Friday, April 24, 2009

IP/Gender: Panel Three

Panel Three: Cui Bono? Economic Contexts

Peter Jaszi, Moderator: This panel is about various forms of contestation around fan cultural production and around genre itself. Arguments about authority: cultural, legal, economic, both formal and informal. Other themes: Market hierarchies; systematic devaluation of women’s work; balancing risk and safety and the romance of transgression.

Abigail De Kosnik, Women’s Work and 'Free' Fan Labor: An ongoing contest between copyright owners and individual copiers who feel poor and powerless in comparison, but are perceived by copyright owners as thieves. Fans take comfort and refuge in a rule of thumb: if we don’t sell our fanworks, we’re okay.

Free fan labor means free labor. Many fans think this is a great deal. Copyright owners don’t need to turn a blind eye to fanworks; the law is not definitive and they could harass fans if they so chose. But even if this is a settled issue, we haven’t addressed whether fan labor can or should be paid.

Free productions are key to web 2.0. And fan free productions help sustain profitability for commercial works by enhancing enthusiasm and feeding continuing appetites—they discuss, expand and advertise the productions during interim or hiatus periods. (Note that in another browser window I have open a campaign to save Chuck. Here’s to a Nerd Herd Third!)

Money already permeates fan productions. It just doesn’t go to fans. Fans are settling for too little, too soon, in the ongoing negotiations between capitalist markets and individuals. Compare to genres of male fan labor, like fan films and game mods, which are sometimes paid. In early years of fan fiction, George Lucas set the precedent that owners of the source texts had the right to determine whether fanfiction was allowed and what types were acceptable. Over the last three decades, Lucasfilm has run the gamut of responses, from establishing a bureau to approve scenes to sending cease and desist letters to barring “pornography” to offering to host fan fiction. Unpredictable paternal authority produced a chilling effect. Lucasfilm is the daddy, who can choose to ignore fans but retains the ability to step in. Lucasfilm has treated fan films made mostly by male fans very differently from fan fiction, and given them favorable treatment as they became widely circulated on the internet. Lucas himself identifies with male fan filmmakers and disidentifies with female fan writers.

So, do we benefit from establishing and guarding safe spaces in informal communities—like quilting communities—and staying out of the art market? As long as women’s creative work is not bought or sold, the argument goes, it remains free of scrutiny and control, since men control the “public” sphere and noncommercial work is private. Of course the internet throws that assumption of privacy into doubt.

Kristina Busse, Original Genius and Transformative Reptition

Most aesthetic theories of modernity have invested in the myth of originality. Creativity in an age of mechanical reproduction can be at odds with copyright, which often requires some account of originality to counter infringement arguments. Even as artistic theory values repetition and familiarity in pastiche and other ways, law is not keeping up. Law should look at genre theories and poststructuralist approaches to understand fan engagements and productions.

Difference and repetition are both required to create. Law has trouble recognizing this in accounting for transformativeness. Language can only be recognizable if it is repeated, not just on the level of the word but also on the level of narrative: tropes work because we understand them. Tropes allow readers to establish expectations and follow the narrative. Aesthetic theory describes creativity as interplay between old and new. T.S. Eliot’s important essay: “Of Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Woodsworth: Truly new and great art takes time to become popular (which is why he wanted copyright terms extended). People have to learn/be taught what it means. Adorno: argued that the “new” was created for economic purposes, and was actually the old dressed in new clothes in order to sell better.

Fanworks are postmodernist in their emphasis on retelling in different narrative styles. The repetition highlights the differences between retellings. Fan fiction also has its own tropes: amnesia stories, stories in which characters grow wings, stories in which male characters get pregnant. We’re always covering well-trodden ground, but we get something new out of it by doing so. Caught between Scylla and Charybdis of repetition and originality.

Legal defenses of fandom find themselves tempted to valorize the individual genius of the fan author. Focusing on originality is strategic in a culture that respects individual genius, but fanworks are always also embedded in repetition. One can’t exist without the other.

Zahr Said Stauffer, Taking the ‘Grrr’ out of ‘Grrrl’: Strategically Gendered Marketing in Cathy’s Book: Cathy’s Book purports to be a sort of ARG (alternative reality game) about Cathy who does sleuthing, but it’s much more fixed than a real ARG, in that plugging in the “clues” doesn’t change the outcome. The marketing is gendered, not just in conception but in performance. She posits that the gendering of the marketing ultimately stifles creativity and impoverishes the fan culture, if any, of the novel. Cathy’s drawings focus on self-presentation/portraiture/makeup. There’s an official makeup sponsor for the trilogy, with prominent Cover Girl product placements. The motto of the sponsor’s site,—“for girls, by girls.” Except of course, not really. It’s for girls, by Tampax. And the trilogy comes from two male writers, who recruited a female illustrator who did the iconic drawings that defined the works and attracted the fans.

Cathy has a presence on many social media sites. “She” says a book should be something “we all do together—me and my friends, you and yours.” But this isn’t a fan inviting you in. Fans are encouraged to produce and submit fan art for an online gallery: she’ll showcase the ones she likes best in “my ‘prestigious’ gallery link.” Dangles the possibility of reproducing them in her next book, which actually happened to 3-4 of the dozen or so she posted. “Cathy” was also “solicited” to create comics about menstruation for the Tampax site. She asks her fans what they think of her comics, offering her fans the option to vote “like” or not respond at all. This is how the trilogy treats its fans: speak up, but only when spoken to and only when you say what we like.

Marketing proceeds through “fill in the blank” solicitations—offering girls different positions into which they might fit, corresponding to, for example, scents of deodorant that P&G sells. Marketing of Cathy’s Book proceeds the same way, soliciting only particular approved identifications. There are no “none of the above” options, no options to identify with Cathy’s mother.

Cathy solicits input of a particular source: fill in the blank. And she solicits compliance with Cathy’s constraints by holding out the possibility of publication—creating an incentive to produce work “Cathy” would like. Disincentivizes subversive work and solicits a compliant, good-girl identity. A false economy of scarcity makes this even more powerful: even though it would be trivial to post all submitted works, Cathy won’t; she’ll exercise control and only reward the good ones.

Poststructuralist theory: the thing cannot logically contain its own supplement, as Turk argues with respect to vids. By attempting to contain its own fanworks, Cathy’s Book destroys its fandom. Fanworks derive meaning from addressing gaps in the source, mysteries—externality is authenticity. Being brought in-house is destructive, creates good girls/collaborators. If we buy the incentive story that incentives are necessary for creation, then corporate control strategies should very much disturb us because of the way they distort incentives. Fandom should be by fans, for fans.

Jaszi: Is this attempt to create a fan community a success?

A: It doesn’t seem like the size of the fan community is that large—no fan fiction at; 41 interested users on Livejournal.

Ann Shalleck: Wouldn’t fans feel ripped off/denigrated? Why wouldn’t it prompt a critical, concerted attack?

Busse: Why would we care? Lots of books are disposable; we read and forget.

Coppa: We might criticize something we love, but without an investment, that’s boring work. You don’t get my cultural criticism for free.

Stauffer: This form took a lot of work/investment—it’s an expensive product with evidence packets, unusual images, and so on. Some girls may respond to it as a place valorizing female creativity. There are positive female role models in there.

Q: Maybe this attracted fan art, rather than fan fiction. Check DeviantArt and other art forums. (Note: I found a couple, though many seemed to be copies of images from the official books.)

Busse: Maybe a protected space is appropriate for 12-year-old girls. (But a protected corporate space?)

De Kosnik: Fan fiction authors basically invented the public extension of texts. Cathy’s Book is a mild form of cooptation compared to what NBC, movie studios, etc. have done in creating official websites, character blogs, wikis allowing fans to upload/submit new material, including new characters, etc. Fan fiction created the protocols for interactivity.

Busse: Kyle XY fandom is completely commercial. They created a fan character, who turned out was an employee, and then a character with that name turned up on the show. Diegetic spaces were all mixed together. Fans didn’t mind—current teens are so accepting of commerciality that they didn’t care that he was fake.

Me: That may be a function of teens being more accepting of performance of identity, since as danah boyd says they’ve already been taught to fake their own identities to keep themselves “safe” on the internet. It can still be problematic to channel their creative labors in corporate-approved ways. At de Kosnik: I also think that it’s difficult to say we ought to get paid for our fannish labors: by whom? Supernatural is never going to pay me, and I don’t want to take money from other women, who may well be much less secure than I am.

De Kosnik: A powerful argument, but note that rap artists did commercialize copying.

Jaszi: For Busse: is the claim of transformativeness/genuis inevitable, or can we expand the category in ways to give space/recognition to the kinds of participatory practices we’ve been discussing?

Busse: We have a tendency to do one thing—enjoy particular kinds of stories with repeated tropes—and praise another—originality.

Coppa: Fans aren’t using those words the way they’re customarily used. Every story is new: the words are in a different order. Bookstores are full of genre fiction books that are very similar. A story that’s too different—everyone dies—is strange or “literary” or experimental, but most people still want a good adventure with a third-act climax or a good romance. Even movies: sequelitis is about the profitable sale of sameness.

Busse: But we don’t aesthetically reward it. “Genre” has been a derogatory term.

Coppa: Not for us! OTW doesn’t intend to protect the top 10 best fan fiction stories the way a literature professor might want to identify and teach the top 10 best.

Stauffer: TM might be the better model, instead of copyright. Genre functions like TM, transmitting reliability. (Hmm. Need to think about this.)

Jaszi: We are part of defining what transformativeness means. We can bring these insights into the legal analysis of transformation.

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