Friday, July 29, 2005

Dead Horses Make Great Burgers

Still fascinated -- overly so. Although I do think I now know why. More on that later. Maybe.

There's seems to be several different conversations going on under the entire fan writer versus Real Writer conflict

One conversation is about what actually makes a writer, a writer. (see previous post).

Another conversation is about whether or not original writers (in this case the Real Novelist) have absolute creative and economic control over their work. Actually, wait; that's two conversations that are related.

Do authors (Real Writers, Novelists) have absolute economic control over their work?

In truth, I think it would be a very small and fringe group that would say no. Barring and/or including (depending on how you look at it) those writers who assign certain rights to their works for other media forms (say, films or television) who then, often (see Ursula K. Le Guin's comments on the Sci Fi Channel adaptation of her books) lose a degree of control, I'd still say yes. Economic control, the ability to profit from their work, is not something I disagree with. I'm also supportive of a legal smackdown to anyone who tries to deprive them of that profit (although I do not think copyright should be extended indefinitely.) And depriving them of profit includes harmful competition. Possibly difficult to prove but I include it in the mix even though I think it could be argued that this is far more a problem for Novelists and publishers than for other media distributors.

Do authors (Real Writers, Novelists) have absolute creative control over their work?

To the extent that those works are produced and published, are available to the creator for sequels or corollaries or codas or franchising, and making money off them, yes. In that their work is inviolate and unavailable for other people to produce derivative or emulating works at no profit, then no. I don't think so. I know writers who wish it were so, who are absolutely adamant that no one has the right or should have even the opportunity to meddle in their work, outside of the actual published work itself and under contract restriction I don't agree with that position.

It's not that I don't understand the concept of ownership, or that I'm underestimating the level of emotional connection most writers feel for their characters and universe, I do. I very much do. But if the point is to develop those characters, design those universes, and then share them on a commercial basis, there is only so much non-commercial control you can reasonably expect to maintain. It isn't even really an issue of fan writers alone -- since there's not a published writer alive, I wouldn't think, that hasn't felt the sting of either a reviewer who missed the point or dissed the style. Or a colleague who inadvertently let them know what they really thought of the last effort. Or a Jane-Doe-book-buying, coffee-shop-haunting, consumer who hasn't either said something about the work or interpreted or rewritten on the fly the ending to something while waiting to pick up their latte.

The distinction then, is one of dissemination and awareness. Fan fiction is not a new phenomenon; not the writing of it and not the dissemination of it. Granted, prior to the internet, the method of dissemination was a good deal slower and clunkier (and some older fans would argue the quality was far superior to what you find now). It was done by mail, by hand, through conventions both fannish and media driven. Sold under the tables in dealer's room and out of hotel rooms in the case of slash and other "adult" oriented works, and on the table in dealer's rooms for a good many other types of fan produced stories and artworks more suitable for general audiences -- and it's still distributed that way. (One could possibly make a case against for the above mentioned economic reasons, although again you either have to show direct competition or deprivation of income.)

I've seen that a lot lately, in discussion between Pro writers on fan fiction; "It's okay, if they write it, and share it with friends, but they shouldn't publish it on the internet." Which is a pretty slippery slope…since now we're back to the idea that some writers don't mind if it's written, they just don't want people to share it, or not in mass quantities. So, they've acknowledged that people will do it, that they have no way to stop individuals from writing their tales and may even understand the urge. The Pro writers are, not without some cause, anxious over possible legal entanglements over fan produced works -- but the actual number of incidences where Fan writers and Pro Writers actually clash are pretty small given the sheer number of fans involved in such endeavors.

And it's not like pro writers don't understand the urge to occasionally open their universes to other writers: most popular sci fi/fantasy authors have at least one volume, if not more, of short works written by other authors, friends or colleagues whose work they respect. Perhaps it's more mercenary than that, but I can entirely understand why Mercedes Lackey would want to write with Anne McCaffrey or in her universes -- the same is true of people who want to write in Lackey's universes. So the urge to write in other people's sandboxes isn't confined to fans alone.

Most fan work is unauthorized -- no argument. But when fans put on their stories "no copyright infringement intended," I believe the vast majority of them believe that. They are not trying to compete with the original author for economic shares, and are more likely (as has been pointed out frequently) contributing to that same author's returns and hype in what is likely greater volume and frequency than fans (or readers, since being a reader alone does not necessarily a fan make) who are not involved in such endeavors.

This all sounds like I'm saying that since Pro authors are unlikely to be able to completely stop fans from writing derivative works and sharing them, that's the reason they should stop trying. But that's not what I'm saying: that is however, a position that most writers do understand -- in that undermining their own economic benefit by alienating a portion of their fan base is probably not a good idea.

What I am saying is that absolute control over one's publicly disseminated textual work is a myth and it's wrong from a creative position if not a moral one to try.

Creatively wrong because the very act of sharing text changes it. Not in substance but in form. Messages the author meant to get across might be lost, characters meant to be the point and focus might be ignored by readers in favor of less prominent but more interesting sidekicks and I'm not even talking about fan writers. Fans are perfectly capable of dissecting and reassembling and entire body of work without ever writing an additional fictional word. They do it in discussion forums, they do it academic debates, they do it constantly, be it the latest hot book or the hottest new movie (go spend ten minutes on Television Without Pity or Rotten Tomatoes and see what I mean.) There is not a damn thing an author can do about that, any more than they can stop a reviewer from giving them a lukewarm reception.

Morally* I think it's wrong because in our very media and advertisement driven society (at least in the US) there is something fundamentally wrong, I think, with the way media conglomerates and advertising agencies continually assault the public in ways to make them desire products and services, including entertainment services. They've opened the door by whipping the public into a frenzy of desire for more and yet more, without actually having the means by which to satisfy that desire, except by the use of trickery. Authors do the same thing, when they are good, (not the trickery, the whipping into a frenzy) when they create such an incredible mix of characters and situations and environments that readers are drawn to, invested in, and hungry for more. A single author cannot satisfy that hunger, and yet they evoked it and their publishing companies and the advertising agencies keep it growing until the last dime and squeal has been squeezed from the consumer. Rowling has certainly gotten a look at that in a major way: with great hype comes greater demands.
The demand for more spreads among fans, and even more hype is created. Take a look at how many DVD versions of any given film are released, and how many consumers will buy more than one if not all. People who faithfully bought the "Deluxe" editions of the three segments of LotR, are waiting for the super deluxe boxed set with coffee maker that will give them all three films, plus goodies…and they'll buy it. Even if they already own all three movies. The Highlander franchise has been more or less successfully recombining sets and version of the movies and TV series for years in the hopes of selling more. And the fans, while they may grumble, will continue to pay for what they want (I'm not holding them completely blameless in the scope of the problem.)

I've stated before, I don't write lit-fic. Most of my interest, thus far has been television and film -- and most of the shows I prefer to explore are long dead and off the air. Many of them are not in DVD release. There is no consumer product to satisfy that interest, but I dutifully write distributors and studios asking them to please, please release this TV show or that TV show, where can I find this movie -- is there going to be another movie with those actors that I like so much.

A single fan has very little influence. A hundred fans have no more. A thousand might get a little attention, and get enough fans together to pitch in for a full page advertisement in Variety and a few eyebrows might get lifted.

There's far more nuances to this than I've covered, more metaphors that would be accurate but would no doubt further enrage the pro authors and studio execs who stand so firmly against fan created work.

Unlike the RIAA mess (which I think is a matter of the Music industry cutting their own throats) fan writers are not in the business of making copies of books and distributing them for free. Fan writing is not in the vast majority of cases, plagiarism, no matter what else it might be. Downloading and sharing music is different in that the music is unaltered, digitally correct and infinitely transferable. But it's also great advertising, and seriously, if the 14-35 year old guy geeks (who are the biggest segment of the illegal music file sharing imbroglio) had gotten their collective shit together and quite being such morons, a one month boycott on the purchase of any music or DVD's from that part of the consumer segment would have done a hell of lot more good in getting the music industry to see this as more of an opportunity than a threat than the umpty-eleven lawsuits that went on about it. Do not get me started on the short-sightedness of the Music/Television/Film industry and their marketing strategies.

I started this by trying to point out the multiple conversations that are really occurring within the scope of Pro versus Fan writing and got sidetracked. I may come back to it, but at this point all I see is the continual shades of gray, and sliding scales of when reasonable expectation and unreasonable restrictions collide.

Most but not all of the ire over on Goldberg's blog is aimed at the extreme fringe of the fan community, people who, regardless if anyone among those who share Goldberg's view believe it, don't actually have a lot of support or experience a great deal of toleration from the large fan community. Not that it matters. Lee Goldberg has a big brush and he's not afraid to use it.

But fan communities are not the European union -- or maybe they are. What happens in lit fic circles among people who write in works that have not succumbed to the realm of public domain, I couldn't tell you. I don't necessarily think that the protesting Pro writers are entirely wrong in their views although I would opine that their energies are being directed into a less than productive venue. (i.e., That those authors who have publicly stated their opposition to fan fiction have a bigger dog in this fight. Although, it's a calculated risk, especially if your fan base really is on the young and easily offended side. Most of the authors who have put the kabosh on fan fic are not people I read, though my friends do. But then agian -- points at self not a writer of lit-fic.)

But I'll also point out that in this case, as in so many others, just because you may be right, doesn't make everyone who disagrees with you wrong. And that if money is the only thing fueling your opinion, it isn't an automatic guarantee of credibility.

*Lest anyone think I'm glossing over the legal issue of creative control, I'm not; but what is moral is not always equivalent to what is legal: an out of the topic box but still useful example is the current conflict over prescription birth control. I think it is morally indefensible for a licensed pharamcist to refuse to dispense birth control becasue of religious convictions. However, in more and more states, it has become legally defensible for them to act thusly. Are the religious moral and ethical concerns of the pharmacists in conflict with my religious moral and ethical concerns? You bet they are. In this case the ethical and moral considerations of one person are being given greater weight than the ethicla and moral consdierations of the people that pharmacists was trained and hired to serve. And it's all, in some areas, perfectly legal.

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