existence outside a legally-anointed canon, fan production — which encompasses fan-created games, movies, music, comics, zines, art, and most notably in the U.S., fiction — remains a massive engine of global cultural production. As of April 2019, Archive of Our Own (AO3), one of the largest online repositories for fanfiction, hosted 32 billion words of fanfiction. For comparison, English Wikipedia hosts only 4 billion words of content. Comiket, a biannual marketplace exclusively for selling self-published fan media, is the largest fan convention in the world.

Why does fan production matter at all? There’s a lot of fan work, but isn’t the vast majority really… amateur? Sure, but that’s the point. Raw realized creativity challenges the notion that we have to create “good” media according to some arbitrary metric of artistic merit. Fan production’s anonymous and community-centered nature reserves a space for creative engagement outside the pressures of appealing to a mass cultural market. From slashing the all-male cast of the Three Kingdoms to queering the heterosexual relationships of the original Star Trek, fandom has traditionally been the only space to explore queer and non-masculine narratives outside a patriarchal and heteronormative canon.

Fan production speaks to our unrelenting desire to create, socially.

Stringent copyright laws have created a frontier outside profit-driven cultural production for fandom to flourish beyond. Tied together through the shared experience of a piece of media and barred from legal legitimization, creators have self-organized into decentralized communities, from independent music groups dedicated to rearranging Touhou soundtracks to collectives of Genshin Impact fanzine artists, all focused on transformative cultural production. These second-order creative spaces provide an example of how community-centered cultural production can exist outside, and actively resist, the confines of a hyper-capitalist media market.

Fan creators have always been on a legal precipice that necessitates an incentive to create other than for profit. In the U.S., fanfiction is generally understood as “fair use” of copyrighted material, which permits transformations of work like critiques or parodies. Though a few cases have established that fanwork can be sold under fair use, this is still relatively shaky ground due to the power asymmetry between independent fan creators and copyright holders. Whether media falls under fair use is litigated on a case-by-case basis, and lawyers are too expensive for the typical fan creator. For instance, FUNimation, an anime streaming site, states that commercial fan art sales are copyright-infringing, but that they will allow it, and they choose to threaten or actively issue takedowns only when it pleases them.

Fan-made media like music and fanvids are also subject to the aggressive copyright-scanning algorithms implemented by platforms like YouTube and Twitch. Copyright infringement is one of the few things digital platforms can be held liable for if they don’t respond to copyright takedown requests. To avoid liability and maintain profit viability, digital platforms build and maintain massive systems for multimedia content censorship, themselves becoming co-opted into the copyright oligopoly held by Hollywood media conglomerates. This is entirely by design; accidental takedowns are simply treated as collateral damage to an otherwise functional system. This is also why we no longer see fan-made videos or music videos on ad-driven platforms like YouTube; almost all multimedia fan creations outside of original animations are susceptible to the copyright takedown engine.

The prevailing understanding across fan creators is that by eschewing mass distribution and mass profitability, they can avoid the scrutiny of large conglomerate copyright holders, and in the U.S., have their work more likely to be classified as fair use. But even so, fan work can still get into legal trouble. If there’s anything mass media conglomerates fear more than copyright infringement, it’s porn. Fan work is notorious for being very NSFW, internet shorthand for “not safe for work.” For example, 50 Shades of Grey started as a Twilight fanfiction, the dojinshi (Japanese fan comic) subreddit is filled with exclusively porn, and a legal case recently drew mainstream attention to the omegaverse genre of literary erotica, which was born in “Supernatural” fanfiction communities. Even though fans might create mostly non-explicit work, the horny stuff can be more popular, and thus more visible. It’s often the explicit nature of fan work, more so than the copyright infringement itself, that gets it in trouble. Many copyright enforcement letters and even copyright-based arrests throughout fanwork history are sent as a result of moral panic over fan-made porn. Infamously, in 2020, China’s Great Firewall started blocking visits to AO3, citing “pornographic materials,” subsequently wreaking havoc to mainland Chinese fandom communities. Such moral panic further pushes fan creation out of mass media circles and into independent and decentralized distribution networks.

But it goes the other way, too: especially in the U.S., creators generally eschew profit as a motive for both ideological and legal reasons. Creators might generally agree that profit is not a primary incentive, but fans have always argued over sustaining a gift economy versus fighting to further the commercial rights of fan work (and thus, legitimization of fan labor in the cultural market). In 2007, a company called FanLib gained popularity as a for-profit archive for fan works. The company partnered with copyright owners of popular fandoms and offered to compensate fan writers for their time. It was subsequently met with a large amount of skepticism and concern from fan communities. This event, among other dissatisfactions with existing fan work platforms, instead spurred the ongoing collectivization of fan creators and lawyers into the Organization for Transformative Works in 2008, which runs AO3 and works to maintain the status of fan work as “fair use.”

Some point out that fandom communities in laxer copyright environments, and in particular, fan (dojin) creators in Japan, do not entirely forgo profitability. Japan’s independent dojin production scene is incomparable to any other fan market due to its sheer size — as evidenced by the size of Comiket, the largest dojin market-turned-fan convention with over half a million visitors. However, only 15 percent of sellers at Comiket turn a small profit, and the vast majority of sellers break even or lose money. Most importantly, dojin distribution remains largely decentralized and independent of mass media distribution. Like in the U.S. fanfiction gift economy, though dojin creators participate in markets, they actively forgo mass financialization.

Outside of outright stealing fan works, many media companies have also begun to understand fandom as sources of promotional value. Canon creators often engage productively with their fans, with many creators coming from fandom communities themselves. Similarly, it is common for fan creators to enter “canonicity” using their fan work as a launching point, the most famous example being Fifty Shades of Grey. There is a long-term risk that these content producers will find a way to fully co-opt fan creators into their economic model. But for the time being, it seems like fan production continues to be inscrutable to large media companies other than as promotional consumers, easily activated with some low-hanging queerbait. In this corporate vision of fan content, the line between the canon creator and the fan consumers is still clear; it’s just that it has become permissible for one to occasionally cross into the role of the other.

In contrast, in fandom, as a creator, the lines between “producer” and “consumer” are broken down. In Illegal Literature: Toward a Disruptive Creativity, David S. Roh describes how authors from Comiket booths were familiar with each other and continually exchanged zines, sketches, and readings of each others’ work. Creators within a small fan community make for each other and with each other, building off each other’s work and ideas to generate new pieces of media. Within a fandom, theories, images, or ideas from other fan works become long-standing traditions — effectively “canonized” within these spaces.

Fan production is an ongoing process, based in communities that continually imagine and alter their own canons. The way a community evolves a canon is as varied as the reasons people become involved in a fandom. Some fans create as a motivating way to produce and practice a particular art; many fandom communities are also built around mutual mentorship and learning. Many fans also create as a form of critique, as they might find the originals lacking in various ways. Fans who found a particular ending frustrating might invent their own, alternate ending; fans who object to a particular way a work encodes certain social mores might seek to disrupt them.

However, communities around fan creation are not perfect, and many are rife with problems. Like many Internet-based communities, fandoms can be weird, toxic, and often gatekeep what it means to be a fan, counter to the mythos that fandom is welcoming and open to everyone. U.S. fandoms are notoriously overwhelmingly white and bad at engaging with race as well as international and transcultural issues. Academic fan studies tend to focus on U.S.-based experiences of media and fan production as well, despite the global nature of English-speaking fan communities. Copyright law may have helped create a space for non-profit cultural production, but within this space, communities need to be built in an intentional way to engage with critique and avoid inheriting the inequalities that are already present in the mainstream.

Fans continue to dominate pop culture. Media companies have a hand in this, encouraging passive social media fan engagement that centers, promotes, and gatekeeps canon, while largely ignoring the fan creators that they inspire in the process. As long as there is a canon, communities will continually imagine and alter it. Fan production speaks to our unrelenting desire to create, socially. It will continue to flourish despite the growing influence of copyright.

If we want to look towards what community-based cultural production might look like at a massive scale, we have to look at fandom.

These communities are resilient, too. After the recent banning of AO3 in China devastated many global fan communities, it made me truly appreciative that the archive existed in the first place. Not only has AO3 been an entirely pragmatic move against the threat of future copyright takedowns, but it has also been an ideological force against advertisement and platformization in an age plagued by both. Amazingly, fandom communities continue to largely resist mass financialization.

Internet economists have long been fascinated with open-source and Wikipedia editing communities as alternatives to capitalist modes of production, but not enough outside fan studies have looked to fan labor. If we want to look towards what community-based cultural production might look like at a massive scale, we have to look at fandom.

Mona Wang (she/her) is a recovering open source maintainer and femslash artist. She is also currently a Ph.D. student researching computer security and tech policy.